Professor Robert: “Students Who Communicate Well, Do Better”

FILES: This photo taken on June 26, 2018 shows Cambodian students and a teacher using a computer in a modern classroom built under Prime Minister Hun Sen's administration campaign for the "new generation" schools programme in Phnom Penh. (Photo: AFP)

Skills, not family connections, will be the key to a good job

PHNOM PENH--Learning is a life-long process. It involves the ability to adapt to constant changes in nature and society. Regardless of age, learning is not just about increasing brainpower. It can also help keep one’s body healthy for longer. Chamna Ky, a journalist at Cambodianess, interviewed Professor Robert, an American Distinguished Professor from Paragon International University [formerly Zaman University] about the importance of being a life-long learner. Professor Robert received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Wichita State University, Kansas, USA.  He has been with Paragon International University since 2012.

Chamna Ky: I was told that you have taught around 14,000 students from different nationalities throughout your career. This is such a huge number to get one’s head around. How did it get so big? And how many nationalities have you taught since the beginning of your career?

Professor Robert: Well, that is about 20 years’ worth of teaching. To be clear, I will make an estimate about it. When I was in my graduate school, I was assigned to teach freshman English courses. I taught those courses during the semesters as well as the summer times.

Let’s round the number to around 30 students per class. Before I graduated, I already taught more than 500 students. After that, I went to teach at a state university full time for another 18 years or so with around 10,000 students over the course of that time period.

In addition to that, I was also teaching as a full-time English teacher at high schools and more. As you can see, over the years those numbers increase dramatically. Basically, I could not even count exactly how many nationalities I taught. However, I can remember that I have taught students from Africa, Canada, Europe and students all over Asia.

Chamna Ky: What is the nationality that you find most interesting in terms of intelligence or persistence?

Professor Robert: Okay, let’s talk about the United States. Please remember that I have been gone for 10 years, yet I don’t think thing has changed much.

In the US, in an overall sense, Chinese students are the best students and there is a reason for that. Their parents or grandparents may immigrate to the US. They left China and they come here to start a new life.

Do you know what they are told? They are told that, “You are here to study and improve this family situation. We came here for a new beginning, so you don’t play around”. And that is what they do. While other students were going out on the weekends, Chinese students were at home studying until past midnight.

Chamna Ky: Most people in Cambodia are more familiar with the majors of business, engineering, accounting or architecture. Because of this, could you elaborate more a bit about your study of creative writing and why it is important for pretty much every level of learning?

Professor Robert: One drawback that I see [in Cambodia] is that you guys have limitations in the liberal arts education. In the US, since grade school, students study literature, arts, music, famous musicians and more.

Without this liberal arts education, let’s say if you are an IR [International Relations] students, you are at a disadvantage.

You don’t bring that prior knowledge to the classroom. I think in Cambodia, there is not enough empathy placed on liberal arts. Yes, it is understandable that you guys are living in a developing country. So, the type of major that they are going to pick is going to be in line with that.

They might learn business so that they can open their own business. They might learn engineering since there is a need for construction in this country. However, the US students do not think this much when compared to students from developing countries.

For me personally, I always enjoy learning about literature, reading poetry, novels or short stories and I want to be a writer myself. This went back to my childhood when I was living in the state of Kentucky with my grandparents.

All of the stories that my grandmother told me when I was young fascinated me in reading and writing stories myself. With my degree, a terminal degree, I can even teach Ph.D. candidates. I have published quite a few things too even though it is a bit hard to make a living.

But, I know that, with my MFA [Master of Fine Arts], I can always teach at universities. Maybe you are not going to see that [Creative Writing] here because you are still in a developing country. Maybe, 10 or 15 years from now you will see it. However, right now universities are concentrating on majors that can help the country and create job opportunities for the students.

Chamna Ky: From your own analysis, since 2012 until the present, what are some of the remarkable changes that you have seen within Cambodian university education?

