Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Living in a CHC, Prt. I

Allow me to begin with two vignettes:

I.  I’m at a local university, doing a workshop on how to engage students in large lecture classes (100 or more).  I analyze the problems associated with large classes (but arguably, all classes):  habituation, a lack of student preparedness, and a lack of deep learning.  I offer three solutions:  one very simple, one more complicated, and the other something that can reshape the entire course.  We’re in the question/answer portion of the afternoon, when one very agreeable participant, someone who took careful notes and nodded vigorously throughout the workshop, raised her hand and said, “But what about the 2Bs?”

   I stared at her blankly. 

   “The 2Bs?” she said again, more slowly, as though talking to a child who’d been born with out a frontal lobe.  Or a rear lobe.  And no middle whatsoever.

   Brilliant scholar that I am, I said, “The huh?”

   One of her colleagues explained:  “The guidelines that direct the course.  Everyone who teaches a particular course has to abide by the same guidelines.”


II.  I’m up at the crack of 11, and strolling to my office when I hear a Thump, Thump, Thump, Thump, dada-dada-dada-dada Thump Thump Thump.  Coming around the corner of the library, I glance down into the plaza at the center of campus.  There, in the center of the square, are 16 students in black jeans, bright pink high tops, and orange and black plaid flannel shirts, dancing in sync to a hip-hop soundtrack.  You’ve never seen Chinese kids move like this before:  hips are swaying, pelvises thrusting.  But it’s elegant as well, the twist and flow of the bodies, figures rising and falling in orange and black waves as the music grinds and colors cross and swirl.  I watch for ten minutes, then scurry away, late to a meeting that I actually called.


 So what do these things have in common, besides one slightly soft-in-the-middle white guy? 

They are both, I’d argue, the product of living in a CHC:  Confucian Heritage Culture. 

Now I’ve already written about this before, but as many of you spent way too much time during the eighties pretending it was the, ahem, sixties (you know what I’m talking about), allow me to recap:

Confucianism in a nutshell seeks harmony in all things.  In practical, day-to-day terms what this means is harmony of the self (I’m fine with the fact that I’m pale and bald; really I am), harmony with others (I’m fine with the fact that you’re not also pale and bald; really I am), and harmony within structure (I’m your boss; therefore if I tell you that you need to gain some weight, stop going to tanning booths, and lose your hair so that you too are fat, pale, and bald, you and I both know you’ll do it).

Needless to say, Confucius probably didn’t have these particular examples in mind, but then, for all his inner and outer harmony, Confucius just wasn’t as funny as I am.

And all of this has what to do with 2Bs and orange and black-clad gyrating 20-year olds? 


Consider, for instance, the ways in which the 2Bs relate to CHC.  On the one hand, they are clearly the product of intense structural harmony:  after all, something like the 2B is a set of guidelines handed down to the faculty by the administration—or at the very least a subcommittee of a large committee of men in gray suits appointed by the assistant to the associate vice-provost of curricular affairs and burnt toast.  As such, disobeying the 2B is akin to treason, and could lead to execution.  Okay, so not really, but god, don’t you just wish academics worked that way? 

On the other hand, the 2B was likely put in place in an attempt to ensure social harmony.  Essentially what a document like this does is guarantee that two sections of the same course taught by two different instructors will apply more or less the same standards of fairness.   As a result, Billy in Bio 101 A with Professor Burnstudents won’t have to write 17 papers and get nothing but a lousy C+, while Louisa in Bio 101 B Professor Weedhugger spends all semester smoking pot and doing Jell-O shots while playing Wii, and taking multiple choice tests with questions like:  “Beavers are:  A) rodent-like creatures that cut down trees and make dams; B) really poor dinner companions; C)  a good source of protein; or D) slang for my buck-toothed in-laws.  Consequently, Louisa skips away (or stumbles, because let’s face it:  Louisa has a—ahem—problem) with an A and a great recipe for cannabis brownies Professor Weedhugger mistakenly attached to the final exam.  Which just isn’t fair to poor Billy, who also enjoys the occasional brownie.

Which, of course, is how things generally operate in the States (I’m talking about the lack of course consistency here, folks, not the recipe; try and keep up, will you?).  For while there certainly exist schools and programs where the desire for continuity and fairness lead to strict guidelines that cannot be violate—at most institutions I’ve been at, the assumption is that we’re all professionals and we all know our strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and we’re capable of designing courses that utilize the latter, to the benefit of the students.

This isn’t to say that I necessarily favor the American system over the Hong Kong one, although certainly my last sentence sounds biased as all get-out.  On the contrary, I like the idea of continuity and fairness.  Who doesn’t?  What Westerners in the Hong Kong system may find frustrating, though, is the way that “guidelines” often calcify into “rules.” 

