January 17, 2018


Chinese teachers are investigating tutorials too

January 17, 2018

  They even had guest speakers from “Oxford”.

  And no one told me.

  But maybe that explains why the foreign affairs section chief was so quick to turn my mention of the word tutorials into the suggestion of a research project. Note that then, as probably now, researching tutorials as a teaching method seems to me the dopiest way forward an administration could invent, but I do wonder a little. See, tutorials are a methodology – you use them or you don’t. They’re not that hard to understand and what is there even to research anyway. Throwing up “research project” as the way these things get implemented is pretty much just an admission that you don’t know what these things are.

  But okay, yesterday on the way to lunch I ran into Coco. She’s been here as long as I have, first as a student and now as staff. She teaches English. She’s outgoing, plain spoken and programmatic. She’s interested in other people and takes it for granted that they are indecisive and wishy-washy. So she always has good natured criticism for me when we speak. But it’s easy to speak to her. She’s Chinese but we “speak the same language”, as it were. About halfway through our debrief on the state of my life here I mentioned “tutorial” and she knew what they were and started in on why and how my complaints weren’t enough to slow the progress of these things. That’s to say, she pointed out that there were teachers like her who were interested in this idea and had been trying it in classes. Their biggest problem was (they don’t really know what tutorials are and would like some advice and) there are so many students in any given class that discussion methods don’t work much like the teachers would like.

  Long story short, she was all up on the idea of some research project and even the possibility of funding from the school and opening an office. And based on her own experiences, what she wanted was data. First, some info on how to do tutorials, and then some hard facts about student competency before and after. There’d be other teachers involved too. We could all get together sometime and start a working group.

  So (a) mind blown…

  Then (b) I start thinking, man, what an opportunity this could be… if I weren’t leaving. If I had the five to ten years this project and other like it would take to bring these ideas into some kind of common practice. If I could navigate the intricacies of both ruining everyone else’s familiar practice and at the same time running the gauntlet of all the new ideological controls coming into existence now.

  Groundswell of opinion, man. The tide of change. Is it not rising? Is this functional development in the tertiary education of China not about to arrive? So now is when I should skip out?

  Objectively, no one’s going to pay me for this. Whatever contribution I make to this development will be met with a thanks man now you can go back to your country. And not even that much of a thanks man either. I won’t get promotion. I might gain in status, but that won’t buy me lunch.

  What would I say anyway?

  I sent Coco some of the materials I had used this past semester to create my own tutorial teaching proposal, in particular the Understanding the Learning Process (PDF) document from the Oxford Learning Center (which, come to think of it, might have been the people she’s already visited with…)

  But how to make it simple?

  What if I said this:

  The key difference between lectures and tutorials lies in what the students are supposed to gain: in lectures they gain knowledge; in tutorials they are supposed to gain skills. If there were a functioning tutorial system then we could expect students to be independent learners in their own right and lectures would be reserved for mostly new information not found in given textbooks, the products of research, and so on. In tutorials the students would work over the basics they’d read for themselves and take a stab at the more sophisticated material introduced when their professors lectured. In the presence of knowledge and exemplars, they would in time become as the academics are. And that’s tertiary education. In middle and high school you can get force fed the fruits of modern civilization, but in university you become the one who grows the fruit.

  Or so it was in the ideal world when high school, not university, was your preparation for a functioning adult life of work.

  But pffft, let’s move on.

  Lectures are easy to understand as a pedagogical tool. The teacher speaks wise words, students attend and take note. For high school, the wise words are of arcana developed and recorded by others. For university, the wise words are of novel developments the speaker herself has had a part in creating. Communication is in principal one way, and essentially that of speaker and listener. Perhaps I exaggerate, but who gives a fuck, eh? We all know when we’re being lectured at and we all know how little of it we need to take in really.

  Tutorials then.

  In a tutorial, a teacher models the required outcome. Whatever the students are supposed to learn, the teacher is present to be an example and to encourage rehearsal. Some preparation task was set before class and during class the students recount or display their preparation. These presentations are meant to be met by the class in whatever terms have been expected, modelled, and supported by the teacher. The students gain in skill.

  For knowledge based subjects, typically the teacher is going to want discussion. The students will be expected to gain in oral presentation skill and in the holy grail, critical thinking skills.

  What about subjects that are already about skills? For instance, language class. Is there a place for tutorials based teaching in foreign language class? Sure, yes. The teachers would have to spell out what skills they’re expecting the students to gain though. And that is probably the most interesting part of this discussion in China: what skills do the teachers what to teach for real? If they knew, they’d be able to create tutorial lessons and…. oh snap. That’s maybe a research project right there. Maybe that’s what everyone’s going on about when they say tutorials require research. They want to decide what skills they’re really going to teach in the end.

  lol, Bloom’s Taxonomy with Chinese characteristics, here we come.

