Saturday,24 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Saturday,24 February, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

A professor’s perspective

Cairo University and The American University in Cairo are the most famous public and private educational institutions in the Arab world. Alaa Abdel-Ghani relates what it’s like to teach at these iconic establishments

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It was 3pm and the class was to begin at 4.30. I arrived early, figuring it would take time to find the classroom in this mammoth campus. I had never been inside Cairo University. It has been portrayed in a zillion movies, the most noteworthy scenes being students professing their love in front of its famed dome.

To passersby, from the donkey cart to the limousine, the dome is perceived as the embodiment of learning, knowledge and wisdom — but, apparently, it also serves as the backdrop for many a young romance, in the movies and surely in real life.

Inside Cairo University I bumped into a zillion students. So this, I said to myself, is the famous Cairo University, from which the famous and infamous have graduated from: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Amr Moussa, Mohamed Morsi, Magdi Yacoub, Omar Sharif, Taha Hussein, Mohamed Al-Baradie, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. Would some of these students, I wondered as I negotiated the human traffic, ever become famous or infamous like their alumni predecessors?

On the main campus in Giza, immediately across the Nile, were the sights and sounds of gregarious youths returning from summer vacation. They are the future of Egypt, the faces of tomorrow, the potential and the prospect. For now, though, acknowledging such a weighty responsibility did not interest them in the least. What they urgently wanted right now was a place to sit on a campus that has very few chairs or benches. And they wanted a place in the shade away from the shining sun, locations that, again, were far and few in between.

It was the beginning of October, the start of the 2015 academic year. Just a few days earlier I had received a phone call from a Cairo University administrator asking if I would like to teach at the College of Mass Communication. She had taken my number from a colleague of mine who had graciously recommended me for the job. My request to give the offer a few days thought was granted.

I didn’t have to think much. I have been teaching in The American University in Cairo since 1998, a hefty part of my life. But after 18 years of AUC, I had the urge to change scenery. But I did not leave AUC — I simply added Cairo University to my academia plate.

Cairo University and AUC. Between them, 205 years worth of history — 108 and 97 years old respectively. The former originally named after a king (Fouad), the latter founded by a group of Christian missionaries. Two of the oldest and biggest public and private educational institutes in Egypt and the Arab world and, not a stretch to say, two of the world’s most famous. It was a privilege to be teaching at both.

Although the two are in the business of education, they seem worlds apart. Nowhere are the differences more striking than in their size and tuition.

Cairo University has nearly 176,000 students and is one of the 50 largest institutions of higher education in the world by enrollment. AUC has around 7,000 students — less than the number of full-time professors at Cairo University.

Cairo University is almost free of charge (except for the English section of a few majors, the tuition of which is around LE12,000 a year). Without scholarships, fellowships or any other ‘ships’, AUCians pay a stratospheric LE150,000 annually.

For the record, AUC salaries of professors are, not to belabour the issue, considerably higher than at Cairo University.

Cairo University is situated in a busy and boisterous central area. AUC is nestled in the tranquil satellite city of New Cairo, 45 minutes away from the bustle and hustle of downtown. AUC is in on a relatively new 260-acre suburban campus. Cairo University has several campuses whose buildings are as antiquated as the university itself.

AUC has chartered buses, moving day and night from one end of the city to the other. Cairo University has no bus service but is very near the underground, whose station is not surprisingly called Cairo University. Giza might be one of the world’s most densely populated places but at times Cairo University station looks like the most crowded place on Earth.

Cairo University has PhD programmes in almost every college. AUC stops at the Master’s level, save a doctorate in engineering. AUC has brand name fast foods. Cairo University has stalls whose foods do not come to you fast, again because of the human crush. But Cairo University’s eateries can be just as tasty and much cheaper.

AUC has an online system over which messages and grades are sent to students and in which Blackboard, Moodle and Edmodo are the teaching platforms that almost negate going to class. To interact with students, Cairo University professors and their teaching assistants use Facebook.

You can drive your car into Cairo University but you won’t get far in this sea of students. Golf carts in AUC shuttle the elderly and disabled. Some students have taken to hover boards to get around.

Not to be outdone, AUC has had its share of great and notorious former students, producing Queen Rania, Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, Lamis Al-Hadidi, Mona Al-Shazli, Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Hisham Abbas and Omar Samra.

President Barack Obama chose Cairo University to deliver to the Arab and Islamic world his 2009 direct appeal for a “new beginning” with the United States. AUC has hosted Hillary Clinton who just might, at the end of this year, inherit Obama’s crown.

