final thoughts on teaching in Kyrgyzstan

May 13, 2011 · 15 comments

I was presented with a unique opportunity to teach university-level photography at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan this past semester. It was terrifying. I’m 22 years old, the same age group as AUCA students, and I’m not a professional photographer. A wannabe. An enthusiastic amateur. Self-taught for the vast majority of the seven or so years that I’ve been shooting.

I knew from the start that this probably wouldn’t last more than one semester. I was hired suddenly and mostly out of convenience after the previous professor was fired (or quit, I heard different stories). I had little to work off of in terms of a syllabus or general plan for the course, and only several days before the start of the semester to figure it out. My only formal photography studies were in high school; half a year in tenth grade was theoretically dedicated to B&W film photography, but was more like detention hall for kids who had nothing better to do than be disruptive. I didn’t even learn what aperture or ISO were until years later.

With that in mind, why did I do it?

My first thought was that it would be great to have on my resume. Lame, I know, but I was an overachiever in high school and I went to college in DC, a very cutthroat environment where any mundane activity could be transformed into a bulletpoint on a resume.

Plus, I could carry this experience with me. I finally have teaching experience to point to if I ever want to do anything related to teaching in the future (like teaching English, my perpetual fallback plan). And when will I ever get to say I taught at a university ever again? AUCA is arguably one of the best universities in Central Asia, a status symbol for those who know about it, and for those who don’t, it can be talked up pretty well. Funded in part by George Soros, visited by Hillary Clinton twice, (nearly) a U.S. accredited university. All things I’m glad to be associated with.

Next, extra cash is always nice. Maybe they didn’t exactly tell me how little my salary would be until after I started, but I wasn’t expecting much anyway. (But, if I had known the true number of hours it took to do this job, I would’ve asked for a raise.)

And at the time, projects with the media company were slow. We had wrapped up one short-term project and only had ideas and self-started ventures on the horizon. Nothing solid, so I figured I could use something structured to keep my life organized. Now, it’s a bit different and I was getting anxious near the end to finish up the semester to dedicate more of my time to Oxus International.

There were plenty of ups and downs. The absolute best part about teaching was how much I learned about photography through planning my lessons and doing extra research, and realizing how much I already knew about photography when I was able to answer students’ questions. Then there were the heart-stopping moments when the students would get roused up during a discussion and start spouting off insightful and original thoughts, or when they turned in truly amazing, well-composed photos. There were times I wanted to skip around the classroom hugging everybody for being so brilliant.

But not all of the time.

Some of the worst parts? Figuring out the dynamic between being the young, hip teacher and being the tough, no-seriously-guys-just-show-up-on-time teacher was difficult. I hoped the students wouldn’t take it personally when I became flustered about late assignments, too many absences, or when I had to dole out grades, but I know some of them did.

One completely unpredictable annoyance from taking on this role as a photography teacher these past few months was how many people made it clear to me that they would very much like to replace me. I know I don’t have a degree in Photography or Journalism, but let’s have a chat about my seven years of shooting experience before asking about my salary, hours, and whether I can put you in touch with whoever is in charge of hiring for next semester. I had to put my diva-voice on and get a bit “You don’t know me!” with a few people.

But back to the students.

It’s easy to blame their attitudes and attendance record (очень плохо, very bad) on the 8am class time, but where can I draw the line? Was it me? Was it them? Was it too early?

By the end of the semester I had a class full of kids who were clearly learning something, (some more than others) and it was evident in their final projects. But was it enough? I built my syllabus (the first one I ever created) based heavily on attendance and participation.

I won’t ramble too much about my photography philosophy, but for me, photography is so much more than the act of looking through a viewfinder and snapping a decent shot. It’s about the giant thought process that goes into recognizing what sets a good photo apart from mediocre ones. It’s about knowing that this composition works better for the shot than that one, that the color saturation clashes with the mood you’re trying to evoke, that one tiny detail can make or break it, and that you have to consider dozens of different things for every single photo.

I tried to teach this way. Yes, we went over all of the camera settings, discussed the Golden Rule for composition, looked at before and after shots using Photoshop, but there was a lot of focus on just looking at and discussing photos. What do you think of it? Why do you think that? What would you have done differently? It’s not enough to just take the photo, a good photographer should have an idea of what they’re taking a picture of, what they want it to look like, and all of the things they have to think about when they’re in the moment and staring through their viewfinder.

And if you’re not in class, you can’t discuss. You can’t hear your fellow classmates come up with a brilliant thought for everybody to stew on and disagree on and pick apart. You can’t leave class and pick up your camera and remember that discussion in class and decide to do something different based on what was said and maybe end up with a better photo. You can’t have all of these opinions to mix together and filter through and use to create your own personal photography philosophy and unique artistic voice.

