Parallel U
pt. II

Number 28– Parallel U.

Before Parallel, which began in 1997, there was only the Royal University of Phnom Penh, which itself only started in 1960. The French, though they themselves have always been fond of intellectual pursuits, like all colonial masters, had little taste for higher educating their subjects.

Meanwhile, with Pol Pot targeting all thinkers, and the Vietnamese who deposed him teaching in Vietnamese or French and bringing in teachers from Russia, who taught in Russian – though hardly anyone could understand any of it – the state of higher education in Cambodia was sad indeed. Classes during the Vietnamese occupation were scheduled five days a week but seldom convened more than two. Teachers couldn’t afford to live on their meager $20 month salaries so they were off moonlighting to stay alive.

Today, at least in the primary school realm, they still earn the same but compensate by charging students for exam papers as well as for passing grades as well as a daily fee of 100 riel – 2.5 cents. All tolled that brings their monthly earnings up to a not quite respectable $60 or $70. Still not enough but edging closer.

Half of the country’s school districts have no high school and there wouldn’t be any teachers to staff them anyway – less than 1% of primary school teachers have themselves finished high school. So it’s hardly surprising then that my students have never heard of Gandhi, let alone MLK or Nelson Mandela or any of the world’s great spirits.

Back in 1994 when I first visited Cambodia, I was really impressed with the proliferation of (mostly makeshift) English language schools and the relatively good rate paid to native speakers. That experience, in fact, made it seem likely that I would find it easy to get a job here when I returned eight years later. Today the number of schools that teach English or universities that teach in English, has exploded – from Parallel in 1997, there are now 40,000 students pursuing higher education. Doesn’t take much – rent a storefront, put up a sign. Standards are piss-poor but improving.

Parallel is part of the old school. Entering students are required to take an exam but nobody fails, it’s just for placement. Neither does anybody get set back for failing a class, they just get progressively easier “supplemental” exams until they pass. MBA students raised a little ruckus a while back as a result of a teacher failing most of their graduating class. That prompted them to storm the boss’s office demanding their degrees – they paid for them, they wanted them, they got them.

No surprise then that a good portion of my students hardly ever come to class or spend the whole time gabbing when they do. It would be nearly impossible to totally shut them up, I’d have to turn into an ogre. In fact I do turn into a monster when giving exams, otherwise they’d nearly all cheat. They’re so innocent, they cheat when I’m looking right at them. When I do get a class that sits quiet and attentive, it’s almost a miracle. Of course, I have had to learn how to teach, ‘hold their attention’, if you will, and sometimes it works.

The government is trying to set up an accreditation program which will force Parallel to add at least a little quality to its current emphasis on quantity. But I’ll be long gone. Most of the new universities actually have some standards and actually set students back when they fail.

Moreover anything would have to be better than Parallel’s current textbooks. The former dean of the English department was an amiable, well-meaning fellow who had no idea what he was doing when he ‘compiled’ the school’s textbooks. Everything is photocopies of copyright material; what the hell, real textbooks would cost as much as a year’s tuition – $400. The problem is he took a few pages here from this text and a few from that one and spliced them all together. He was unconcerned about the inanity of a page of text starting or ending in the middle of a sentence or the text referring to maps, diagrams or sections that weren’t included.

Just a year ago he put together a textbook that included large numbers of spelling, grammar and typo mistakes in a section he wrote himself. It also included chapters with 20 year old statistics and text that referred to the Soviet Union in the present tense. Yikes!

In fact I’m kind of tight with lackadaisicalness – who wants everything to be anally retentively perfect – but Parallel U. takes it a little too far. I offered to clean the textbooks up a bit, make them a little less embarrassing to teach from, but they’re in a process of changing them completely. Unfortunately, their newest book also has a lot of deficiencies.

I’m currently on short hours, partly because I told them too early that I was returning to the US for the summer, party because they have an exceedingly strange scheduling system where classes start and end at all different times – first year students are on a different schedule than second year, day classes different than night classes and the two campuses are on divergent schedules. As a result there’s never a good time to leave. They are thankfully changing this ridiculous system.

Also – no surprise to those who know me – I’m an ornery, independent, cuss. Amongst other things my neck absolutely rebels at the idea of being tied up. You can shove your job before I’ll noose my neck, is a close approximation of my response to their recent tie edict.

They require day students to wear uniforms – most of the new universities have evolved past childish uniform conformity – which I do my best to bad mouth. In fact I got a substantial portion of my current classes to deuniform themselves until the clothes police cracked down.

At Parallel the important thing is to look good, that way the students won’t notice that the textbooks are trash or that education standards are bargain basement level.