Teaching in Norway, despite myself

Dispatches from an American teacher’s Norwegian classroom

American College of Norway

Photo: ACN archive
American College’s premises in Moss, south of Oslo, is located in the building where the famous 1814 Convention of Moss was signed.

John F. L. Ross
Oslo, Norway

I teach in Norway, though I’m neither Norwegian nor partnered to one, and any blood ties are distant. Southern born and bred, I was pulled north by some strange force, and have logged time in Sweden and Finland. Norway was always knocking at my door, or vice versa. Finally I took the plunge five years ago.

I teach social science courses in Moss, a short commute through fjord, forest, and farm south of Oslo. In this polarized age I cling to the virtues of independent inquiry, remaining perilously untethered to a university payroll in a costly country. Having branched out into editing, reviewing, and “popular” writing, I keep gravitating back to academia. To me it’s like the Hotel California, where you can check out but never leave. 

The American College of Norway, where I teach, sports a slightly misleading name. Most students are Norwegians set to transfer to U.S. campuses to finish their degrees. It’s a classic niche program, with complete turnover each year. Some faculty members come from affiliated U.S. universities; a few others, like me, are local.

The students don’t know how lucky they are to have small first-year classes (my freshman macroeconomics course filled an auditorium), solid guidance, and nice housing down the street. Their education is underwritten by the Norwegian state. I’m floored that more don’t jump at the chance for paid studies abroad. Are Norwegian high schoolers, offspring of an oil-funded welfare state, spoiled for choice? More likely it’s nonchalance, teenagers (or risk-averse parents) yawning in the face of opportunity that, few realize, will not come again. Happily, those I teach are among those few.

Also in the mix are American undergrads (again, amazingly few) spending an exchange semester. They maximize their brief time in Norway, volunteering and traveling incessantly. For the natives, it’s their first taste of American collegiate life. They’re readying for a transatlantic leap I can only admire, and in a second language.

It’s a challenging mix. Norwegians can be reticent, unaccustomed to engaging in the classroom. But they are more worldly and clued-in than I was at that stage. They range widely in background and skill. Somehow I expected assembly-line sameness, so the variety took me by surprise.

At first the Norwegian classroom had me flummoxed. It was oddly democratic; I was being addressed by my first name, not as “professor.” My efforts met with deafening silence. (After a month I actually asked Becky, our very able administrator, “Why do they hate my classes?”) I mistook quiescence as passivity, when it was more a reflection of the jantelov, the don’t-stand-out Nordic mindset that everyone claims has disappeared but hasn’t. Once past this, things made more sense.

The digital world is especially tough (in the dinosaur age, I actually typed my PhD dissertation). Everyone is glued to a screen, with fingertip access to oceans of information, not all reliable. Idle students used to doodle and daydream. For all I know (and I’ve tried to find out), they’re now making Facebook friends in Singapore. Diversions are endless, attention spans are shorten, and the image trumps the word.

The only solution is to outdo the opposition by mixing things up, staging debates, playing devil’s advocate, whatever. I recoil at the thought of bored classrooms and back-row snickers; maybe the scramble to engage the inscrutable Nordic personality raises my game.

Dry or self-deprecating humor helps in low-key Norway, playing up my encroaching fuddy-duddy status. Education, like public affairs, is heavy business, but as Oscar Wilde said, life is too serious a matter to talk seriously about. When teaching is no longer enjoyable I’ll hang it up for good.

I’m also caught in the crosshairs of hopelessly dated. New (U.S.) methods that prioritize student initiatives, group projects, and foundation-building are useful, if slightly touchy-feely for my taste. The mix is new to Norwegians and to me, strangers seeking common ground.

Teaching is part art, part science, and never perfected. I cannot say that I love doing it; that sounds awfully flip. It’s work requiring technique, patience, and perseverance. Public performance is exhausting. I still prefer communicating on the page. Maybe it was a means to overcome inhibitions and challenge myself. This probably pushes me to overprepare, even now, but Norwegians respect effort and sportingly rise to a challenge.

Yet teaching is vital work in this strange era of post-truth and fake news. It has an old-fashioned integrity. It makes you a willing instrument in a far bigger endeavor. The classroom is one of the few workplace sanctuaries left.

I’m interested in helping them develop the skills to form learned perspectives: to be skeptical in its original (Greek) sense of thoughtfulness. Plying this role as an outsider/foreigner can’t hurt. I try hard not to preach or peddle pet theories, emphasizing that we’re all learning. Maybe Norwegian modesty finds that refreshing; to me it’s just being honest, even obvious. (Age helps; declaring your ignorance is unwise career strategy at 30.)

Many who try teaching detest the experience. I totally get that, having felt pummeled my first time around. Yet something (commitment? stubbornness?) keeps me hammering away. Maybe it’s just that I still care, both about the intellectual process and the human outcome.   

The stiffest challenge is keeping the material fresh. Good timing handed me a new angle. When new to Norway, I read deeply about polar exploration. Throw in global issues like climate change and national themes like the Vikings, and I beheld a tailor-made Norwegian subject, the Arctic. A hobby became a passion I could spin into my work.

Then I conjured the idea of taking students to the Norwegian Arctic, where I’d never been. Svalbard is just 900 miles from the North Pole yet boasts a commercial airport. For the second year our director, Krista, who could keep calm in a hurricane, had the great idea of offering it as a 1-credit experiential course, giving it more purpose. It’s become an annual thing. There’s a bigger lesson here: you have to run with an idea, not knowing where it might lead. It’s also cool—pardon the pun—for a child of Dixie to plant an adult foot in the High Arctic.

Teaching is rewarding, but it yields few tangible rewards. Adjuncts and freelancers everywhere juggle for a living in the 21st century gig economy. I rarely recommend teaching as a job, unless someone is fiercely committed, does it full-time, or aspires to the academic totem pole.

It helps to value the intangibles: a class that hums with purpose, a tangent that forges new connections. The thought of having influenced someone’s life direction because of something I did or said is extraordinary. I do sense a connection with those I once taught. They’re out there, making their mark.

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.