Tag Archives: professor

When To Kill Your Mom and Dad…

…and other things we learned in our Malaysian university classes.

As a group, our four months of living in Malaysia will no doubt generate hundreds of stories and thousands of pictures.  So it is easy for people back home to think that our time here is all about enjoying local food and tolerating large lizards (or vice versa).  But we also represent a group of people, trained in the American private liberal arts tradition, learning at a prestigious Asian public university ten times the size of Gustavus.  So in addition to learning how to use our phones, the coins, and ordering coffee, we are also taking interesting and challenging classes that teach us everything from “ecosystem services” to “when to kill your Mom and Dad.”

Lily takes notes, fueled by her crackers and chrystanthemum tea juicebox.
Lily takes notes, fueled by crackers and a chrystanthemum tea juicebox.

So here is Joel’s run-down of our four classes (called “modules”) at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the kinds of topics we discuss.

Religious Experiences in Malaysia

This course is an introduction to the beliefs and practices within the main religious traditions of Malaysia:  Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity.  We also discuss the notion of ultimate reality, ethics, salvation and afterlife, rituals, justifications for beliefs, religious experience, and religious pluralism.

How do you balance ethics with respect for religious belief?  Consider a culture that believes that your body in the afterlife is forever in the condition the body had at death.  The religion understands a woman at age 90 who is weak and blind will spend eternity in that condition.  Thus, it is the duty of loving offspring to kill their parents (commit parricide) before decrepitude occurs.  What is the role of the outsider here – should the stranger interfere with a well-established ‘merciful’ religious ritual?   As we learn about religious practices, how do you balance moral relativism with cultural respect?

[Disclaimer:  After the Living Diversity Malaysia program ends, the institutions of Gustavus Adolphus College and Universiti Sains Malaysia and their representatives are not legally responsible for any suspicious loss of parents.]

Dr. Gan, a Religious Experiences lecturer, challenges notions of God.
Dr. Gan, a Religious Experiences lecturer, challenges notions of God.

Tropical Ecology

This course aims at introducing students to the studies of tropical biodiversity, ecology, and conservation biology as applied in Malaysia. The program is field-based, with only 90 minutes spent in the classroom each week, and the rest conducted in some of the most biologically diverse and threatened ecosystems in the world.  Field activities range from visiting orang utans, to counting aquatic insects and measuring sea turtles!

Why do the tropics, and Malaysia in particular, have so many different kinds of plants and animals?  The greatest number of species found in the oceans are found in tropical coral reef ecosystems.  The greatest variety of land species are found in tropical rainforest ecosystems.  We live near BOTH of these ecosystems, in a nation that contains one in five of the described species on the planet.  Why?  Is it the greater land area? (after all, the Earth is at its widest in the tropics)   Is it the heat? (higher temperatures in cells should increase the rate of mutation)  Is it the stability over the millenia?  (Malaysia never has experienced an Ice Age that wiped out previous creatures)  Is it that species cause more species? (Once a new plant species forms, a new plant-eater can evolve now, too!)  OR can more than one of these be correct?

Dr. Ruppert teaches us the fundamentals of ecology, and the proper way to say "Orang Utan."
Dr. Ruppert teaches us the fundamentals of ecology, and the proper way to say “Orang Utan.”

Bring on the Biology!
Bring on the Biology!
 

Malay Language and Culture

This is a basic level Bahasa Malaysia course, starting with pronunciation and basic grammar, with an aim to creating basic conversations.  Here is where we learn to count numbers, order food, and wish our teachers a good afternoon and basically how to get up in the morning.  The class also exposes students to the culture of Malays, from holidays and festivals, to our first field trip, and the apparent need to feed guests every 30 minutes.

Why is English so complicated?  Bahasa Malaysia is very challenging for us, as our habit of looking for Greek/Latin root words is simply not helpful.  So every, every word must be learned via rote memorization.  But the grammar? Oh pleeez … this is an absurdly simple language.  No verb conjugation, no male/female pronouns, the pronunciation is straightforward without special letters (no umlauts here).  Can’t ask for more than that!

On our first field trip ever, this time to the Kota Aur homestay.
On our first field trip ever, this time to the Kota Aur homestay.

Living Diversity

Several classes in one, Living Diversity combines the approaches of social sciences and humanities in examining Malaysia’s diversity. The social sciences provide Malaysia’s political and sociological history that will serve as background knowledge to understanding contemporary issues in Malaysia.  Against the backdrop of the nation’s history, the diversity theme re-appears in an examination of literature about and from Malaysia.

