Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hang 'Em High. But Not Too High. Just a Little High, Really. Or Not High at All.

It’s Friday morning, and we have a specialist in first-year experience on campus for a “sharing session.”  We hear from the vice-president for academic affairs, from the student affairs office, from someone who explains the new advising system. 

Then our guest approaches the microphone.  She’s from South Carolina, this woman, and speaks with a gentle accent I haven’t heard for nearly 10 months.  She begins by talking about how she’s visited all 8 Hong Kong Universities, talking to the administrators there, the students, the faculty.   As far as she’s concerned, she says, my host institution has perhaps the best thought-out approach to the first-year experience of any of the schools she’s been to.  This is important:  research has shown repeatedly that success in the first year of a students’ university experience will translate in success throughout their academic careers. 

Then our guest pauses.  She’s a gentle woman, a kind woman, and she makes her next statement in the gentlest, most kind way possible:  “One thing I have noticed,” she says, “is that there’s a tendency in Hong Kong to control things very carefully.  Everyone seems a little afraid to hand responsibility over to the students.”

The room bursts into laughter.  The speaker smiles saying something about “Just a cultural difference, I guess.”  There’s more laughter, then she goes on, making a few more key points.   What could have been an awkward moment passes, and everyone gets back to work.

Except that when the Q&A portion of the conversation occurs, this matter of “control” vs. “responsibility” comes up again.  And again.  And again.  One audience member worries that, if what the speaker says is true, then all of the wonderful diagrams and schema of the administrators will be for naught.  Another muses about Confucianism while a third suggests that, though the plans described may actually look quite top down and controlling, relative to the old model, they actually create a great deal more flexibility for the students.

Clearly the speaker has hit a nerve.  And she knows it.  Eventually she looks at me, half-asleep in my 14th row seat (I hadn’t slept well, having eaten a 16 oz. bar of Toblerone Dark the night before, loaded, I’m sure with caffeine) and asks me what I think, having been in the country for so much longer. 

I sit up in my seat, all eyes suddenly turned in my direction.  I open my mouth, shut it again.  Feel the sweat begin to bead on my forehead. 

“Ummm . . . “


She’s absolutely right. 

I’m sorry.  I know I need to find a better way to say that.  I know I need to be more culturally sensitive.  I know every country has its unique challenges, its unique ways of approaching learning, its unique student population.  I know, I know, I know. 

But she’s right. 

I’ve been to meetings where an entire room full of senior management on campus, folks who are vice-dean of X and assistant provost of Y, who get paid lots of money and wear custom-made suits and get invited to be the key-note speakers at conferences in really horrible places like Paris and Toronto, and London—I’ve been to meetings where folks like this have spent the entire morning plotting out the logistics of a student’s academic journey through college:  at what point they should be allowed to declare a minor, whether or not they should be allowed to take courses in their majors during their first years. 

And I’ve been to more than one language center where the English tutors see “self-guided learning” programs as an essential step in student development, and where their peers in Chinese also argue for autonomy on the part of the students—then struggle mightily to let the students move forward on their own.

The reasons for this are manifold and undoubtedly complex—dissertation complex, I’m guessing, and not the sort of dissertation that can be written while sipping white wine and checking face book every six minutes because the blog is getting boring.  Culture works that way (complex, not boring).  And undoubtedly, my experiences here—as intense as they are, as academically and administratively intimate as they are—limit my ability to plumb the depths of these complexities. 

But what the hell:  it’s my blog, and I get to do what I want.

I feel confident in pointing to a couple factors that likely play a part in this dynamic.  First and foremost is the testing culture that dominates Hong Kong (not to mention Chinese) secondary education:  only 18% of university-aged kids in HK are eligible for a government-supported Hong Kong university education.  Exactly which 14,500 receive this honor is determined by a series of exams similar to the British A Levels.

One result of this system is universities filled with students who are very good at taking tests—and who, unfortunately, see education as an information-delivery process, wherein the instructor’s job is to provide factoids for the student to memorize, act on it in the appropriate ways—in an essay or during an exam—and receive a good grade. 

Of course, it’s the role of the instructor to make decisions about how  education finally works in their classroom.  Nonetheless the pressure they receive from their students to conform to this delivery model of education is immense.  Even instructors who know beyond the shadow of a doubt that active learning is essential to deep learning find themselves lecturing week after week, wary of the impact alternative pedagogies may have on their teaching evaluations.  As one full professor at the number two university in Hong Kong put it recently:  “Students say, ‘If I don’t get a good grade, it’s your fault!’”


