Friday, October 19, 2007

The History of Medicine

Tbilisi State Medical University requires all first year students to take History of Medicine. In principle, it is a good idea, but… As I mentioned in my previous post on TSMU, textbooks are non-existent, which makes teaching history rather difficult. The professor’s solution is quite simple, but extremely boring: read out loud from his tattered photo-copied book. A word about the professor: He looks to be about in his late 50s or early 60s, always dresses well, and speaks in a thick accent. Virtually all of my classmates agree that the class is a complete waste of time, not because they don’t value the subject, but because they cannot understand a word he says half the time. He demands absolute silence when he is “lecturing,” yet when his cell phone rings in class, he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt class to take his call (a habit not unique to this professor, unfortunately). Not one to waste time, I’ve managed to block out the drone of the professor’s voice whilst I do my Georgian homework.

Either to make class more interesting or perhaps just to give his voice a break, or both, the professor announced at our first class that each student will be required to write a 5 page report and give a 10-15 minute presentation on a topic relating to the history of medicine. Many of the Indian students were assigned topics relating to traditional Indian medicine; the Turkish students, Turkish medicine; the few Georgian students, Georgian medicine; and as for myself: pre-Colonial American Medicine.

Knowing that many of my classmates have difficulty comprehending English, I wondered how they would manage to write a research paper. They managed perfectly fine, as I discovered at the first day of presentations—with the aid of the internet, that is. I asked Ahmet, the first student to give a presentation, how much time it took him to write his paper. “It was very easy,” he said “all I did was find the information on the internet and copy it into Word.” I was too naïve to consider the possibility that most students would resort to plagiarism to accomplish what for them is this nearly impossible task. At least Ahmet knew English well enough and had practiced his presentation enough times that he delivered his plagiarized research as though it were his own; the “Cuba girl” didn’t fare as well.

The second presentation was on the topic of medicine in Cuba. Unfortunately, the “researcher,” a Turkish girl wearing a red bandana on her head and a t-shirt depicting a caricature of Castro, copied the wrong source from the internet: an obviously biased source, probably from the Cuban government itself. For 15 minutes, we sat through a passionate (in words, not delivery) testimony to the superior quality and low cost of Cuban medicine. As if that weren’t enough to convince a listener of plagiarism, every once in a while there would be a sentence that went like this: “Because of the low cost and equal if not superior quality of medical education in Cuba, we now even have low-income students from the US studying in Cuba…” When she had finished, the professor asked her out-right if the work was hers, and after having the question translated by one of her Turkish friends, she said “of course,” handing her hand-written/copied report to the professor as evidence.

At the conclusion of the “Cuba girl’s” presentation and with five minutes left in the class, the professor polled the class on where we were from. Responses of “India” and “Turkey” filled the room, and then one student said “There is one American.” As if on cue, heads began to turn in search of this American. Frankly, I had assumed that word had spread and that everyone knew by now that there was an American in their midst. I confessed that I was indeed the American, which immediately led to a lot of introductions from classmates.

One of my new acquaintances took things a step further by inviting me to a Turkish restaurant. I half-heartedly agreed, because on the one hand I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to make another friend, but on the other, I feared that I was being singled out solely for my being American. After my last class of the day, Latin (another bore), I met Necip at the gates of the University as we had agreed. We greeted one another Turkish style: by touching first our left cheeks and then right cheeks together (Georgians, by contrast, greet each other with a kiss on the cheek). Necip first apologized for his poor English, but he actually speaks quite well, especially when one considers that he has only studied the language for two years. Next, Necip told me how humble I was, saying that most of the Americans he’s made contact with think very highly of themselves. I didn’t know quite how to take this compliment, but I did feel surer that Necip’s offer of friendship was genuine.

At the restaurant, Necip was a great host, ordering a delicious meal of lentil soup, Turkish-style shwarma, baklava, and Turkish tea. During the course of our meal, we kept our conversation simple, discussing our families and studies at the university, Necip making use of his mini-dictionary and phrasebook when he grasped for words. Necip is from Bursa, a Turkish city south of Istanbul. I discovered that Necip’s father, a coal miner, is Kurdish. Necip is also a dedicated student, telling me that he puts studying before all else (and it pays off for him: he got the highest score on our chemistry quiz). We left the restaurant our separate ways, but not before promising another outing in the near future. It’s meeting people like Necip that makes being a student at TSMU all the worth while.


Anonymous said...

jfpbaHi Xiao Ma, this is Grandma. I've been catching up on your posts, and I'm amazed at what a rich experience you are having in Tblisi and other parts of Georgia. But also I'm wondering how anyone can qualify for a US residency program based on studies at the Tblisi medical school.
Next week Grandpa and I are going to Boston for a conference. It promises to be quite lively since the topic is apartheid in the occupied territories of Palestine. Archbishop Tutu is the main speaker. Also, I am beginning to learn Arabic. It is a slow process for me compared to my younger years, but I am liking it. I love to learn a language, and this is my first Semitic tongue. The writing is left to right and very beautiful on the page, though it is a lot harder for me to decipher than languages with the Roman alphabet. In some ways it is even harder than Chinese writing because the signs you have to follow are much more subtle.
One reason I want to learn the language is because I hope to go to Palestine in November 2008, and I always hate to be someplace and understand absolutely nothing that is being said. So I am concentrating on Palestinian Arabic. It took a bit of effort to find a textbook - from a friend who studied the dialect over there - and then I got a Palestinian friend and neighbor to record the words on the page for me. I also have material on Modern Standard Arabic, and that, obviously, is what the script is based on.
One bit of help in learning the language comes from knowing some Swahili. Lots of Swahili words come from Arabic although the grammar is Bantu and the pronunciation is often quite altered. I've been really surprised to see how much vocabulary comes from Arabic, even some of the numbers. So when you count to ten, you start with Bantu and switch to Arabic and then back to Bantu.
It's fun following your adventures and seeing your photos. Your dad sent us some print photos of you working on the church, and you looked just as I remember you up at the cabin, wielding a shovel and wheelbarrow.
Maggie is getting ready to apply to colleges. She seems to do very well in math and science classes, so she should have no trouble with a pr-nursing and nursing curriculum. Tessa loves Spanish and marine biology and is also managing with a government class she's taking to meet requirements. She hasn't been home since the beginning of August.
Grandpa and I got a MacBook for a laptop, and we will eventually switch to a Mac for a desk top computer as well. I'm writing to you now on the laptop, which is much faster than our old PC and also wireless. And to add to our techological update, we bought an iPod nano. Mostly we listen to podcasts of This American Life and CD's of recorded books that we get from the library.
I'm wondering how we can get anything to you for Christmas. Will that be possible? Let us know and keep on posting!

Ian said...

Regarding the plagiarism [while this looks like a cut-and-dry case and if I had little English I'm sure I'd be tempted!], I'm not sure how things are in Eastern Europe but many Asian students who come to Australia to study at a tertiary level have a lot of trouble with this. In general, in their countries, copying someone's words is seen as fine -- you are not relying on your own individual thoughts but on the words and thoughts of those who have gone before you, as it were. It can be very hard to explain that we in the West value individual expression and thought and one cannot simply copy and paste.

inga said...


Latvia? any particular reason?

Callie and I really want to see you.