What does it mean to be a citizen?  The news around BlackLivesMatter, the US Presidential election, and Syrian refugees means that we are all being asked (or are being told) what it means to be “an American. “ Malaysia has the same question, but from a very different viewpoint.  Malaysia’s founding Constitution is based on negotiation and race, rather than one based on revolution and ideology.   Malaysians must write their religion on most government documents.  Children go to one of five separate school systems (college is the first time Indians and Chinese and Malays attend integrated classes).   Ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples hold a separate legal status, defined in the constitution, from Malaysians of Indian and Chinese descent.  And yet Malaysia is one of the most (if not the most) politically stable nations in Southeast Asia.  So what, if anything, defines being “Malaysian”?

Dr. Azim discusses why Malaysia is a nation, but not a nation-state.
Dr. Azim discusses why Malaysia is a nation, but not a nation-state.

It’s not all fun and games…Our First Batch of Homework:

  • Read a chapter from Bash’s Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Respond to the assertion that God cannot forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of the victim.
  • Memorize and recite (or sing) a song in Bahasa Malaysia, like this one (Americans will recognize the tune!).  This assignment will no doubt be awkward and embarrassing, so group leaders definitely shall video our efforts for later blackmail…
  • Read the scientific journal article “Twenty landmark papers in biodiversity conservation.” Choose at least two issues as personally interesting, and consider these as potential topics for a scientific review presentation at semester’s end.
  • Provide evidence of the ‘stable tension’ in which Malaysia’s multiple ethnicities exist.  In other words, create an essay, backed by observations from campus, field trips, the media, etc., that describes “segregation with cooperation.”
Some of us are more artistic than others...
Some of us are more artistic than others…
Ten Gusties eager to begin their day of learning. Or at least, eager to enjoy a classroom with working A/C.
Ten Gusties eager to begin their day of learning. Or at least, eager to enjoy a classroom with working A/C.
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Teaching Chinese

Not teaching the language:  teaching the people.  My experience as a science and history professor in China.

Before I arrived, I easily found dozens of blogs and websites about teaching English in China.  Most of these are focused on the secondary school level, hardly any are about teaching other subjects.  I am a U.S. biology professor teaching both biology and world history. A notable exception are the many profs who, like me, came to Zhuhai to teach at an intensive English university.  Their advice was wonderful preparation for this trip (so thank you, Mike and Laura, Amy, and Michelle).  I recommend Hvidsten-Richards‘ and Michelle Rusinko‘s blogs for more information!

So this blog post not only should answer my family’s questions (“Hey, how’s that job going?”) but I hope that it might serve as a nice resource for U.S. professors interested in working in Chinese higher education.

UIC employs a lot of international interns (i.e., Minnesota liberal arts graduates).  They provide one-on-one grammar help, act as conversational English partners, and create a lunchtime club for firstyear students to practice speaking English.
UIC employs a lot of international interns (i.e., Minnesota liberal arts graduates). They provide one-on-one grammar help, act as conversational English partners, and create a lunchtime club for first-year students to practice speaking English.  Many interns, and young English teachers everywhere in China, have blogs you can read.

 

Liberal Arts in southern China

My employer (whilst on sabbatical) is United International College (Zhuhai, Guangdong Province) which is supposed to be China’s first Western-style liberal arts college.  It really does come close.  All classes are in English, and that is a powerful draw for students (or their parents).   Most majors are very practical (business management, accounting, etc.), which makes sense given China’s Deng-inspired economic push.  But there are less traditional majors, like social work and environmental studies, which are very unusual.

A view from the fourth floor shows the Chinese national flag, the opposite wing of the academic building, and the low, forested hills beyond.
The academic building at United International College, Zhuhai, Guangdong Province.  A view from the fourth floor shows the Chinese national flag flying with low, forested hills beyond.

 

UIC's academic building is full of stairs and ... angles.
UIC’s academic building is full of stairs and … angles.  A little odd, but I really liked it!

 

No matter what your major is, having graduated from an intensive English college curriculum will definitely be useful in globalized hypercapitalist China.  Thus it should also come as no surprise that UIC attracts top-scoring (a.k.a. “wealthy”) students from across the nation.  And every student takes electives (a very radical concept here), which is my job.  The General Electives Office is a hodgepodge of profs that teach history, religion, art, music, and culture.

