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I Was a Professor at the Horribly Corrupt American University of Iraq... Until the Neocons Fired Me

Horror stories from the graft-ridden American University of Iraq campus in Kurdistan.

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And when I taught my first classes, I learned that those few students were woefully unprepared for university courses in English. We’d been told -- another lie, of course -- that the university’s ESL program produced fluent speakers and writers of English. That was a joke. Had I graded my students at the same level as in an American university -- another one of our official fictions -- at least two-thirds of them would have failed. A better man would no doubt have done the principled thing; I wanted those $100 bills and simply handed out a lot of generous C’s and B-‘s.

Total fabrication; that’s what it all seems like now. We were supposed to be bridging the great ethnic divides of Iraq, but in that first semester, I taught a Composition course that consisted of what I thought of as a “Wall of Kurds” and a “Wall of Arabs.” The class was almost entirely male, and had the feel of a gang fight in hibernation. On one side of the room was the Wall of Kurds, a half dozen tough-looking, rural Kurdish students who spoke very little English; and on the other, a half-dozen much more urbane but much wimpier Arab students from Baghdad who wore a permanent flinch. The Arabs spoke and wrote much better English, the beneficiaries of Saddam’s preferential treatment of Baghdad, and the Kurds resented every sentence their erstwhile tormentors got right.  

Both groups regarded me as an ephemeral inconvenience -- a real surprise for me, because Agresto had assured me in the job interview that we were the biggest thing in these kids’ lives, the transformative yeast in the Iraqi loaf. At AUIS, he had told me (and every other new teacher), we’d see the total dedication to learning that we had longed for, and missed, in American students.

It never appeared. What I saw was several hundred lively, intelligent adolescents who were tremendously excited about living away from home, talking to members of the opposite sex, and trying on new identities. Classic adolescent stuff. There were times, in good weather, when the panorama of fevered social cliques occupying their few square meters of turf on the steps of the Main Building made the place look like a teen movie or a live-action Archie comic -- all those family-ridden kids, burdened with having to be somebody’s son or daughter, brother or cousin, all their lives, suddenly allowed to be characters out of Heathers or Clueless.

There was an even bigger problem with fulfilling our messianic mission: the faculty. We were not an impressive bunch. There were good teachers at AUIS -- I won’t name them, because praise from me might get them fired--but they survived by lying low; being bright and a good teacher made you suspect in a place where center stage was firmly occupied by a clique of loud, provincial rightwing nuts. In this sense, AUIS was an excellent microcosm of the American polity that had produced it: the best lacked all conviction, while the worst (with apologies to Yeats) raked in the cash and talked nonsense.

Successful Profs: Red-State Brown-Nosers with No Qualifikashuns

There was a clear, simple formula for success at AUIS: be a Southern white male Republican with a talent for flattery, an undistinguished academic record, and very little experience in university-level teaching.

Some of the faculty were so dismally unqualified and shameless that even our students, mostly reverent toward foreign authority-figures, saw through them.

 The man Agresto hired to teach American History makes a perfect Exhibit A in any list of what’s wrong with AUIS. The first sign that he was not exactly committed to intellectual integrity was his choice of textbook for the course: an abominable book called America: The Last Best Hope, by William Bennett.  Yes, THE William Bennett, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, the buffoon who sermonized on virtue until his gambling losses added up so high that they drowned out his pomposities, the man who once scolded a child in public for wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt.

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