January 16, 2018

Other Guy

January 16, 2018

  Other Guy has a family, he owns a car, he has work outside of teaching. His self-improvement is distance learning and when he’s done he’ll be qualified and experienced in management for real. He and I couldn’t be more different. We hardly ever speak, in fact. He does his thing, I do mine, we meet about once a semester to discuss directions for the business teaching program with the dean. Without him I don’t know that the business teaching program would even exist.

  Back in 2010 I was still in Sydney. Other Guy was here. When I’d gotten this idea for teaching business subjects in China, I’d contacted another guy I knew here. At the time, given the way I’d left in 2009, I felt like I couldn’t just shoot off an email to the foreign affairs office and say, yo, I have an idea. They would have ignored it. So I shot off an email to this first guy to see if he wanted in. It was a long shot with that first guy but I needed a contact, and as it turned out he said I should talk to Other Guy because Other Guy was getting management qualifications as we typed.

  Other Guy became point man here. The whole thing about teaching business subjects at this school in particular was aside from having a history with this place, I also knew the students. In 2001 when I first arrived, they were all Hunan people. By 2006 when I turned up again the cohort had expanded but even by 2009 the students were still basically your average Chinese semi-advantaged young person. They were getting a tertiary education (of sorts) but they wouldn’t be leaving China any time soon. So there was my selling point: I bring to China the education that richer Chinese were going abroad to get. And while I worked on the formal proposal, Other Guy was here networking. More exactly, he was getting the foreign affairs office primed for my return. Fairly promptly after contacting Other Guy and finding him relatively enthusiastic about the idea, I’d sent email to the Foreign Affairs Section Chief, but Other Guy was there to back up the thoughts and assure people the idea was a good’un.

  At least I think that’s what he did. As I say, we don’t talk much. He has his own approach to the material and uses the textbook in a different way. He takes attendance. He’s big on research projects. The students are supposed to investigate businesses in their own area and give reports in class. They get scores based on how well they incorporate the business ideas he’s lectured on. I think he uses more from his own studies than from the textbook. He thinks I probably ask too much of the students when I try having them discuss textbook case studies. I have my moments where I think maybe the student respect him more than me.

  He’s thought about leaving a few times too. Some years back he was actively looking for positions in Australia. He’s probably had a lot more feelers out than I know about too. Matter of fact, when I said this last semester that I was quitting he said, wow, I was just speaking to [the foreign affairs office section chief] about leaving too. It looked for a while like we would be quitting at the same time. Aside from missing his family, he was pretty angry about the abrupt housing change too.

  (The school built a new set of residences literally right next door to the old residences and said move. They sent large sums of money to each teacher’s bank account and said that’s you’re budget for “decoration”. Which is to say, the school said to us all those houses you have lived in for years are no longer yours, you will be moving to a new place, and you’ll have to furnish and outfit it too. And everyone agreed! I didn’t, of course. I still live in the same place I’ve lived in for the last seven years. But everyone else just… agreed. And moved. I didn’t move because even though the place I live in now is old and broken down, it’s still better than the new apartment and holy crap is that a story for another time….)

  He’ll stay on though, at least a while longer. In theory he’s on the verge of enough time served that he qualifies for the promised retirement benefits supposedly being promised for long serving foreign staff. (It won’t happen, but it is a nice dream the foreign affairs section chief keeps trotting out.) More importantly, he needs a place to be for the next year or so while he finishes his studies. When they’re done, he be so over-qualified for this place, and have so little reason to stay, he’ll leave too.

January 15, 2018

What’s my goal here?

January 15, 2018

  Jumping ship is hard. I’ve threatened to do it before. Even lined up other jobs.

  So you’ve wanted to leave all along?

  It comes and goes. The first serious time was when the various organizers of my time messed up so badly I wasn’t going to have any classes at all. And duh, that would have meant no job. So I went looking for choices then. I saved myself by offering a different kind of class, which wasn’t taken up immediately but which came to be important later in the creation of the business studies program mark 2, which I call mark 2 but which was really the actual program built out of the several abortive, “aren’t you really an English teacher” variations of the several years before. The actual direct attempt to leave fell through because the main employer I applied to didn’t like my resume for her needs.

  The second serious time for leaving was a money thing. Pressure to leave had been developing in theoretical terms. I was feeling a low grade dismay at how dull my work was in general and that was fueling the outline of a plan, an abstract imperative at best, that I should be seeking better. I should be looking for more money, better conditions, something more professional. So yeah, as vague as that. But I ended up with a phone interview for another job in another place. I would have been a subject teacher at an “international” high school. That one fell through because the employer freaked me out. I was on the phone for about an hour hearing all her describe her operation. There was fairly clearly room there for someone to come and be a teacher but no real place there for me, if you know what I mean. Whatever was going on at that school, I could have done it too, but it would have been hateful. Which I suppose is a weird thing to say but you gotta go with your gut, right? I did anyway. After the interview I begged off, saying to a contact that I thought there was no place for me there.