I am a marine fisheries geneticist by training, but I have taught a wide variety of courses and the occasional lecture on music or history or gender (it’s a liberal arts college thing).  So here I am in China, teaching a non-majors science class without a lab, The Biology of Seafood.  The other class, based on my personal interest in maritime history, is The History of Ocean Exploration (you can read about the particulars of these classes here).  Both are small classes of 50 students.  My colleagues teach 3-5 classes of this size each semester but, as a visitor, I have a lower workload.

In addition to General Electives, every student must enroll in a series of courses that designed for “Emotional Health.”  EH classes include meditation, tai chi, calligraphy, classical Chinese music, longbow archery, etc.  I really love this aspect of the college, and that UIC is at least trying to fight the rapid loss of traditional Chinese culture in the rush for Western-style materialism.

Simon, Joel, and a dragon's head at the UIC student talent show.  UIC students are in classes and clubs that celebrate traditional culture, from taichi to mastering the Chinese longbow.
Simon, Joel, and a dragon’s head meet at the UIC student talent show. UIC students are in classes and clubs that celebrate traditional culture, from wushu to zither playing.

 

Foreign Professors at UIC

UIC tries to have a very global institution, and so nearly half of their faculty are not mainland Chinese.  A third are from nearby Hong Kong, and the rest are expats like myself.  I have tried to get a sense of what faculty are required and requested to do with their time, but this varies quite a bit by department.  As UIC is actually the product of a partnership between two very large universities, a lot of policies and protocols are examined by one of big brother schools.  For instance, there is a lengthy approval process for all syllabi and final exams (which have to be written nearly two months in advance).

My office at United International College.  All offices are shared, but my officemate was hardly ever in our room.  My only decorations were a world map in Chinese, and a metal model airplane that Susie gave me.
My office at United International College. All offices are shared, but my officemate was hardly ever in our room. My only decorations were a world map in Chinese, and a metal model airplane that Susie gave me.
The view from my wing of the UIC academic building.  It's a hazy, wintry February day.
The view from my wing of the UIC academic building. It’s a hazy, wintry February day.  But no matter the weather, verdant hills dominate the horizon.

 

Contract teachers ( = real professors) do not seem to have any formal advising, and UIC has far, far fewer committees and meetings than what I am used to from Whitman and Gustavus.  But, just like I guess everywhere, the faculty are asked to publish research (with little resources) while they also create long university documents that talk about assessment.  The latter are reviewed by another institution, the faculty then rewrite it, any requests for money are denied, and the experience is soon forgotten…until it is time for the 10-year department review or some other paper-generating exercise.

The Jungle Cafe does a brisk business from 7-9am with overstressed, undercaffeinated professors.  And that is not a giant misshapen steamed bun on the floor, it's a dog.  Don't worry - everyone makes that mistake.
The Jungle Cafe does a brisk business from 7-9am with overstressed, undercaffeinated professors.  The young barista makes sandwiches and awesome lattes and cappuccinos.  Oh, and at the bottom of the photo — it is not a giant misshapen steamed bun, it’s a dog. Don’t worry – everyone makes that mistake.

 

As a member of the Minnesota collection of colleges (the MPCC) that have partnered with UIC, I was granted special benefits.  Namely, a wonderful coordinator of international studies, and an IS staffperson assigned to my family.  They helped in our transition, from meeting us at the ferry on our first night, taking us shopping for dishes, impromptu translation help over the phone, and helping us find a part-time nanny for Simon.  It was a shock when I learned that other professors were not being given the same treatment.  Thanks, UIC!!

But enough about the professors… what are the students like?

Centuries of Examinations

In ancient times, China’s empire was so vast that there simply were not enough warlords’ sons and nephews to rule.  That, and the ideas of Confucious, called into being a system of state examinations so that only those with knowledge could administer law (a meritocracy).  So while the ancient Greeks were just starting to philosophize about matter and math and such, the first Chinese students were already memorizing, cheating, and bribing to pass the governmental civil service exam.  Imagine 2,500 years of No Child Left Behind … s/he who memorizes annoying little details wins, and critical thinking be damned.

An ancient Chinese painting of the civil service examination.  So little has changed...
An ancient Chinese painting of the civil service examination. So little has changed…

 

The few students of China that I have taught are both victims and perpetrators of this system.  They long for ANYthing different in a classroom…anything that is not a lecture to be memorized and repeated verbatim on an exam.  This means that any teacher with dedication, imagination and the courage to try new things can do very, very well here.  However, it also means that (even the great) students have little experience constructing an argument, using books to find evidence, or learning to be critical of what they read and hear.   It is a difficult task, but UIC is trying to bring liberal arts electives and independent undergrad research to students from a very traditional environment.

