Monday, September 19, 2011

180 degrees

The whiteboard schedule that sits above my desk is color-coded. Red is for sessions that the students have without us. Black is for sessions we have without the students. Blue is for sessions we have with the students.

For the first month of the semester, the schedule was mostly blue. Every once in a while, there was Thai class scattered in there in red but those were always simultaneously scheduled alongside a black planning session, and were always followed by something blue. We thought that was intense, but that was nothing compared to the Mock Unit which literally four days of straight blue.

But not four days later, the schedule is all red. Orientation is officially over and we've passed the batons. The semester is in the hands of the students. They've chosen their process and unit facilitators. The former remain constant throughout the entire semester and oversee the ups and downs in the group's process in working and living with one another. The latter switch every unit, and are responsible for facilitating the learning process for the group in terms of content. Currently, the Unit 1 facilitators are plowing away at planning the first Reading Activities and Discussion and Briefing session for the agriculture unit. We sit and wait in our office for them to come up with goals, brainstorms, agendas so they can check in with us, and then we help them do run-throughs, but ultimately it's their gig. We have no control over what happens in there. We guide and suggest, critique and evaluate, facilitating the small group to be able to facilitate the large group. It's terrifying at times, because empowering others means letting go of control, letting go and allowing people to learn from their mistakes and improve themselves. Having us up there facilitating sessions may have taught them something about whatever topic the session entailed, but it didn't teach them how to teach themselves and others, how to truly work as a team to achieve something.  Now they have the foundation and need to run with it.

When we're not checking in with them, we complete other tasks in our office, overwhelmed by what we can't do in order to get people through the learning process. Our involvement hinders the learning; every time we fix  their process means one less time that they were able to fix it themselves. Man, it's so crazy to be on this end of things- understanding the structure, the learning phases and model, the end goal; not just going through the motions because there's a program set up for me to do so. Then I think how much more fulfilled I am as a P'Fac, and realize that I'm just one level up in the cycle. This is a learning process for me too; these structures are here to push us as well, but it's easy to forget that, when you're bopping around from meeting to meeting with staff, making decisions about larger program structures, accessing things you weren't able to as a student. I think about Miles and Shayne, the P'Facs I worked with as a UFac, and what they must have felt like letting us go make our way through this ag unit - how they sat in this office waiting for us to figure our stuff out, improve our process. I hate it, because every time I wonder what they must have thought, I realize that it's exactly like how they students want to know every moment of our student experience. "But it's not about us, it's not about the comparison, it's all about your student group," we tell them. "It's just the cyclical nature of the program- you need to figure it out for yourselves." It's easy to tell them that, but do we get stuck in the same situation? Do we beg for answers from p'fac alumns? We base our sessions off theirs, off deltas we had for them as students, off Josh's advice from our semesters. Is that hindering our learning process as we believe their obsession with our student experience would hinder theirs? Or is there a difference in the nature of the cycle we're in?

We got feedback on our facilitation from the students today - I think of the 24 (students) x 5 (evaluations - one for each of us, plus one as a team), there was a maximum of 6 comments that could even remotely been construed as constructive criticism. The rest was gloriously positive. Most people would think this is wonderful news and take it splendidly. We read it and grunt - how are we going to learn if everyone thinks we're doing everything well already? We know we're not perfect, why won't they figure it out already? Granted, the other scary part about giving them control is the potential for backlash; the potential for them to gain so become so empowered that they don't only not need us, but they reject us. Rendering us useless- great; disrespecting us- more problematic. Don't worry, we're nowhere near that point, but just another balance to strike.

What else do I have to rant on about? I am so excited to be headed back to Yasothon, where my favorite host family lives - here's another one of those things, sharing host families, roommates, peer tutors, with students - as a student, I always knew that other students had stomped in my stomping grounds, but I had no perception of them, I had no perspective to realize what that meant, I was so stuck in my experience. I get it now, but I still have to check myself - PFacs have been here before, sharing favorite restaurants, sharing Thai friends, sharing office spaces, with me, just defying a small space-time continuum. Being part of the larger picture is mind-blowing, but exhausting, trying to separate what is your experience and what is the simultaneous experience of others who walked in your footsteps before.