And, if you’re not in class, you don’t get a good grade. It’s just how the world worked in Room 403.

AUCA only allows students one week to decide to withdraw from their classes (I think I had at least two or three at my university), but I was upfront with my students about how much of the class depended on their attendance and participation. It wasn’t until about halfway through the semester when I started receiving notes at the ends of assignments, emails, and whiny pleas at the end of class that I was devoting too much time to “saying things” and not enough time letting them shoot.

The logic of this complaint will never make sense to me. On the one hand, I can see how someone who has never taken a photography course and doesn’t know much about the process will assume that the class would involve a lot of hands-on practice. But the logistics don’t add up. This is what Bishkek looked like for the majority of the semester at 8am:

Cold and dark, both of which are really difficult conditions to shoot in.

And cameras? A few didn’t have personal cameras and did their assignments on ones borrowed from friends. The rest were split pretty evenly between point-and-shoots and DSLRs. And even then, we had Nikons, Canons, Olympus, Sony, Pentax, and even a cellphone equipped with a 10 megapixel camera.

I didn’t agree to be a babysitter. I didn’t agree to supervise a group of teenagers/early-twentysomethings while they roamed around a dark parking lot taking glamour shots of each other. I didn’t agree to field endless questions about the specifics of everybody’s camera.

I did it to teach them how intricate and difficult and frustrating and satisfying and artistic and meaningful and compelling photography can be. I did it to teach them how to teach themselves to take a good picture. Here are the tools, use them however you think is best.

Despite some truly awesome and inspiring moments I had with students, the end of the semester quickly went sour when it came to giving out grades. Anticipating the importance of attendance and participation, I originally wrote into my syllabus that students should not miss more than three classes or they’d receive an X grade (no credit for the course, but no effect to their GPA). It seemed on par with my university experience for classes where we didn’t study straight from a book. If I had kept with that rule, more than two-thirds of the class wouldn’t have received credit.

Is this what it had come down to? All that work and these students just couldn’t show up for class? I discussed it with the department chair and we decided that the number of absences was unacceptable, but I couldn’t hand out Xs for that many students. We set a new, higher limit for absences (still heartbreakingly high, just shy of half the class) and I submitted the forms.

I agonized. I had headaches for a week straight, pangs of guilt, that radiating heat that strikes your face and fingertips when embarrassment strikes. I was nervous and anxious. How could I be so cruel?

But I couldn’t let it slide. These students missed one-third of the semester. One-third! That’s one-third I still prepared for. One-third that other students dragged themselves out of bed before sunrise for. One-third that I constantly reminded them still counted toward their grade.

I was looking forward to the end of the semester so I could stop being this person in a position of power and go back to being one of their peers. There were people in the class I could see myself hanging out with, talking about photography with, being myself with and not worrying about using my presence to teach them something. Notices of the X grades ruined all chances of that as I armed myself against the barrage of excuses that showered over me.

Didn’t so-and-so tell you I was sick that one day?
I had issues.
I was up late working on other assignments.
I went out with my friends and stayed out all night.
You marked me absence when I was really just very late.
It is so hard to catch a marshrutka so early in the morning.
But can’t you just not give me an X grade?

Tears. Cries of unfairness. Some were surprisingly understanding. Some pretended to understand. Some yelled. Some cried. Some got a hold my personal phone number (somehow). Some went to my friends and complained. Some took to Twitter. I got snide remarks for being a first-time teacher and an American. They told me, “It’s different here.”

Ahh, the insider versus outsider argument. We’ll save that post for another day.

I think AUCA has amazing potential that some of its students fail to recognize. Students write editorials lambasting the administration for not attracting enough foreign PhDs to teach their classes when they don’t see the intelligent and dedicated Kyrgyz/Central Asian teachers that are already at the front of their classroom. AUCA doesn’t need more foreign teachers, it needs to appreciate the local teachers they have, who have Kyrgyz culture and norms ingrained in their minds, as well as (in most cases) a Western education. Combining both worlds in a way that works best for AUCA students.

Of course, none of it matters if you don’t show up to class.

Would I do it again? Of course. I would tweak my syllabus and assign more work that required the students to shoot more on their own time, and I’d make it crystal clear what the students should expect from class when they do show up and what will happen if they don’t (because reminding them every week apparently wasn’t enough, but I suppose that’s irrelevant now). I’d worry less about trying to come off as the cool girl and focus more on being an effective teacher (because let’s face it, if we compared the people in my class to Mean Girls, I was this girl in terms of coolness). I’d create some sort of structured environment to let the students photograph during class.

I’d be better and I’d expect better.

So… if you’re looking for an English-speaking photography teacher in the Bishkek-region, I am available for hire.

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