Intense Traffic: U.S. Teacher Meets Syrian Students
Driving around this city in Northern Lebanon takes total concentration and a bit of athleticism. There are no stoplights, just an occasional traffic circle, so nearly every turn involves a high-speed negotiation with other vehicles. And there are no crosswalks, so pedestrians hop into moving traffic in a kind of live-action version of the video game Frogger. Plus, at any moment a scooter might pop out from between two parked cars, almost daring motorists to hit them.
I didn’t actually drive during my recent visit here: No one was eager to let me borrow their car. I was a visitor from the United States, and residents were right to doubt my readiness and reflexes. But it struck me how those behind the wheel here had to be in tune with everyone else on the road, constantly looking others in the eye to judge where to steer and how fast to go.
I was in Tripoli to teach a three-day workshop on multimedia storytelling for college students, all of them refugees from Syria, organized by the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research. And the experience turned out to parallel what I imagine driving in this city would be like—a rush, with a high level of difficulty that was unlike my previous experience.
Just as I’m accustomed to stoplights, for instance, I take for granted that classroom technology will usually work, especially the electricity. But brief power outages are common here, and a couple of times power cuts happened just as I was showing a video clip that I was excited about, breaking the flow and forcing a five-minute break as we rebooted the computer and projector and cued back up the clip. The Internet access is also notoriously slow, which made it hard to just show videos from YouTube as I am used to doing in class. I was initially flustered, but students saw the breaks as routine. When one clip froze unexpectedly, one of the students called out, “Welcome to Lebanon!”
One of the students showed me a service called Savefrom.net that lets you download YouTube clips ahead of time instead of waiting for them to stream, so I started grabbing them in advance when I wanted to show an example.
I knew traffic was the least of any of these students’ problems, of course. Safe in this modern office space where the course was taught, it was easy to forget what the students had gone through to flee Syria and get here. One of the students told me she had been held prisoner in Aleppo over some Twitter posting. She was already using her video skills to document the many disabled Syrians in Tripoli, victims of bomb shrapnel, to raise global awareness of their plight. And many in the class were part of a project run by the research group Kasloc, Arabic for glasses. The project is a YouTube series that tells the stories of highly-skilled refugees who want to use their skills in Lebanon—with the goal of debunking stereotypes of refugees as a drain on their host countries. The stakes for the class felt high—video skills weren’t just something they were learning for fun.
The biggest logistical challenge was that the 15 students, all majoring in media production, arrived to the workshop with wildly differing skill levels. At the end of the first morning, a couple of students asked me if I could speed things up because they had already covered what I was going over. So I did, though other students then let me know that they needed the more basic material. So I went back a bit to quickly cover something I had skipped, I hoped with fresh examples. All this shifting things around was messy, and I was constantly trying to read the crowd and talk to the students to be as helpful as I could.
Doing that would have been much easier if I spoke Arabic, or if all of the students spoke fluent English. This was my first time teaching with a translator. The woman who stepped in to translate wasn’t familiar with video production, but she knew the students and was not shy about conveying any suggestions and frustrations they had. At times she became a co-teacher.
By the third day I stopped trying to lecture and embraced a more fluid interaction with the students—more like the traffic flow on the roads here. For one hour I paired up students who knew video-editing programs well with those who had never used the software. Later in the afternoon I asked one of the students to lead a brainstorming session about a video project they were working on. She did so, in Arabic, and the translator filled me in on what was said, and I threw in some suggestions and tried to guide the discussion.
In the end, reviews of the workshop were largely positive. But not everyone loved it. Some said they wanted more traditional lectures, the way I started off. And some wanted clear answers to what was a good video and what was a bad one. One of the students showed me a video he was working on—a four-minute piece he planned to put on a Kickstarter-like site asking for donations for a maker space, a kind of educational community center. The shots were technically beautiful, with good lighting and artful framing—he knew what he was doing. The video began with a dramatization, showing his friend acting out his frustration with his living situation. It felt overacted and melodramatic to me, and I told him that he might lose some viewers if they thought it seemed overwrought. But I quickly added that he knows his audience better than I do. What he was asking was a matter of taste, and the cultural context plays so much into that. I think he left the conversation feeling like I hadn’t been much help (though I hope I convinced him to shave off a few seconds here and there).
The cross-cultural exchange did have more positive moments too. For instance, I was able to show the students examples of U.S. videos that they had never seen before. They were intrigued by a video from The New York Times about a skateboard park in Afghanistan, for instance, and they responded well to the Fifty People, One Question project, which features montages of people in various cities giving their views on prompts like “Where Would You Wish to Wake Up Tomorrow.”
Just as I was learning these new rules of the road, it was time to leave. I hope I was some help, though I may have learned more than the students. If I go back, maybe I’ll rent a car and see how I do on the streets.
Jeffrey R. Young is a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, in the United States, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he teaches a course on multimedia storytelling. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in the academic year 2014-2015.