Let me explain:  immediately after the conversation in vignette #1, the director of the university center for learning and teaching—a wonderful woman, who clearly knows her stuff—turned to the professor who’d raised the issue of the 2Bs and said, “The thing is, those guidelines were never designed to inhibit good teaching.”

And that, alas, is the rub.  What to do when good rules go bad? 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem uncommon in Hong Kong.  One university I’ve visited has a rule that says that 1-credit courses must require 1,000 words worth of writing, 2-credit courses 2,000 words, and 3-credit courses 3,000.  This seems peculiar to me.  What if a course—say, in mathematics—doesn’t really need that much writing?  Or, more to the point for this particular writing instructor and composition and rhetoric enthusiast, what if a course needs more than that?  What if, for instance, you have a lot of students who are second language, and therefore require lots and lots of informal practice writing—say,  single-space, typewritten reading response every day-before they do their formal paper?  The informal writing will help these students get more comfortable with language and writing and help them generate lots of ideas (and get lots of feedback) before they have to do their big, hugely weighed, graded paper.  But one single-space page is 500 words.  So by day six?  Class over.

Another time, I was at a meeting and heard one professor explain to another professor that when she’d arrived at their university some years back, she’d been told not to return graded papers to their students before the students had completed the course evaluations.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “Are you saying that students never get any feedback from you during the semester?”

This professor, who was obviously a little shocked to have this large white man nearly leap over the table at her, nodded as best she could, what with her back being up against a wall.

“So people only assign one paper?”

Again, a nod. 

I turned off my spotlight, and took her out of the handcuffs.  Then I asked:  “And this is official policy?”

“Um,” she said, glancing nervously at her colleague.  “Not really.  No.  Sort of.   Yes.”

Follow that?  I have a friend at one of the HK universities who tells the story of how bicycling was banned on campus.  Everyone knew it:  the administrators, the faculty, the students, the campus cops.  Then one day a colleague of my friend was late androde his bike onto campus and straight to the building where his class was about to meet.  Of course the campus police accosted him almost immediately, nightsticks drawn, pistols cocked.

“You want me?” he snarled, chambering a round in his Glock.  “Come and get me, you dirty rats.”

Okay, so not really.  But they did break one of his legs by clocking him with their nightsticks.

Okay, so not really.  But they did . . . um . . . tell him it was against school policy to ride bikes on campus.  And then they shoved a walnut muffin in his hand and told him to . . . oh never mind. 

But he did say this:  “Oh really?  Show me the policy.”

“Excuse me?” said the cops.

“The policy.  I want to see it.”

So the cops went to their superior, who went to his superior, who told his secretary to search through the books and find the policy.  Which she did.  Except for that last part, about finding the policy. 

Because there wasn’t one.


In “Rigid Rule, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language,” the incomparable Mike Rose cites a bunch of people I never heard of to make the point that there are two kinds of rules:  algorithms and heuristics.  Algorithms, Rose tells us, are “precise rules that will always result in a specific answer if applied to an appropriate situation.”  How sexy is that?  Seriously, most mathematical rules are algorithmic in nature. 

In contrast, heuristics are fairly general “rules of thumb” that we use to operate in daily life—guidelines that have some give to them, allowing flexibility when necessary.  Though they lack the precision of algorithms, they are often less frustrating because they never lead us to square-peg-in-round-hole situations, where we’re trying to apply a strategy to a situation it just doesn’t fit. 

Rose, who’s discussing student writers, then goes on to make the point that often the students who are most frustrated when writing (he calls them “blockers”) are strong believers in algorithms, while those who take a more heuristic approach are often more satisfied with their writing process. 

Rose also points out—and if you’re skimming through this (fair enough, given that I never actually visit your blog) here’s the money shot—Rose also points out that many of the algorithms the “blocked” students are applying might actually have begun as heuristics.  In other words, somewhere in this student’s past, some well-meaning teacher might have said, “Sometimes it helps to begin your paper with a joke, just to get the audience’s attention.”  And from then on the student tacks a joke onto every paper she ever writes, regardless if the essay is about Robin Williams, abortion, her grandmother’s funeral, or some bizarre combination of the three (Note to Robin:  stay away from my grandmother.  And please don’t sue me). 

My point:  sometimes I think what happens at institutions of all sorts is that heuristics come to be seen as algorithms.  What was a more-or-less loose set of guidelines becomes set in concrete, and damn the man or woman or semi-potty trained ape who chooses to ignore it. 

Certainly, this happens in the States—as evidenced by Rose’s blockers and every postal worker I’ve ever met.  But my hypothesis here—after a whole 2.5 months in-country, mind you—is that it happens more in a CHC place like Hong Kong, because of that third component:  structural harmony.  No one wants to be out of step with expectations; to be out of step with expectations is to break with harmony, to turn your back on community.  And who wants that?  

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