Sunday, January 27, 2008

My university in Michigan

I'm still figuring out how to scan in some copies of photos from back home in Michigan, so that my Maltese readers can see where I live. In the meantime, folks might find it fun to go look at the Michigan Tech website, especially the webcams of campus and the area.

go to
On the left you'll see some options, at the bottom you'll see webcams. Click that and wander around.

Every winter, Tech has Winter Carnival, which is not actually related to Carnival in the sense of pre-Lent. You'll see some of this via the webcams. But below is a link to our 2006 Winter Carnival, where we broke three world records (and have since lost the most snow angels one to the state of N. Dakota). I participated in the snow angels and in the world's largest snowball fight. It was just so fun--the whole community showed up, kids, grandparents, Tech students, faculty, staff, administrators. It was conceived by a first year student at Tech, who worked with lots of others to make it happen. [Our Tech students can do almost anything, I think.] It meant something to us. Even today you can sometimes see the numbers each of us was given to prove to Guinness how many people there were in the events posted on porches or in offices.

Anyway, here is the 2006 review of Winter Carnival:

Only in Malta website

A number of Maltese have told me I should look at the "Only in Malta" website, so I finally did. It's very funny. I think, when I go home, I'll want to look at this one for the memories it will bring back.

Bir Mula Museum

A few weeks ago I was blessed with one of those surprises of travel. I visited a small house museum in Bormla that the owners/curators want to develop into a social history museum.
The museum is called Bir Mula (

I met the couple at a (great!) wedding back in the Fall. They asked if I would like to see the museum and I had said yes. After Christmas I got email inviting me.

The town of Bormla (also called Cospicua for its courage during the great seige) is possibly the oldest more or less continuously inhabited spot on the island. It has (or maybe had, given all the construction) a great view of the harbor and is still the site for ship yards. Not far from here are Taxien temples and the Hypogeum, both of which date to before the pyramids. The house they bought had been around quite a while and they started uncovering its history, slowly clearing paint and sometimes additions, clearing out debris and so forth. The main house was apparently a farmhouse from the Arab period (see picture of an Arabic style stove) and had further additions 1200 AD. As they continue to pursue what's in their "basement" they have found remains from the Punic period (the Carthaginians, 750 BC-218 AD), a bronze age artifacts, and bits of worked chert from the very ancient times. The house survived the Great Siege of 1565 and may even have been a place where the Knights attempted to negotiate at times with the Turks. People over time carved pictures of ships and the like on the walls, so you get a quick picture of what people say on any given day. It's quite a house, with old arches, the ghosts of windows and doors and the like.

After the tour, my hosts invited me to stay for some tea. It was just lovely on the roof and nice to be with the little family (they have a young daughter). Then they said they were going for their Sunday walk and would I care to go. Well, he was the local historian for the town and I was simply enjoying their company, so I said yes. We walked by the St. Margerita fortification lines and also took a quick look at the British Verdala fort. But the bulk of the walk was on and along the Cottonera Lines of fortifications built in 1670 (and now hosting many uses that would be inconceivable in the United States where anything that dated from that period would be a near icon of preservation--well, anything Euro-American, sometimes Native American sites are not as cared for, though this is changing). While on that walk he showed me an incline that was for bringing in major supplies, but not a main gate. It was littered with pottery pieces from all kinds of times, so it was a revelation to me as he'd bend down and pick something up and say, Knights, Punic... At the end of this utterly lovely and fascinating day, my hosts even gave me a ride all the way home to St. Paul's Bay.

Photos from the top: Arab cooking area, my hosts on the Cottonera Lines, inside a more modern part of the house, a chicken coop against the fortifications, door of the Bir Mula Museum.

Email ahead if you want to visit. They are working on a shoestring, so feel free to make a donation (I did). They have regular hours, but I forgot to write them down.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

And I do teach

I do teach, even though it looks like all I do is take walks and vacations.
The first picture is of my international relations theory students (well, some of was a break); the second photo is of my US foreign policy students, though we weren't in our usual room.

Flowers #2--cultivated

Here are some flowers that were in gardens, rather than along the road. Geranium, perhaps some sort of gazania, an aloe/agave(?) being productive of more of its own kind.