  These last two years though.

  Year after year here I keep trying to improve conditions, both for work and for living. When I have some concrete proposal, that’s what I produce. Most other times my attempts at improving conditions come out as complaint. Endless complaining. In part that’s because I don’t give up. In part the endlessness of the complaint comes from how little is done to address whatever I’m complaining about: the time a garbage collection point for the whole campus was created literally next door to my residential building; the years over which stray dogs have roamed the campus; the motherfucker downstairs who plays piano at midnight. And the more abstract developmental complaints, like how foreign staff have little to no relationship with their deans and their departments, how their deans and departments are meant to provide the school with assessments of foreign teacher work and yet how the foreign teachers are almost never included in curriculum design, syllabus choices, anything even except going to class to teach whatever man. How there is no development path for my career here, no promotion, no involvement, no freaking reward for excellence in work because there is no academic standard by which my work is judged.

  I get tired of being the complainer.

  I can’t really give up though because my work is so boring without it. If there is no development path for me, then I make one for myself, right?

  Caveat: my work day to day is not boring – classes are great, mostly, and the students interesting – but my work year to year is stale, it needs reinvigoration and development every time, and when I have needed to be developing only myself, that’s worked out fine because I can make my choices, get my books, do my classes…. What pushes this little molehill of a kingdom back into the hole I dug it from is when I want to change something other than myself.

  The two aspects – living and working – are where I want to fix shit up. I want better living conditions, both now and later. That’s to say, I want a pleasant enough place to live now while waiting for the work to get better, and for that work I want money enough now to pay for when I’m old. I also want that work to get better. I want it to be less boring. I want it to become properly functional. I want, in short, to teach.

  Thing is, one out of two wouldn’t be too bad. If I could live as I required while waiting for the school to become less antiquated in what it requires, that could be okay. If the living conditions continued to be fraught with neighbours, construction, insecurity – if no one could suddenly tell me to move out and if no one could turn up next door to choke himself daily and yell at his wife – if I could trust any of this to last longer than a semester, then I could stay. I have done, after all. Seven freaking years this time. Living with the threat of whatever this current society’s inadequate understanding of health in life would change for me next. And it’s always been something, you know? What truly gets me is how there is always some new fuck up. Some new stupid decision that takes away any progress I have made at making the place nice (and functional) for myself (and the people I work for).

  I’m summarizing, obviously. Which isn’t as compelling as telling the actual stories, but I’ll get to that. Meanwhile, what’s my goal here? To get out.

January 14, 2018

Still can’t speak Chinese

January 14, 2018

  Which is embarrassing. If there was a skill to come to China and learn, that’s the obvious one. I suppose it speaks to my sociability that it’s been about fifteen years now and, well crap, I still speak only English.

  I used to practice. I had mp3s I’d put on my phone and go walking with. Started with the Pimsleur, obvs, and exhausted that pretty quickly. Moved on to FSI Mandarin. Went through most of that. Hated sitting at the computer doing the textbook stuff though. Mostly just did the listen and repeat while walking.

  Didn’t practice with people. I did learn fast enough the names for dishes. Hunan was a relatively soft landing place as far as food goes inasmuch as they still had the point and shoot restaurant culture. Back then there were hole-in-the-wall restaurants everywhere and they’d display their ingredients on trestle tables. You point. Make combinations until someone looks doubtful. Then say cook it with meat. Chao rou.. But eventually you pick up the names for the good stuff, and these days I have a mental selection of any number of good dishes available to say, and more importantly be understood saying. And that’s about as much speaking with people as I have done.

  I can and do shop for myself. Window shopping is out, but if I know I’ll be buying a certain thing, I can look up the name, print out the expression, and usually a suitable example picture of some kind too.

  I can communicate in basic form with the building super. He carries water up the stairs, gossips a bit, and fixes (more or less) whatever goes wrong.

  I can understand maybe five percent of what gets said around me. Probably being a little overconfident there in my estimation, at least because understanding some part of a sentence gives you the impression you know what’s going on, right? When someone starts talking about foreigners when I’m around, it’s not always about me, but yeah. (Actually, if someone’s saying laowai, they’re probably talking about you; but if they’re saying waiguoren, they’re probably musing in general about international relations and not you, even if their thoughts were prompted by you.)

  But nobody much talks about me these days anyway. The days of drawing a crowd just by standing still are long over. Even the street hellos are mostly gone.

  I have the Rosetta Stone (and an entire town of people outside my door). Might try and get some proper sentences under my belt before I do finally leave.