So that’s a nasty explanation for what’s going on.  Here’s a nicer one, albeit from the Piglet version of Confucianism:  Harmony.

According to a colleague at another university who specializes in preparing dipstick Western faculty like me to work with Chinese students, Confucian Heritage Culture calls for three levels of harmony:  individual harmony or balance in all things; social harmony, or harmony between people; and structural harmony, or harmony through hierarchy. 

At least two of these might cause an overly prescriptive approach to student learning.  Structural harmony, in that it implies a top-down approach to life (the boss knows what is right and what is wrong:  your job is to follow the boss) can easily evolve from “All decisions made at the top must be followed,” to “All decisions are made at the top.”  (Particularly, it should be added, if those at the top like making decisions.)  This is, in other words, just another way of saying that it’s the job of the teacher to know and deliver, and the job of the student to receive and memorize—or of the administration to plot a path for student learning, and for students to follow that path.

The second form of harmony—social harmony—may also be responsible for an overly-protective approach to the risk involved in education.  At the risk of generalizing, I’d like to say that folks in Hong Kong tend to take very seriously their responsibility toward one another, particularly toward those they are close to.  We have neighbors, for instance, who spend their entire weekend with extended family. 

But of course, we do that in the States, too, don’t we? 

So let me explain another way: 

After our first-year experience guest finished her talk, I approached her to apologize for having dropped the ball when she asked me about my experiences—instead of telling the truth as I saw it through my experiences, I’d hemmed and hawed and muttered something about baby rabbits and kids going coo-coo for Cocoa-Puffs.  She was chatting with the head of the first-year advising committee and the Vice-President for academic affairs when I approached, and all three of them turned to include me in the conversation.  The head of advising was still clearly musing this new concept—that perhaps they needed to allow students even more room to learn on their own—when I, ever the culturally sensitive one, pitched in with:

“It’s like that old saying:  give your students enough rope to either pull themselves up, or hang themselves.  It’s their choice.”

Stuart, our guest, laughed, as did the Vice President who was by now well-familiar with my sense of “humor.”

But the head of the advising subcommittee?  He looked truly appalled.  What kind of a man, his expression seemed to say, would be so cavalier about the lives of his students? 

Well, me, for one.  And every other American professor I know. 

One of my mentors and faculty role models was a woman named Bobbye who was the one-time chair of my department and the person who hired me and pretty much everyone else in my department.  She tells the story of a student coming into her office and apologizing for turning in a paper late.

“I’m really sorry,” the student said.  “My roommate got in trouble and had to go to the hospital.  I didn’t want her to be alone, so I went with her and ended up staying all night.  I didn’t get home until almost 4.”

“Sandy,” my colleague Bobbye said.  “You’re a very good friend.”

The student blushed.  “Thank you.”

“But,” Bobbye continued, “you’re a lousy student.”  And then she gave Sandy an ‘F’ on the paper.

I hate to generalize, but having already done it for 1,568 words I have to admit I don’t  really see any reason why I shouldn’t keep doing it, so here goes:

In the States, generally speaking, we feel that one of our responsibilities as instructors is to let our students fail.  And I mean “fail” not just in terms of receiving the well-deserved “F” for a particularly moronic essay, but fail in larger ways as well:  make stupid decisions that have negative and often lasting effects on your life. 

Case in point:  when I first came to my home institution, “advising” meant meeting with students and helping them determine their classes, yes, but it also meant entering student choices into the computer and dealing with the various complications that can occur when 2,000 students are registering simultaneously:  full courses, conflicting times, computer error.  On a good day, I could enter maybe 20 students in half an hour.  On a bad day, I’d be stuck on one student for 45 minutes. 

In recent years, though, we’ve switched to a student-centered registration system where they enter their own courses, their first choices, their back-ups, their preferred times.  If things go wrong, they’re expected to deal with it.  They’re not in high school anymore after all.

That this can sometimes have very negative consequences—“What do you mean you’re a second semester senior and you’ve never taken the prerequisite for the capstone?”—is beside the point.  Or more accurately, it’s exactly the point.  Being a big kid means making big decisions and paying the price for a failure to execute effectively.

Implicit in all of this is the recognition that we’re preparing people for the work world, and in the work world there’s not much patience for people who need to have their hands held.  Bosses (or good bosses, at least) don’t to micro-guide everyone under them:  they want folks who can assess a situation, figure out a solution, implement that solution, assess the results, and respond accordingly. 

That’s life.  That’s what it’s like to be a grown-up. 

