After my second trip to Zhumadian, I’m finally getting around to writing about my travels in China – only six months later than I should be!
This year I was recruited for the International Art Programme at HuangHuai University. My courses so far have been in oil painting and professional practice for artists. More on that in another post. The university is home to more than 20,000 students and my classes range from lectures of 120 students to practical sessions of 40 students.
Art and Design Building at HuangHuai University, Zhumadian, China
Since starting my teaching, my stereotypes about Chinese students have been crushed! My classes are filled with some of the most unruly, disruptive and lazy students I have ever taught. I have had lectures where I could not hear myself over their chatting, a constant battle against the use of cell phones in class and had to deal with a very unexpectedly poor work ethic. At first I thought the lack of respect might be because I am a foreign teacher, but many of the local professors expressed the same problems.
How could this happen in the land of diligence and authority you say?
The professor I am partnered with explained to me that previously only the top 10% of Chinese students could enter University. This ensured that they were of course the best and hardest working. Due to the economic changes the country has faced in the past few decades, University has been opened up to the top 40% of students and it is taking some time for the quality of those new 30% to catch up.
HuangHuai is in Chinese terms is a small university, in a provincial city miles away from the coast. In addition to that, international art is a fairly new major and not in high demand yet. Some of my students come from the surrounding region but many of them are students who just barely made that 40% cut off. I’ve asked many students from other parts of China, ‘Why did you choose to come to Zhumadian to study?’ The most common answer is shamefully admitting that their test scorers weren’t high enough. Some of them have since realised it is time to get their act together, many haven’t.
Well, challenge accepted.
Library Building at HuangHuai University
I was initially told not to worry about the students’ behaviour. That is was a cultural difference and not a problem. I attempted to follow this advice during my first trip in spring but really struggled to accept this when it was preventing my ability to do my job. The last straw was when the Vice-Chancellor of the university sat in on my lecture and the students would not even behave for him.
Up until this point I would yell or slam a book to get the students to quiet down. This would work for all of five minutes, then they would be back at it. So at the recommendation of my supervising professor we instituted a new policy – the first student who talks would lose 40% of their grade and the second 80%. An example was made in each of my two lecture groups and it had the expected effect.
At this point I was teaching an oil painting course called ‘Colour and Representation’. The students work was for the most part appallingly poor with a few exceptions. A portion of this might be due to their lack of training in western art. However I believe that if someone works in a visual medium a certain amount of their skills are transferable and should translate into other media. I put the blame much more on their lack of attention in class and laziness.
As a result I ended up failing 20% of the class and only one student received above a 90%.
Entrance to the North Campus of HuanHuai University
In the Chinese university system, students take short intensive modules over a 15 week semester. My classes run from 3-5 weeks and I see students for 3-4 sessions every week. Students are allowed to fail 5 modules before being expelled from the university. I also am required to give a makeup assignment that allows failed students to gain a pass.
I find this coddling very unhelpful in developing students. So I make my makeup assignment extremely challenging so that someone can’t slack off for the entire module and get a pass from doing a single item of work. I was told that of my 40 failed students, eight joined the army and four passed their makeup assignment.
When I returned to HuangHuai this autumn I found my students had got the message. There was a strong fear of being failed and for the most part they were ready to work this time. I only had a few infractions throughout the term and they were much easier to deal with than battling an entire classroom.
The students seemed to find understanding my expectations difficult. Many of them could not understand why I wanted silence in lectures and hard work but on the other hand I don’t require them to do things like ask permission to go to the toilet during class. Very few of the students call me by my name and if they do it’s ‘Mr Jon’. Most call me ‘sir’ or ‘teacher’. I have got ‘master’ a few times to my surprise! A hierarchy seems to be well instilled in them, but ideas like self responsibility aren’t. Many of the students don’t seem to realise that they are adults at the age 20-22.
Art lecturers, assistants and translators I work with at HuangHuai University
The students worked very hard during my ‘Professional Practice’ course this autumn and it showed in their finished projects. But I did not anticipate the level of panic, lack of self management and neediness that would result. This created a huge workload for me as I was constantly getting frantic requests for help from students who should have paid more attention in lectures and taken some responsibility. There were several days where I ended up working from 7am until midnight or later.
My goal, should I have this group again, is to instil some initiative and self responsibility in the students. My theory is first you need to get them working, then you can get them thinking. I also need to create a method of organisation so that hard working students can get the help they need without me killing myself for undeserving time wasters.
When I get a new batch of students I will be instilling discipline straight away so I can the ball rolling much faster. It might come in the form of Gny. Sergeant Hartman or maybe the legendary, ‘Saving Private Ryan Speech’. We’ll see . . .