Education,  Fulbright,  Vitebsk

The First Lecture (and Random Screaming Men)

In a dream on Sunday night, I heard a man screaming. It was a loud, long scream that awakened goosebumps on my arms. The scream had started in my dream, but I quickly realized that I was quite awake. I found myself sitting up in my bed squinting at my curtained windows. There was indeed a man screaming somewhere outside my apartment, and I heard the sound of running footsteps and then police sirens.

Exhausted from a long day of travelling to Minsk and a late evening of lesson planning for my first lecture, I quickly fell back asleep. Monday morning my alarm and the impending reality of my lecture launched me out of my sleep and the vague memory of the screaming man tucked itself away in my mind for later consideration. I bustled about my apartment, showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and caffeinating all the while making last minute changes to my lecture plans and PowerPoint.

A statue in Minsk

When I arrived in Vitebsk a month and a half earlier, the dean had asked me to teach the second half of a Country Studies course (страноведение) for first year students. This course teaches about countries where the language the students are studying is spoken. Having never stepped foot in Great Britain and because my English ancestry is something I have spent very little time connecting with, I was relieved not to have been asked to teach the first half of the class. Quite over-confidently, I felt prepared to teach American geography, history, and culture because of having lived in the United States for a whole 23 years.

During the week before my first lecture, I gathered the materials for the course and began to read over lectures from previous years. I began to realized that I was horribly unqualified to teach about my own native land. How many square kilometers is the United States? Not a clue. What are the natural features of the different geographical regions? Uhh, mountains? Lakes? Rivers?

Street art in Vitebsk

Not only was I frustrated by my own lack of knowledge but also by how mundane all of the information seemed. I racked my brain trying to think of ways to make American geography fascinating but realized that to do so would require much storytelling and details that my hour-and-twenty-minute class did not permit. So I settled with making a PowerPoint that had lots of pictures.

 

I called my dad at one point a few days before my lecture and confided that I was worried that my lecture would be so boring that I might put my entire audience to sleep. He gently reminded me that to me this information was boring but to my Belarusian and Turkmen students it was not old news or oft repeated facts. For many of them, this would all be new information about a distant place. He was right. I remember being fascinated looking at a map of Russia while in my first year of college Russian and learning about different regions, their climates, linguistic differences, and cultural peculiarities. I held onto this ray of hope with all my might as I continued to tweak my PowerPoint and curate the information in my lecture.

The day of the lecture, I hustled to the university. I had not realized that I was going to be placed in the very large lecture room on the second floor in which the seating was like a mountain face rising in front of the lecturer. As the seats filled with mostly unfamiliar faces of first year students, my nervousness melted and a strange sense of calm filled me. That is, until the dongle refused to work with my laptop and a different laptop had to be brought in for me to use to project my presentation.

I was also reminded that I was being filmed during my lectures when a fifth year student walked in with a video camera and a handful of cords. The university wanted future generations of Vitebsk State University students to hear a native English speaker’s explanation of American culture, history, and geography. This meant that not only was I addressing the 100 or so students in the classroom but hundreds of future students.

Fall colors in Vitebsk

Not one to give in to weakness, I powered through my lecture. I chattered (as slowly as I could) about the USA’s size compared to other countries both physically and by population. I described geographical regions and states. I even read the names of every single state capital so students would know proper pronunciation. This had been a request of my co-teacher and although at first I had been reluctant to read a list of 50 cities, I realized why this was necessary. Imagine trying to figure out the pronunciation of Boise, Idaho, Des Moines, Iowa or, perhaps most daunting of all, Juneau, Alaska as a non-native English speaker.

I was surprised by how many states my students could list from memory. And, I was also not surprised when one student thought Los Angeles was a state. Large cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City have such huge international presences that they are often more well known than the states in which they are located.

Public art in Vitebsk

When my friend, a fellow teacher, tapped the watch on her arm to remind me that I was almost out of time, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was done. Students thanked me as they walked out and my co-teacher and friend both told me how much they enjoyed my lecture and said that they had so many questions. I was still anxious to know if my students had enjoyed it but had no way to ask.

Later that evening, I checked Instagram and noticed that I had about fifteen new follow requests from my first year students. A few of them had posted short clips from my lecture in their Instagram stories with positive messages and smiley faces. That evening I also uploaded supplemental YouTube videos for students on the class website I had created. There I saw one more student thanking me for my lecture. Although only a handful of students mentioned my lecture and their enjoyment of it, I was relieved and excited if only because those few students learned something new and were looking forward to more.

Before going to bed, I called my mom that evening to tell her about my lecture and as I did, the memory of the screaming man returned to me. I am sure that it happened and that it was not just my subconscious terror before my lecture audibly manifested. Regardless, I hope that he is ok.

*Sorry that my posts have been so infrequent lately! I am planning to get back on schedule with regular blog posts.*

Public art in Vitebsk (also, this is how I picture the screaming man in my imagination)

4 Comments

  • Allison

    So, you remember I have a couple of degrees in American history, right? 🙂 Let me know if you ever need some pointers!

    • admin

      Sorry for the late reply! I will probably need to turn to you before the end of my time here for some advice! The biggest difficulty for me was figuring out how to talk about American history (all of it) in 5 lectures. Quite a challenge!

  • Chuck Parson

    Alana, Thanks for the post. Also, thank you for taking the time to include the pictures. They help to make your adventure more real to me. I also wish to formally proclaim that I was not the screaming man. Chuck

    • admin

      Sorry for such a late reply! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! (You know, I actually thought of you the day after the screaming man incident, haha).