In how they compare with the rest of the world, the two universities are close. In 2014, the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, an annual publication of university rankings, placed AUC 360th in the world, third in Africa and first in Egypt.

Cairo University came second in Egypt and seventh across Africa. But in the same year, the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked Cairo University as the first in Egypt, the only Egyptian university in the ranking, rated 401-500 worldwide.

The 2011 and 2013 revolutions brought out the political beasts in students at both universities. The nationwide revolts that removed two sitting presidents got many of them killed, injured and imprisoned. The violence was particularly acute at Cairo University, maybe because of its sheer number, its proximity to flashpoints Tahrir Square and Rabaa Square, or because of the vast number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters among the student body who clashed on and off campus with police as well as with their non-affiliated classmates.

Fortunately, there were no protests the day I arrived in Cairo University and there would not be any for the entire semester.

Eventually, I found my classroom but not before some confusion. In the Mass Communication building at Cairo University, there is an entry and exit gate solely for professors. Students go in and leave from somewhere else. I was to learn in the weeks ahead that the Cairo University professor is a revered figure. AUC professors are highly respected too but the awe is a bit more awesome in Cairo University.

The class was barren of technology: no computers, no Internet or projectors, just benches with back rests attached to white wooden desks on screeching metal stands. Even though I had only 19 students, much like AUC, a microphone was provided. The room was big which is perhaps why its acoustics were not very good.

The course was called Advanced Newspaper Writing for third-year students. One of the first things you notice is the copious way they take notes. You couldn’t say “Good morning” without somebody making a note of it. Some were phenomenal memorisers, which probably helped them get the exceptionally high school grades needed to get into any public university in Egypt.

But I tried to persuade them over the course of the semester that applying journalistic techniques to newspaper writing on the strength of rote memory is only half the job. They had to go out and report, not recite by heart the 10 principles of good writing found on page 29.

Nevertheless, I had four, maybe five students who, because of their proficiency in English and their news sense, might one day become very good journalists. On the other hand, I had some who might become good in anything except journalism. They wrote like they’d been watching too many Japanese movies with Russian subtitles. They would turn verbs into nouns. Adverbs would oddly become adjectives while the conjunction morphed into the malfunction. Articles that form the backbone of any sentence simply vanished from the dictionary.

AUC also has students whose English resembles Cantonese. But AUC has the English Language Institute (ELI). Students who are accepted in AUC but whose English is not up to par go to ELI. For one semester — 14 weeks — they take nothing but English, four days a week, six hours a day. Once they can write coherently, they can start taking regular courses.

But Cairo University does things AUC should emulate. The names of the students are not written on their answer sheets in the finals; just numbers, to lessen any chance of biased grading by professors. AUC professor must also have ready a make-up for students who, for whatever reason, might miss the final. And while AUC students evaluate professors, Cairo University professors evaluate their courses to see how to improve them.

Outside class, I don’t know what kind of extracurricular activities Cairo University students enjoy. AUC has clubs that teach students the salsa, robotics and star watching. It has a 10-lane swimming pool, four gyms, tennis courts and billiards. More of a club, say outsiders. Perhaps AUC’s entertainment environment certainly provides the fodder for its oft-claimed reputation as the playground of the rich and spoilt living in their own bubble of a world.

Many AUCians might be on Fantasy Island but they are, in the end, students. And, along with their crosstown classmates at Cairo University, there are more similarities than differences. They wear the same deliberately torn jeans, sweatpants, sweatshirts and Converse and Adidas. Many wear hijabs. Some hold hands.

They hate the drudgery of going to class, assignments, term papers, presentations and exams, and constantly dream of the day it will all end. In the meantime, the week is spent discussing where to go out on Thursday night and with which girl or guy. They wonder who will be their life partner, and the job that awaits them and for how much. In their idealism, they are sure they will buck the system, that they will do great and marvellous things that no-one has ever done before.

It would be easy to fall into the manhole called stereotyping, that Cairo University students are somehow more studious and those of AUC more affluent. But that would be an oversimplification. On both sides, there are the wealthy and the not-so-rich, those who are outstanding and those with the IQ of room temperature. And many are in the middle. Middle class, and like a busted clock, they’re right twice a day.

Students can come from different educational and socio-economic backgrounds, which does not make them lesser or greater. They are the same exuberant youth whose sum is larger than their parts, no matter where you put them, what they’re studying or who’s doing the teaching.

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