By Maddie Blasberg
Midterms have come and gone and in their wake, they have left a rather storm-battered student trying to figure out where exactly she went wrong.
Seven weeks into Social and Political History of Argentina and the professor had only shown up to give 3 lectures. The other weeks, a painfully dull grad student would draw the most bizarrely constructed maps on the white board, while a room full of students would hopelessly try to make sense of what was apparently a lecture on the South American wars of independence.
The week before the midterm was spent reading and rereading the packet of photocopies, piecing together notes scribbled in Spanglish and supplementing all of that with BBC documentaries and Wikipedia articles. Until eventually I felt prepared and confident enough to finally put the books away and let myself fall asleep.
As is tradition, on exam day every one comes to class. Nearly every chair was filled with an Argentino or gringo student and midterms were passed out — form A for the natives, form B for the foreigners. Class lasted from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., I had recently reviewed my notes, had my lucky pen with me, cell phone on silent and water bottle within reach. All systems go.
Unfortunately, page one of the exam brought with it a bit of rocky start. The only way I can think of to accurately describe the four different sets of instructions for how to answer the various question types is a series of booby traps. Each set of instructions had a different way to mark the right answer, a different set up and a few words I had to scramble to look up in the dictionary just to figure out what it was trying to tell me to do.
Section one: “Mark only the correct answer” which, I later learned, meant “for every three statements, Mark only the correct answer”
Section two: Standard true/ false. Not a problem.
Section three: fill in the blank – pick the right answer.
Section four: Standard fill in the blank.
Section five: Series of essay questions
Somewhere nearing the middle of the fifth section I hear a whisper a few rows ahead of me that catches my attention. Did they say ten minutes left? How can that be? We only just started. Cuanto tiempo más tenemos? I asked the dreary grad student, Hasta 4:30, he replied. But without a watch I didn’t know if that was a good thing or if I should start to panic. A gasp of horror from a student to my right told me that 4:30 had to be a bit too close for comfort. Ok, so change of plans. Apparently we had half the time we thought. No big deal, it’s all about flexibility…and speed writing. GO GO GO.
In a blurr of blue ink I succinctly summarized the Argentine wars of independence, followed by the various forms of governments that sprang up, their futile efforts to unite the populous and tossed in a lovely comparison with Mexico to wrap it all up.
Minus one completely failed essay question and the hiccups with the instructions on the first page, I didn’t feel entirely horrible about my performance. Until that is, I stepped outside to talk it over with the other exchange students.
It was there that we determined we had each interpreted the instruction on the first page differently. Some people X-ed all the right answers, some people saw they were grouped into groups of threes, some people crossed out wrong answers where other people circled the right ones etc. etc.
The professor had asked us to stay after class to talk about the exam, and it only took a few seconds for us to relay the general consensus that it did not go so well and it only took a few seconds more for her to get, well how should I put this, scary and angry. We tried to explain the confusion over the instructions and the time constraints, to which she merely replied that we are no longer in the United States and therefore needed to adapt.
The lady had a point. But I believe so did we. After explaining where on the test we had found difficulty, she begrudgingly offered a few more minutes to finish the exam, which I used to revisit the multiple choice mine-field. Handing in the test for the final time, only to be interrogated as to why I didn’t use all of the extra minutes, I left feeling frustrated.
This was a professor who had seemed to be excited to have several exchange students in her class, and now she had turned into someone who seemed to think of us as an obnoxious burden. And the frustrating thing is that she is and is not the exception to the rule. There are some teachers here that go out of their way to make sure we (exchange students) understand the material and the expectations, and there are others who cannot be bothered to care. Some offer adjusted syllabi and extra office hours, and some don’t come to class at all.
I’m not nearly prepared to explain all the differences in educational systems between Argentina and the U.S., but I am prepared to make one comment on cultural adjustment: there is a difference between trying to adapt and failing, and not trying to adapt at all. And it seems to me, we have to meet each other half way. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations and language booby-traps are bound to come up. But when a student says, I don’t understand, or I think I misinterpreted that, it is a lot different than saying, you need to write the exam in English and do things how we do them in the U.S.
I’m just thankful that my other midterms had much happier endings.