  I’ll refrain from pointing out that I just don’t belong here. I don’t speak the language and I don’t contribute to the betterment of my institution. I do sometimes wonder if I would have made a better fist of all my proposals if I had built some Chinese-speaking network first, but that would have all required forethought and passion, and some kind of essential friendship, and I just don’t belong here.

Not taking the iMBA

January 13, 2018

  There aren’t many decisions I make in the moment. Course charter from way back, yo, and charting courses doesn’t happen overnight. But compared with the decision to do the iMBA, the decision to not do the iMBA happened in pretty much an instant, not long after walking into the first class, in fact.

  Now, I’m a doctor. You can trust me. I acquired an uninspired PhD way back in 1996 (Holy crap, nearly twenty years ago… o_0). The topic was Logic, the setting was a Philosophy department. But I’m not an academic. Oh sure, I have an academic frame of mind and I approach everything with some kind of rigour. But I don’t have a research topic and haven’t any academic publications. So what did I want with another Masters?

  Well, there was this woman, see…

  I never met her. She came from the internet. And she was an academic. And European. And she’d been on the TV. We used to talk about cognitive typology. And philosophy. Anyway, at some point there I was talking/writing about how I disliked my job (déjà vu, yo), and putting a couple of things together I think it was she who suggested I look into being an analyst. Specifically she suggested being an analyst for businesses intending projects in developing countries where there could be issues of human rights. This was a European thing. If certain businesses wanted to comply with the laws of their own countries regarding exploitation of workers and people, they were going to have to be careful what they did in projects outside of their own countries too, and thus there was developing a whole consulting industry, and boy howdy, wasn’t I wholly suited for that kind of shenanigan? It’d make use of my Philosophy background, my analytical imperative, my interest in charting courses aka consulting, and my experience in China.

  Well yeah anyway, so that all fell through because it was kind of a stretch and really needed me to want it more than I wanted anything else. Which I didn’t exactly. I didn’t think I was ready. I did make an application though, and even exchanged emails with an institute.

  But it did set me down the path of thinking on business. In particular on how interesting business was from a systems point of view – there’s a logic to the organization of its concepts and practices and it seems intuitive to me – but also on how little I formally knew. And so a few months later I was deep into investigating degree programs in Oz. And a few months after that I was even enrolled in one and wrapping up what was then eight years in China experience. I was going back to Oz to be a student again.


  So I did it. I formally quit my employ here. And they made me pay a breach penalty because, duh, no foreigner is ever employed on anything other than a fixed term contract and no amount of make believe seniority will see the accounting department, the veep level leadership, or more exactly the punitive souls of the foreign affairs office, ever take it easy on a valued colleague. I flew back to Sydney, acquired a crappy apartment, as before just outside the CBD, natch, and for a month I marveled every day at the size and colour of the sky there. Seeing all that blue, it was like I didn’t even know what I had been living under for the last eight years.

  It was something like two months before classes began and I spent that time getting off the cigs (thanks Nicobate) and reading all the textbooks for the courses I was enrolled in.

  And what was the first day of classes like? A freaking nightmare. There were something like fifty students in the lecture room that day, and half of them were Chinese. There were two old white guys, and I was one of them. Everyone else was from everywhere else – Thailand, India, various African countries, might even have been some Arabs in there. And all of that should have been fantastic except that I was probably twenty five years older than everyone who wasn’t me or that other guy. I might even have been older than the teachers. The thing that did it though was how the teaching staff handled the students. The tough but fair guy was probably the one who did me in most. Not because he was tough, and not because he was fair, but because the requirements and expectations he was laying down made it entirely too clear that I was sitting in another jumped up high school. He was having to talk about homework and plagiarism and being on time and a whole bunch of other non-academic shit that really just said we all know you are children.

  And I wasn’t a child.

  I was dismayed. I was disillusioned. I worked out that the “i” in iMBA which stands for “international” really stands for “has no experience and came to this degree straight from high school”. I wondered if I could pay all that money and also spend two years working as a peer with the kind of students I’d walked out on as a teacher.

  I don’t recall the process that turned it all around in my head. One big part of it was already having read the textbooks. The other big part was seeing just how many Chinese were in that class. I wondered if I might not put together all the things I already knew and do something better (and maybe less humiliating) than taking these classes. What if I taught these classes instead!

  Within a week of those first classes I was putting together the proposal with some teachers back here and the foreign affairs section chief: I’d come back to China and I’d goddamned teach business subjects of exactly the kind Chinese students (and an erstwhile me) were coming to Oz to study.

  About eight months door to door. I skipped out a month before the end of the winter semester here, and I was back two months before the beginning of the summer semester. Total cost: probably something like 30,000 yuan. I know I had 20,000 when I left China, and that I was so on the way to skint before I left again that had to borrow money from my parents or not make it back.

  There are cheaper lessons.

January 12, 2018