Dr. Ruby Dunlap's Uganda Fulbright Blog
“I would teach for free but they have to pay me to grade papers.” This comment from a teacher friend was naturalized long ago into my habitual outlook on things and without any difficulty whatsoever. I have been and continue to be grading, or “marking” as they call it here, papers, what seems like hundreds of them, weeks on end now. I know that “hundreds” is a hallucination of a paper-fevered brain but there have been and are being lots. Grading graduate nursing papers, all of which have been written by students for whom English is not their first language, has turned out to be not that different from grading nursing papers by students in the U.S. for whom English is their mother tongue. Having to grade the papers turns out to be our students’ revenge for us assigning so many of them.
“Subject and verb must agree.”
“Pronouns must agree with their antecedents.”
“Wikipedia is not an appropriate reference for a scholarly paper.”
When I made the pronouncement as if speaking ex cathedra or, for some brash cross-cultural mixing of metaphor, a law of Medes and Persians which cannot be broken, that a period must occupy the final space in any sentence, my Ugandan students (I was speaking as a guest to undergraduate nursing students about writing) looked at me in confusion. “A period,” I repeated, “that little round dot that is the last mark in a sentence.”
“Ohhh,” they said, their faces lighting up in understanding. “You mean a ‘full stop.’”
“Yes,” I went on, “I mean a full stop. A full stop must end every sentence. Commas are not to be cast over your paper like the sower sowing his seed. Commas do not end sentences. Full stops end sentences. And sentences must end.”
The sentences in these papers do end but only reluctantly and at the end of the paragraphs which also end reluctantly like a child told by its parents it is finally bedtime and the toys must be put away and the teeth brushed and the covers tucked in and, and, and, “but could I just have a drink or a snack or another story…”
It is unusual to run across culturally unique vocabulary but it does happen. “What do you mean by ‘sluicing the linens’?” I wrote on one student’s paper. Nurses “sluice” linens in Uganda. What would you guess that means?
The student laughed when I asked her about this later. “’Sluicing the linens’ is what you do when the linens are too soiled to be put directly into the laundry,” she explained. “You put them in this thing with running water to get most of the soiling out.”
With writing challenges like these, can you imagine the confusion that APA brings to my students? When to italicize and when not to. What gets uppercase, lowercase and mixed case. What goes inside parentheses and what must stay outside. What is one way inside parentheses and another way outside parentheses. Where all the precious full stops, commas, semi-colons, and colons must go and where they, at risk of gallons of red font spillage (I grade electronically only), must never, never go. It is a task worthy of Pandas Eat Shoots and Leaves.
And if I think APA is full of absurdly capricious conventions, what must my Ugandan students think of it? That it is another inexplicable mystery of Western cultural practice, no doubt. I do remind them and myself that APA was not graven on stone tablets nor carried down the slopes of Mt. Sinai by Moses. Render unto APA what is due APA and unto God what is due God.
And all of this without even considering the logic and coherence of thought and argument in the writing. There have been several heart-breaking cases of plagiarism but then, almost every semester I’ve taught at Belmont, I’ve had to deal with similar cases as well. The ethics of intellectual work may indeed have a few cultural challenges but the personal challenges seem to me to be much greater.
My brother-in-law, Mike, and two of his daughters, Charity and Lydia, did a short term mission project in southern Sudan a couple of years ago. While there, they bonded with their Ugandan cook, a young woman named Grace. Dad brought a book for Grace from them. Recently, Grace came from her home in Entebbe where she is raising her two little boys, ages seven and four, as a single mom. (Photo of Grace with Dad.)
I met Grace at one of UCU’s four gates to walk her to our apartment. Her spoken English is astonishingly good but spoken and written languages are very different things. After a visit of a couple of hours, I walked her back to the main gate. As we walked across the campus, Grace’s face became a study in awe. “I never imagined such a place existed in Uganda,” she said. And suddenly, I was able to see this university campus through the eyes of someone who never before could imagine such a place existed in Uganda.
Instead of the bare dirt of the village she came from or the bare dirt and trash of the Entebbe neighborhood she now lives in, this campus is covered with lush lawns, trees, and flowers. Instead of hot, noisy crowds milling restlessly about, there were small groups of students sitting in quiet and orderly study sessions all about the lawns. Instead of the spectacle of up-country huts or urban squalor in various stages of decay, Grace saw gracious buildings, classrooms, libraries, and chapels. (See photos of UCU campus.)
“I want my sons to come to this place,” said Grace, wistfully.
“If they keep their marks high, that should be possible,” I said, encouragingly. Tuition at UCU is about 700 USD total per semester which is out of reach for almost all Ugandans. But for bright and determined young people, possibilities exist.
The idea of a university, the notion of “disciplined intelligence,” (and intelligence certainly wants disciplining in many ways or else the university may produce but more fluent criminals) seemed to flow over us as we walked to the front gate. Grace wants to be a nurse but her secondary school scores in science and math were too poor for admission into any nursing school in Uganda. She is studying to re-take her exams in those subjects to improve her chances of admission into nursing school.
I encouraged her to get training and a job as a nursing assistant to support her learning and career aspirations. Her academic history justifies such a strategy.
“You will learn things from being in a hospital which books cannot teach you,” I said. “You can climb an educational ladder and a career ladder at the same time, each kind of learning helping the other kind. Maybe it will not be only your sons who can come to this place. But you will need to work very hard and finish nursing school at a hospital first. After that perhaps you can come here to finish your degree.”
Grace nodded. She has a chance.