Doing the Impossible to Keep College Possible

Believe it or not, amid the collapse, a hearty band of intellectuals is still trying to keep higher education going in Venezuela. What it takes to teach in these conditions will take your breath away.

Original art by @modográfico

It’s 2:00 p.m. and I’m still sitting in my car, gathering the gumption to get out and take the long walk to the classroom alone. Why so scared?

There’s no one here. No security guards, and no more than two other cars.

I look around and I get the chills.

Back when I was a student, I would never have thought my department would turn into such a foreboding, lonely place. As far as I’m concerned, the craziest thing I’ve done as a professor is having to fight off the fear that a malandro could waltz into my classroom as I lecture.

Being a professor is a calling, but in Venezuela, we teach for the love of it. It’s a job that costs many professors their entire salary — and then some.

The few professors who haven’t thrown the towel are doing everything and anything to keep teaching the next generation of Venezuelan professionals. We started asking some of our colleagues about their experiences, and what came back was harrowing:

One professor who didn’t want to miss any more classes due to the 2017 protests started recording and sending out whole lessons via WhatsApp. Another, who had to leave the country, taught his students via Facebook Live.

Other stories are just silly. Our very own José Gonzáles Vargas once had to translate a film sotto voce for his Introduction to Film Studies, because the remote control of the DVD player had no batteries. Another colleague scanned a whole book with a cell phone camera to save on photocopies. It took hours and hours, on both the cell phone and computer, to save each page and organize the document.

But some professors have had to resort to even more extreme measures. Some teach through long blackouts. A few talked about having to teach math courses without chalk or a marker at hand.

Petty crime is also a major concern. One professor at the UCV established a password protocol to grant students access to the classroom. If someone walked outside, they had to remember the name of a political philosopher and a certain knock on the door to be allowed back in.

Not to mention, many professors give their lectures hungry or with hungry families at home.

But hardships are the mother of creativity: we heard of a class organizing a movie screening. Cost of the ticket? Four blank sheets of paper. This made the printing of the finals at the Faculty possible.

In another case, students and professors arranged several meters of extension cord to light up the labs at a Faculty of Medicine, because it kept losing power.

Teaching is a labor of love, and a source of pride, a way to support your family, grow professionally and personally and help others. But growth is impossible when you’re hungry, when you don’t have enough money to pay the bus fare and professors fight the odds to keep teaching, out of respect for the even crazier things students must do to reach the classrooms.  

Taking part in university life is an act of bravery. It takes rebels to look a crisis in the eye and refuse to blink. Neither students nor professors have given up on education as a tool for development.

It’s one reason to believe this isn’t over yet.