I reflect on this in a lot of ways - high school and college were the same way - you make your mark, but you leave it for someone else to come into, have their experience, and go on. There are permanent residents of all those places - staff, residents, buildings - that remain constant and overlook the cycle of people coming and going, but your experience is transient and has been experienced by so many before you and so many to come. It's not invaluable by any means, it's actually much more valuable to realize the common ground that you share with people you may never have met. In a culture of such individualism, it's easy to forget the collective experiences that we share. I spend time trying to reject that collectivism, trying to make my experience different, better, than every one that came before me, when I could be creating connection, seeking out people with whom to share our differential experiences amongst the shared space.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Things that suck:

  • driving home on the metropop in a monsoon
  • not being able to find our hot water heater

Things that don't suck:

  • having dinner with Ajaan Sriphapa, a badass Thai Human Rights activist/academic, and listening to her and Aj. Dave commiserate about really high up people in Thai politics - for context, she was the first women professor to wear pants to class (in 1997)
  • finishing a banana split with Becky in 30 seconds

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Mmmm Deeeee

I swear every time I try to start this blog post, I get a few sentences in and then stop. Trying to convey the simultaneously volatile and mundane life I've been leading for the past month is quite difficult. Volatile because the students are here and present a new challenge and excitement every minute; mundane because our days have been transformed to hours in the office in meeting after meeting about the students.

That's really what it all comes down to and I love it. I try to explain this job to others outside of it, and it always just comes back to the fact that there's an incredible staff, all of whom are so imperative and carry so much weight, in making this program what it is. When you think you're working too hard, you look to the Thai ajaans, translators, program directors, our own our coordinator, and realize that you're a part of this crazy, mildly dysfunctional, but totally loving family whose one goal is to get students through the learning phases of our educational model, as happily as possible. "Forced, but enjoyable."

Today is our first personal day in at least a month - I can't quite remember the last one - oh yeah, we gave ourselves two half personal days so we could go see Harry Potter. Point being, it's been a while. Before the students got here, we were writing and editing their program guide, planning and running through orientation activities, meeting with different staff members, memorizing names, compiling reading packets. However, that too seems like the distant past. When we picked them up from the airport on 17 August, they moved from being nebulous entities to real-life humans. The students have spent the past two and a half weeks in a mixture of a Bangkok hotel, orientation resort, KKU dorm rooms, and village homestays. We've had almost daily orientation sessions with them, introducing them to life in Thailand, program themes and structures, contemplative education, reflection and evaluation, among other things. It's been incredible transferring our plans to real-life activities that need to be responsive to the general mood and composition of the group, all things that we had no way of taking into consideration before they arrived. We've been meeting our goals of every session, but definitely have improvements to take away from each one, and their program reviews help guide our next step.

I'm constantly reminded of the parallel learning process that I am undergoing alongside the students. We are not part of their group, but we're not completely separate. Their group affects us and we affect them. Reciprocality. We evaluate ourselves and them as they evaluate each other and us. We reflect on critical incidents in both our group's process and theirs, as do they. Right now, they see us as authority figures, I think, if not authorities, then experts at least in all these things that we bring to them. It's not really true - we have more experience at least with this learning model - we need it to guide them through - but we learn from them, from their past experiences, and just through the very nature of them being here and having people to engage with about the every aspect of the program.

In addition to our general "Program Faciliator" role, we all have additional responsibilites as liasions for certain staff-led sessions. I've managed to pick up all the pilot projects, which has been exciting since I have a lot of ownership in shaping their direction. We've started doing frequent program evaluations and I've been brushing up on my SPSS in order to conduct these extensive program reviews. Also, I've been continuing my Sustainable Study Abroad work, and we have a committee of eight students who are stoked on the project and taking tons of ownership over it, which is so exciting. Lastly, I'm the intern point person for the Community Public Health program as well, which meant completely splitting my time between our two programs for the first week or so, but has subsided a lot since then - there program is much more traditional academically, as those students are directly enrolled into KKU. CIEE also hired a Global Health fellow to overlook their program, so once he arrived, I haven't been out for as many sessions.

Let's see - that's basically been my life for the past month - how to find some big overarching way to sum it all up? "Mmmm. Deeee."*

*"Dee" means good. "mmmmm deeeee" has become our phrase for whenever something is really pleasent and satisfying - adopted from Ajaan Decha, the program's advisor, who feels like that when he's meditating.