Professor Robert: What I have noticed is that a lot of new courses have been added. Things have expended. If I were to make a comment, I would say it is much better now and there are more opportunities for students now than there were 10 years ago.

There are more majors and there are more degrees to offer. The students are more active. I think, overall, the education system has improved and I like a lot of the things which the Ministry of Education has done. Nevertheless, it is still a bit hard to judge with the pandemic since last year.

Chamna Ky: With years of teaching in multiple countries, does teaching around 14,000 students make you bored?

Professor Robert: I never get bored and I will tell you why. First of all, I am a lifelong learner myself. So, when I am teaching, I am learning also. It is something in which I enjoy doing.

But I don’t enjoy doing it by myself. I like to interact with the class and I show my students that I don’t presume myself to be the smartest person in my class. I know that students know things of which I know nothing. But, if they don’t participate, I don’t have a chance to learn either.

Sometimes, elderly people presume that they know more than young people and they don’t ask question to young people. Then, young people don’t question elderly people.

The thing is there is no absolute validity in that. I think it is important to learn from any sources you can no matter what age you are. When you stop learning, you stop growing. Thing changes. The world changes. You guys [young students] have the experiences that I have never had in my life. Of course, in some areas, I may be smarter than them because of my own life experiences and my education.

Chamna Ky: Will you continue your career teaching?

Professor Robert: I still continue to teach as long as I am physically healthy to do a decent job. What else would I do? Sit at a bar and drink beer? Sitting at home, laying in the bed, get fat and watch TV?

Before, when I was in Thailand, I had in my mind that I am going to retire in Chiang Mai. I got there, rented a condo, and in one month, I was bored to death.

I wanted to find something to do to stay active. So, what did I do? I went on the internet and saw a job opening here in Cambodia. Back then it was the Zaman University [now Paragon International University]. After applying for the application, I soon flew to Cambodia and I have been here ever since.

I was bored. I wanted to go back to work. In some cases when people retire and they don’t stay active they don’t live long. You better stay active mentally and physically.

Chamna Ky: As a senior distinguished professor with years of experience in teaching, what do you expect of university students for them to get the most out of themselves after graduating?

Professor Robert: The next assignment which will come up in my MBA [Master of Business Administration] course is called Professional Communication. There is an assignment about job application letters.

My students are going to look for job application ads online or in print. In those job application ads, there will be a list of expected qualifications that the applicants should have. What do you think the first top two qualifications are?

They are communication skills. They want excellent communication skills both written and verbal. Let me ask you something. If you spend four years of your life at the university and you never spoke up in class, don’t you think you cheated yourself on how to speak well and on how to communicate?

How about those writing assignments which you don’t take seriously? You want to get better? Speak up. You want to communicate better? Learn to write effectively. Do you think just passing those courses is going to make you get a good job?

No, it’s not. If you cannot communicate with people, you are not going anywhere. Even though the standard of living has improved for the last decade or so and there are more opportunity to choose from here in Cambodia, for young people, it is going to depend on their ability to communicate.

The day is going to come when family connection is not going to work. As this country is developing and more international companies are coming in, family connection will not work with those people.

So, workers will have to make it on their own. In order to do that, they will need to have good knowledge and good education. That means when they go to school, they need to pay attention, do extra studies, seek help when needed and improve their communication skill.

Listen, every student can make good grades. You may be at an average intelligence or above. If you study and put in the time, you will get a decent grade and you will be successful. If you put in a lot of time in practice, you will have more chances to be successful.

You know, students should take some responsibility. It is not the teachers’ job to spoon feed 18, 19, 20 or 21-year-old kids because they are not babies.

I have seen fourth-year students with terrible communication skill and that is going to limit their job opportunities. Students who communicate well, do better. Sometimes, when I asked them whether they agree or disagree on a certain topic, they went quiet. Okay, let’s see how it works when you are quiet at your job interview. You will rely more on English. More and more job interviews are going to be like that.

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