I went for a Sunday walk today at Selmun Palace (pictures will eventually follow, but I'm way behind). It was a great day, people out, picnics and so forth. I decided to take photos the flowers I've been seeing, though I didn't run into the paperwhites or the poppies. I don't know what they are, generally, but perhaps others will know. I do know that the yellow flowers in the top picture, which are all over, are not native. The tall pink flowers in the 2nd to last are some version of snapdragon. I thought I knew what the blue flowers were until I touched them and discovered they were quite prickly, which was not like the ones back home.

I've now learned that the blue flower is borage and the yellow is cape sorrel.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

vet care

My foster dog tore a claw while he was happily running around a farm (his vacation from me). It didn't seem to bother him, so I didn't go to the vet right away. But after a few days, he seemed sort of quiet and the swelling had not gone down much. So, it was time to take him to the vet.

As with human health care, the vets have offices and they make house calls AND they do a clinic in one of the many pet/garden shops in the area. I chose to take him to the pet shop. I got an appointment the day before and only had to wait a very few minutes beyond my appointment to see her. The nail was infected and I should not take him for walks for a week, come back in a week. She gave me pills and the entire thing, including the medicine, came to under 12 Euros (~18 dollars). Her spot in the pet store was tiny, no receptionist, no filling out forms, no medical charts here. But, really, it was sort of like my trip to the doctor for the dog bite--my dog's foot is not highly likely to turn into a long-time medical affair with multiple consultations (I pray not, anyway..he's a good boy).

Americans, probably due to our insane penchant for law suits over minor things, end up raising costs for simple-to-solve medical difficulties. When I say simple or obvious medical conditions, I realize that sometimes things go wrong even with the simple..but why do we allow for so much litigation that raises costs so high? I'm sure there are incompetent doctors and vets, but there is also the plain statistical evidence that even with very good and correct care, nature may take an unexpected turn. So, I think Americans push health care out of sight for everyone due to an excessive focus on the tiny fraction of cases where the medical people really goofed up.

In sum, once again I am quite satisfied with Maltese medical care for the minor aliments and injuries people--and our pets--all have.

Now I'll just have to wait a few days to see if the antibiotics help with that paw. He is, of course, milking this for all it's worth: A belly rub, a paw holding, general attention I even turned on a heater just for him.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Some of Don's photos

Here are some photos Don took on our trip. Starting at the top..
we have the incredibly cute Sicilian puppy that we played with at the Mandranova farmhouse, then comes a very historic Roman john from the Villa Romana, a view from our room at the Kempinski, our New Year's celebration, and last a very cool fountain in Victoria Gozo.

New Years in Gozo

Don and I stayed a few days at the Kempinski Hotel in Gozo (top two photos). Once again we had a very pleasant time, even though the weather was not fully cooperative and many of the sights were closed for the holidays. We did spa things instead (smile). Even so, we explored the bastions and fortification of the citadel in Victoria (last photo), something I had not done. I also got a good look at some operating salt pans and a really good shot of the azure window--photos 3 and 4.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

More of Roman Villa

Villa Romana del Casale

On Christmas, Don and I drove to Piazza Armerina to visit the amazing remains of a Roman villa of one of the co-Emperors of Rome. Beautifully situated, it has world-renowned floor mosaics and some remains of the paintings on the walls. It is far off season, so, unfortunately, the mosaics had not been dusted. In spots where water was on them, the colors jumped out. Still, the photos can give you a sense of the scale and beauty of the place. Among the photos is one of women in bikinis--they wore these in the gymnasium. They exercised before going to the baths.

Friday, January 11, 2008

More Mandranovo Photos

On Christmas Eve our hosts had an excellent dinner and the traditional passata (not sure of that spelling), a cake made from ricotta. They, their sons, their friends and the two of us were all at the table together. It was so pleasant. Then, to our complete surprise, we moved into the living room with the tree and there was the opening of presents. Unlike American extravaganzas, each person got one present from each other person. They even gave us something though we couldn't reciprocate--at least then, eventually we will. I have a Mandranova apron and Don got a detective story set in Agrigento. We've both read the novel now. Anyway, it will be one of our most memorable Christmases. I think most of the interior pictures are on Don's camera, so these are outside, with one of Giuseppe, our host. They have some friendly dogs, too.

More Valley of Temples photos

Here are views of the surrounding countryside from the temples. The first is a view of Agrigento.