Of course, also implicit within this is the belief that failure is actually a valuable learning tool.  And indeed it is.   

Consider two scenarios:

1)  You’re reading the manual for your laptop computer.  It tells you that, under no circumstances should you ever remove the battery from your laptop while it is running. 

2)   You’re working on your computer when it jams up.  You try to restart it, with no success.  You try to turn it off, with no success.  So you flip it over and remove the battery.  You wait a few minutes, put the battery back in, and push the on button.  And nothing happens.  

So now, pop quiz:  which will you remember more?  When we fail we feel anger, shame, embarrassment, confusion—all emotions that engage our senses.  And the more our bodies and senses are brought into learning, the more neural networks fire in our brain and the more easily we can then access that information.  Sure, we also feel emotions when we succeed, but I’d argue that most college-age students are more familiar with casual success than they are with failure.  Failure is less common, creating a more extreme emotional response—and as such, we can recall it more easily. 


All of which has a lot to do with . . . um . . . whatever the hell it was I was talking about . . .

Oh yeah:  making decisions for students, vs. allowing them to make their own, often very stupid, often very consequential decisions. 

In America we do this.

In Hong Kong . . . well, they want to, really they do.  Seriously.  They do.  I’m not making this up, or being sarcastic, or condescending:  I’m stating a fact.  Hong Kong administrators and faculty want what is best for their students. 

But letting them fail?  Letting them make mistakes that might have been avoided had the advisor/instructor/administrator simply lifted a finger, given a shake of the head, frowned? 

That’s really very contrary to the Hong Kong sensibility.



Now because this might sound to people like I’m ripping on Hong Kong, let me say something else:

I’ve never felt safer in my life than I have living in Hong Kong.

Just the other day, I was thinking about our imminent return to Virginia and all that will entail:  unpacking the house, settling into a routine, eating crappy seafood, and going back to our lousy hour-long highway commutes again. 

And thinking about the commute, I had this vision of myself, in my car, on a hot August afternoon, passing a pickup truck on I-81.  On the bumper of the pick-up truck, there would be some asinine bumper sticker—“Nobama,” har har, as if that somehow explains why someone would vote for a party that invaded two countries, let 9-11 happen, and stood there playing pocket pool while the economy collapsed.

So any how, on the back of the pickup is some dumb-ass bumper sticker.  And in the back window of the pickup track is a gun rack. 

And in my head, on my imaginary trip, I knew that as I passed this truck I would be very careful to keep my eyes straight forward.  Because in Virginia, unlike in Hong Kong, there are people who are just looking for a reason to scream at someone or hit someone or shoot someone in the back of the head.  And if you don’t believe me, listen to some of the Tea Bagger rhetoric going on these days, or pretty much anything that loser Ted Nugent says.  I’m dead serious.  And writing this, with some of the folks out there, someday I might just be dead.  (Especially the bit about Ted Nugent.  Because let’s face it pal:  there are only so many county fairs a long-haired has-been can play before someone finally points out the obvious:  he has no talent. )

All of this is in contrast to Hong Kong, where I’ve never once, in 9 months, seen a fight.  Never once have I seen anyone shove or hit or even jostle anyone.  And this isn’t because, as is the case in Singapore, the laws here are so strict, so swift, so punitive that people are cowed into submission. 

No, it’s because people in Hong Kong care.  Which is good.  Great even.  As a social policy. 

Now the trick is to figure out how all of this should translate into the academy. 


Chris said...

I never made the connection between the dis-allowance of failure and the safety around here, but you make a good argument for it.

I have to catch myself barreling forward and saying "you're doing it wrong!" I don't put it quite that way, but it amounts to the same thing. I have to stop myself because it's rude and culturally insensitive, but, as you point out, there are connections between and among the positives and negatives of HK culture. Tug at one of those, and there's no guessing what unravels.

Duncan said...

I think you might need to listen to "My Love is Like a Tire Iron" again.

Eric K. said...

Very thoughtful, but I wonder about this whole notion of letting people fail in the U.S.

You seem to arguing for the traditional American notion of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But (and I'm a registered independent, for the record) I wonder how many in academe would champion that approach in other contexts, welfare reform, for example.

Even within the academic context, would a little more control over students' choices improve the nation's completion rate? Or at least prevent so many students from racking up tens of thousands of dollars before they drop out?

Perhaps, a little balance in both countries would better serve students..(lame conclusion, I know!)

Phil said...

I suspect a mighty fine website could be created just for Bobbye Au-necdotes. I even titled it for you.