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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.