Reflection 2: Pedagogy


This is the second of my “reflection” essays on my experience. I’ve been wondering how the Maltese system of university education works. Compared to the US it gives virtually no support to the students. It does not have learning centers, it does not really encourage “active” learning, and there is little practical education in the sense of connecting the studies to what might happen in the “real world”. Mind now, I am primarily talking about the area of international relations, though it appears to be true of law and even in some of the more technological fields.

In addition, there are no exams during the course of a semester or, in IR anyway, smaller assignments to help the professor and student check on progress. Students get a list of readings and might get a course outline that suggests specific things to read. The professor lectures, the students listen, and that’s about it. Once in a while they ask questions. There is usually some sort of research paper (tutorial) and then the bulk of the grade (called assessment here) is a closed book, take-in-a-classroom exam. I will be participating in some fashion in the international law exam, but I don’t yet know what that means. Sometimes the only exam that matters is one at the end of a year. Students who don’t do well are dismissed, after being allowed to resit the exam the following semester. Law loses something like 30-40% of its entering class; international relations loses fewer. Towards the end of their studies they do a thesis.

There is no competition by the university for students here, unless the students decide to go abroad. (There is a local alternative in some technological fields, but I am not sure how that works). Nor is the university driven by tuition. Students get stipends to attend and the university is funded by the government. Malta is not awash in government funds, so the university, while well kept and decently supplied, is hardly awash in money. Thus, there is apparently no concern about “retention” of students as there is in the US.

I have not quite done it there way in the sense that I've given the exam questions well in advance and made them take-home. I am reading drafts, too, just as I do in the US. I never allow rewrites after a paper is due, because I get much better progress getting them to rethink and revise beforehand. I don’t even assign a grade in the US to drafts—it’s purely optional, but my students learn quickly that it is worthwhile. The Maltese students were reluctant at first to believe me, but now they are showing me drafts. They need help with the usual things—using concepts from readings. On the whole they are quite good writers, just like my Tech students.

And, you know what? They do just fine with this “learning is your responsibility” system. I have some really, really good papers so far.

I still wonder, however, whether the Maltese system is too elitist. If you can dismiss a good chunk of your student body, who is that leaving out and why? There will be very well prepared students who just don’t work hard. Every university has those. I’m all for saying to them, “out you go, grow up.’ But what about students who are the first in their family to go to college and who didn’t go to the best of the public or private high schools/colleges (as they call the most advanced years in K-12)? Malta, like countries everywhere, must have a very well educated population to succeed in the world. If the current system does run against those who don’t already come from the middle and upper classes, what does that mean for the future of Malta? I don't yet know if this is what happens, so this is pure speculations.

It’s a problem in the US, too. My country is facing a terrible situation where we are creating and perhaps perpetuating an underclass with no hope and no options. Part of that failure is in our educational system. Still, the US has so many settings for getting more education that we have the infrastructure to cope with the vast differences in preparation of our young people, or of non-traditional students who return for education later in life.

I hope to learn more about all this as the year goes on. A few of my faculty friends and I have begun an informal exchange of ideas on education (one reading from the US and one from Malta). We call it “explaining Malta to Mary.”

Valley of the Temples

The main attraction for us near where we were saying is the Valley of the Temples. It's a whole line of temples from different periods of the ancient Greek period, along with some Roman and paleochristian remains. The Greeks knew how to site their temples, that's for sure. Between the two of us Don and I have hundreds of photos, but here are a few.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Christmas in Sicily

My husband, Don, came over to Malta for Christmas. We had a great time visiting spots in Malta and visiting Sicily over Christmas. Don and I had enjoyed a visit to Bologna, Italy while on a Society for Industrial Archeology study tour, so we were excited to see what Sicily was like. We were not disappointed by this part of Italy. Amazing. Go.

We decided to stay at the Mandranova Farmhouse, about 30 km from Agrigento. Our host/owners were Sylvia and Guiseppi--and their two college sons and a pair of their friends. They have created a wonderful spot for sojourners to Sicily. Sylvia refuses to call herself a chef--she says she's a cook--but her oh my. I think we will be hard pressed to find better food in all of Italy. So, here are some pictures of the farmhouse and views from the large front terrace and one of the two of us at dinner. The Mandranova is a working olive farm. [They also have award-winning olive oils!]. Yes, we had rain, but nicer weather followed.