FBC English Department: Oasis in the Sahara?

30 June 2006 at 20:03 | 495 views

"No doubt, what is happening at FBC now, only reflects a national trend, one that started many years ago. Yet, even in conditions such as those described in Wai’s article, there are always people striving to do the right thing. Such individuals may be in the minority, and may not always be noticed but they are always there."

By Sheik Umarr Kamara

On the 17th of June 2006, Zubairu Wai, an alumnus of Fourah Bay College (FBC), University of Sierra Leone, published an incisive article in the Patriotic Vanguard on the myriad problems students face in that institution.

One major problem Wai discusses in his article is the unfair method of dishing out degrees that are not in consonance with the efforts of students. Wai also suggests that there does not exist a system by which students could seek redress for any unfair treatment.

As Wai himself notes, this state of affairs is not new at FBC. Zubairu Wai’s article points to perennial problems at FBC, and he is right that the problems need immediate attention.

This call for action is echoed in a recent statement made by the U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, Thomas Hall:

“The conditions that exist today are some of the same conditions that led to the conflict and must be addressed.”

No doubt, what is happening at FBC now, only reflects a national trend, one that started many years ago. Yet, even in conditions such as those described in Wai’s article, there are always people striving to do the right thing. Such individuals may be in the minority, and may not always be noticed but they are always there.

In this piece, I reflect on my experience(s) in the English department at FBC, as a student, Teaching/Research Assistant, and lecturer. In particular, I shall focus on the methods of student assessment in the English department at FBC during my own days. I argue that though not perfect because it is a human institution, the English Department at that time provided a good example of how to manage a diverse community of individuals in a fair and just way. It provided a model of competence, integrity, transparency and fairness that is worthy of emulation.

When I entered FBC in 1978, the college was considered by most non-Krios as a ‘Krio man college’ meaning that the Krios were in control, and that Krio students were treated better than anyone else, and were to be awarded the best degrees while the others were not treated that well, and were given third rate degrees. At this time, the English department was one of the most prestigious on campus.

It was headed by Professor Eustace Palmer and staffed with some of the finest minds like Professor Eldred Jones, Professor Eustace Palmer, Dr. Kadi Sesay, Dr. Freddie Jones, Dr. Abdul Karim Turay (AKT) the linguist, Ajayi Coomber, another linguist, and many more. At this time, the late Saaba Tumoe, was a Teaching Assistant. To be recruited as a Teaching Assistant, one had to have a Second Class Upper (Honours) degree or a First Class Honours degree. But the late Tumoe belonged to a category of h is own , one he shared only with Kayode Robbin-Coker. They were both geniuses. In those days, it was a great honour to be ‘invited’ to the Honours School of FBC’s English Department.

Many non-Krio students and lecturers believed that the English department was not meant for the provincial student, but for the Krio student. Many of my friends at FBC tried to sway me away from English to other disciplines because of the above perception. Of course I rejected that idea and went on to study English because I knew that the late Dr. Sheka Kanu got a good honours degree from that department, and my aunt, Dr. Kadi Sesay did the same from that department, besides many other non- Krios.

I came to FBC from the Milton Margai Teachers College where I studied English and Education. We spent a lot of time learning about assessment methods and how to make them fair and democratic. But even here, a college of education, the cards were stacked against the student when it came to college or departmental policies. The system was not transparent.

In the English department at FBC, the system of assessing the student was not only transparent, but was also thoroughly student-oriented. It was designed to protect the student from the caprice of individual lecturers. Like the American constitution, the FBC English Department’s assessment policy was based on distrust of the human being. Given absolute power, the human being has a tendency to abuse it.

Thus, checks and balances were put in place to ensure fairness. Firstly, there was the Continuous Assessment Policy (CAP). This policy allowed the lecturer to use 30 % of the student’s Annual grade for tests, class participation, quizzes and other in-class activities. If a student did well in continuous assessment, it was easier for that student to pass, and pass well.

Also, continuous assessment allowed the lecturer the opportunity to know th e quality of his or her students’ performance even before the final exams. If anything were to happen during examination period, the lecturer would use continuous assessment to determine what to do for the student. The student’s fate was not left to hang on the leaves of a single examination in June although that examination was important. Secondly, there was the Multiple Grading system (MGS) whereby students’ papers were graded separately by two lecturers who would then meet to discuss each student’s grade in the class.

If there was a huge discrepancy between the graders on a particular paper for a particular student, and they could not resolve it themselves, there was a third grader. This system ensured a very fair evaluation of every student in the department. Thirdly, for Final Year students, there was the External Examiner system (EES). Lecturers from universities in England and Nigeria were employed as external examiners to grade Final Year student papers to ensure fairness in the grading, as well as to maintain international standards.

It was almost impossible in this arrangement for an individual lecturer to unduly punish a student. Every degree awarded was thoroughly vetted by this model of assessment. This is not to say that individual lecturers did not try to pollute the system, but it was very difficult to victimize a student by giving him or her a degree he or she did not deserve. Although one can justifiably point out that the grading was harsh, a point external examiners themselves made during my time, it was uniformly applied.

After FBC, I studied at Leeds in England, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S. I have taught in several universities in America where the rights of students are very well protected. I am yet to come across a department that ensures the protection of its students through its own assessment policies as the English department at FBC did. So, in spite of the corruption and injustice plaguing the FBC system at the time, the English department was an oasis in the Sahara.

What I see from the FBC English department’s model is a perfect example of how to ensure justice in a situation like ours. The institutions that protect all of us must be built, protected, and allowed to work. With all the suspicions about, and talk of Krio discrimination at FBC at this particular time, everyone harboured a healthy respect for Professor Eustace Palmer for his fairness and respect for standards. Members of the FBC English department were not perfect beings, they were human. That realization led them to create a transparent system that ensured fairness as well as maintained standards. Because of that system, the English department was able to accommodate representatives from all ethnic groups without incident, at a time when ethnic tensions were at their highest in the country and on campus. Thus, I believe, our problem is not the existence of ethnic groups, but the abse nce of a genuinely just system.

Sheikh Umarr Kamarah

Department of Languages and Literature

Virginia State University

Petersburg, Virginia 23806

Photo: Professor Eustace Palmer(seated), being honoured in Ghana recently as the new president of the African Literature Association. He shaped the lives of many students at FBC.