Students, professors and guests gather around student research posters.  It's a lot like Gustavus' Celebration of Student Inquiry, except that UIC students are all dressed in expensive suits and dresses for the occasion.
Students, professors and guests gather around student research posters at an annual student research event. It’s a lot like Gustavus’ Celebration of Student Inquiry, except that UIC students are all dressed in expensive suits and dresses for the occasion.  Many of these students have more money than my colleagues back in Minnesota…

 

But of course for some students the rote exams also breed an outlook that education is a chore to be overcome, and the professor as someone who needs to be placated just long enough for the students to move on and get a job.  Which brings me to…

Personal responsibility and Overcommitment

In China, there seems to be a different sense of what a student is responsible for in their own education.  Handouts are not read, basic instructions not followed.  Complete surprise that there is an exam next week, or at all.  Not bothering to track their own grades.  Six weeks into the semester, a student said that they could not access the university-wide software (Moodle) which contained all of the readings and handouts for the semester.  Routinely showing up 20 minutes late for class, openly texting/sleeping/talking, even while the professor speaks. Outrage that I would give a student a 0 on their paper (20% of their class grade) simply because they forgot to turn it in until a week later.  Grade appeals (delivered in tears in the office, or formally in business letter format) that argue that their performance suffered only because the subject is so boring, but since they really, really need to graduate, they really do deserve a passing grade.

HOWEVER, bear in mind that the normal load for students here is 7-9 classes each semester (twice what is required at Gustavus).  Most of the classes have at least 1 large term paper, and those without extra writing have most of their points invested in just a few examinations.  So some of my students’ disorganization is due to exhaustion, plain and simple.  Another factor is that my college students may have simply never been asked to write an argumentative essay, or give a persuasive speech.   It can be like teaching college senior brains with grade 8 English skills.

The UIC business majors run several small stands, such as Coffee Moment, just down the hall from my office.  They are kind, sincere, and friendly.  The coffee is terrible.  Did I mention that they are kind?
In addition to taking 8 classes each semester, every student is in a club or activity.  UIC business majors run several small stands, such as Coffee Moment, just down the hall from my office. They are kind, sincere, and friendly. The coffee is terrible.  But did I mention that they are kind?

 

I also must say that at UIC, like at every institution, there are some students that simply are wonderful people.  I regret not having had more time to know them.

 

Collectivism

China is very big on the collective – people exercise in groups, dance in public in groups, eat in large groups.  That extends to the classroom.  Students greatly desire collective work, in which the most knowledgeable person does all of the work, and other students copy their results.  A naive American simply yells “Cheater!” at this behavior.  But this both makes sense and is traditional.  Why wouldn’t you do this?  Isn’t this what companies routinely do, by having their best salespeople or engineers do work, and then the entire company benefits?  Cheating is not a moral issue here: a student who does not copy down answers from a better student, or from a published author, simply has failed to do their best to report the correct answer.  So in my classroom, I never talked about cheating – I told them that they ALL needed to improve to make their groups better.  I wonder if they bought that line or not.

One of the "student village" paths, about a 15 minute walk from my office.  The UIC library is here, next to the dormitories, instead of near the classrooms.  Also there are restaurants, a cafeteria, shops, and bookstores.
One of the “student village” paths, about a 15 minute walk from my office. The UIC library is here, next to the dormitories, instead of near the classrooms. Also there are restaurants, a cafeteria, shops, and bookstores.

 

Like any college campus, there are student charity organizations, student sports exhibitions, and in this case, a student Dubbing contest.
Like any college campus, there are student charity organizations, student sports exhibitions, and in this case, a student Dubbing contest.

 

Just when you think, "Hey, UIC is not that different from Gustavus...", you find the student HQ for the Communist Party.
And just when you think, “Hey, UIC is not that different from other liberal arts colleges…”, you find the HQ for the Student Communist Party.

 

Post-script:  Jiang Xueqin

If you are interested in student education and learning in China, I recommend Sinica’s thought-provoking interview with Jiang Xueqin, author of Creative China, and education-reform advocate for China.  Sinica is the Beijing-based Chinese language and culture podcast “Popup Chinese.”  Check out the 7/11/14 episode on Education in China.