Associate professor and coordinator of adult and higher education program
Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Technology; College of Education
When it comes to the subjects of adult and higher education, James Witte is always willing to go the extra mile for his students. In his current situation, those extra miles add up to more than 7,000 one way. Witte accepted an invitation to spend a portion of the semester teaching courses at Suez Canal University in Suez City, Egypt, as part of an effort to help Auburn's College of Education lay the groundwork for faculty and student exchanges. Witte originally planned to depart for Egypt in February, but the country's revolution, which began in late January, necessitated a delay until April. Despite the distance, Witte remains connected to Auburn students in his adult education course through distance education technology and his blog http://whereintheworldisjimwitte.blogspot.com. Such an adventure is nothing new to Witte, a world traveler who counts blacksmithing and motorcycle riding among his hobbies. Witte, who speaks some Arabic, has lived and worked in Central and South America, the Pacific Rim, Europe and Asia.
1. You've had a chance to visit Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution. Can you describe your experience there? What's it like to have a front row seat during the creation of this "new Egypt?"
I have been to Tahrir Square twice, the first time on a Thursday and it was quiet with only normal activity. We just drove around and observed. The second visit was somewhat different. There was a large protest the preceding day, where one was killed and order was restored by the military. As my colleague and I walked through the square, there were old cement bags filled with rocks placed randomly throughout the square. Protest missiles were waiting for the next round. There were small groups of people gathered, some yelling, others discussing. Most striking was the burnt vehicles: one bus and one large truck. The truck was still smoldering. There were only a few foreigners there. It felt strange just walking around. Few places generate such feelings -- Nagasaki, Hiroshima, battlefields both ancient and modern. Egypt represents one of the oldest continuous civilizations on earth, and yet, its future began on Jan. 25, 2011, at the place we were standing.
2. What are your Egyptian friends and students telling you about their post-revolution experiences, and are they generally optimistic about what's ahead for their country?
My students are proud of their involvement, very nationalistic and optimistic. They seem to have only a cursory understanding of governmental operations and the responsibility that comes with democracy. They are learning every day and I have great faith in them. My older friends are a bit more reserved but are also very optimistic.
3. You had to delay your trip several times due to the protests. How difficult was it to wait and watch events unfold from afar?
The delays were horrible. On the other hand, it reinforced the necessity of flexibility.
4. This trip reunites you with Suez Canal University faculty member Dr. Mohammed Sywelem Suez, who spent time in Auburn's College of Education as a visiting research scholar, and introduces you to adult education students from a decidedly different culture. Are there any particular aspects of the field that they seem to identify as being most critical to Egypt's future development?
Dr. Sweylem and I co-teach two undergraduate courses in adult education. I teach two graduate classes, one in research methods and one we would call "special topics." Our first undergraduate class has approximately 30 students. These classes have grown to over 100. We have also developed a series we call "Conversations with a Foreigner."
These are open informal sessions, where the students can converse with a native speaker. These interactions show they have an acute interest in the teaching of literacy and post secondary education. The issues are current and extend into the future.
5. What do you want your students – those in Egypt and those at Auburn – to understand about the value of international experiences?
Learning experiences in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, anywhere in the world, are highly valued throughout the Egyptian educational system. I hope to bring back that same sense of internationalism to the Auburn students.