Higher Education System in China – as viewed through the eyes of a Foreigner

During the course of this semester (Fall 2012), I got a chance to visit the North China Electric Power University (NCEPU) located in Beijing, China. I came here to give a talk on the research that I had done in my field at Virginia Tech. This trip provided me with a wonderful opportunity to view up-close the higher education system of the power group at NCEPU and through it, that of the nation itself. The fact that I am writing this blog while still on Chinese soil is an indication of the influence that it has had on me.

On my first day here, I got a chance to interact with the students who were working under the guidance of the professor who had invited us to China. We started talking about courses, research and classes. They had three, 2-hour courses for every subject in a week. I found out that here, more stress was given to the teaching done in class rather than homework/take-home assignments. There also appeared to be no mid-terms and surprise tests; just a final exam (although these could be specific to the program they were in). A lot of stress was given on publishing the results and making others aware of the work that they had done, as was apparent from the number of papers that the group had written in the recent past. Novelty of work was also emphasized as their PhD committee included two people which were unknown to the students and who would independently judge the quality of the dissertation.

Regarding the students themselves, the first thing that I noticed was their sincerity and dedication towards their work. The language was indeed a barrier initially (the courses being taught in Chinese, and all) but once we got over that, I found the students to be very bright and exceptionally fast on the uptake. The questions they asked were to the point and valid and the discussions that ensued were beneficial to both them as well as myself. I was also amazed to see the amount of respect and devotion that the students had for their professors/advisers.

It has been an interesting two days that I have spent here and am really looking forward to knowing more about the “Chinese way of imparting education” in the coming week.

The Society needs Introverts

I recently saw a video on YouTube in which Susan Cain talks about “The Power of Introverts”. Being an introvert myself, I felt that what she said made very good sense. Wikipedia describes introverts as “quiet and less sociable”; but although we want to spend a lot of time alone, we also want to be liked by others and want to be with friends with whom we have mutual respect and appreciation. We like doing things in our own way. We need our own space and we don’t like being pushed around or forced to do things at a pace different from our choosing.

Introverts are the perfect buffers for the (generally) volatile extroverts. They bring stability to the group that they belong to. They, typically represent the diligent worker who works in a quiet (almost unobtrusive) manner but who always gets his/her stuff done on time. Moreover, in the field of teaching, an introvert teacher can actually often be a boon in disguise for both introvert as well as extrovert students. He/She will be able to provide the introvert students with the necessary time and space that they need to come out of their shell, as well as be patient with the extrovert ones so that they can utilize their potential to the fullest extent. They will have a better chance at nurturing the latent talent present in the kids of today and will not make them feel pushed or pressurized.

As Cain puts it in her video, Introverts are not an oddity; they represent a huge section of humanity and therefore they need the respect and solitude they deserve. It is for the betterment of all that introverts are left as they are. It’s necessary to let them have the freedom to figure things out in their own way, so that through their life of privacy and self-containment the discoveries which they make, will be of greater use to the society and world at large.

The World as we see fit

It is no hidden fact that we judge people based on our impressions of them. We tend to classify them of being of a certain “type” / “fit”. However, what is of deeper concern is that these ideas are so-inbuilt in us that we often resort to them even at an unconscious level.

We have often heard phrases like “Indians are …”, “Chinese do …”, or “Southerners have …” and so on and so forth. These are just excerpts of a deeper train of thought which runs in people. As Shankar Vedantam puts it in his article The Hidden Brain, “the mind is hard-wired to form associations between people and concepts.” What is more interesting to note (and disconcerting as well) is that these notions are not “biologically based” but that they have been imposed on us through “culture” and “upbringing”. The discriminations on the basis of gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation are just the manifestations of this inherent thought process. Moreover, these kinds of biases are the hardest to overcome, as they require both conscious effort as well as perseverance, over an extended period of time, and even then success is not always guaranteed.

For those of us who aspire to be teachers in the 21st century it is all the more important that we understand these “stereotypical” ideas that our students will have and devise means to overcome/counter them. Students usually ask their immediate seniors, faculty advisors or mentors regarding the courses that they should take in the upcoming semesters and about the professors that will teach those courses. So, even before they attend the first class, they would have formed an opinion of us based on what others think of us.

To conclude, I feel that we have to be aware of both the conscious as well as the (especially) unconscious responses that we exhibit both in and out of the class, as they will go on to form an “opinion” of us in the minds of students and colleagues alike, for years to come. It is therefore my firm belief that in order to keep a class of 21st century learners together, it is not only necessary to captivate their minds with our teaching, it is also our “duty” as learner-focused educators to recognize/address the diversity present in our class very early and respect it throughout the duration of the course.

Differences in Expectations

People have different expectations from us and we in turn have different expectations from other people. Our family members/relatives want us to be successful and live a happy life. Our teachers and advisors expect us to do quality work/research. We, in turn, want them to guide us and help us avoid the pitfalls in life and to root for us when the time so desires. The problem arises when these expectations get out of place. Moving from the general to the specific, I am primarily referring to the expectations that we (as the future teachers) will have from our students (as the future learners).

As a matter of fact, I was motivated to write this post because of an incident which occurred when I was TA-ing in my first semester here in Virginia Tech (VT). There was an international graduate student who was in his fourth year of PhD and who used to TA with us for the Open Engineering Lab (OpEL) of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in VT. Being a new international student myself, we discussed different topics and got along fairly well. However, I noticed that he used to be exceptionally hard on the students when it came to giving grades; he would ask them rather difficult questions and if they could not answer him satisfactorily, he would give them low grades. Over a period of time, students became aware of this fact and started avoiding him to other TAs. So one day, I asked him why he did what he did and he said that corresponding under-grads from his home country were expected to know the answers to the question that he asked and that is what he was finding out/ensuring.

Now, although I respected his motives, it occurred to me then as well as now, that his efforts were misdirected. Had he been teaching the course, his logic could still be justified, but since he only graded them based on the experiments they performed, I feel that it is not right for him to expect so much from them. Students brought up in this environment should not be compared with those brought up in other environments. International students especially have gone through a lot more stress and pressure in the formative years of their life so as to make it here (the US). It would be wrong on their part to expect such focus and dedications/depths of knowledge from the students who have never been exposed to such conditions. I believe that we should evaluate the students based on what they do know and how well they know it, rather than on what they do not know. I have seen enormous potential in the students growing up in the schools and colleges of US and I feel that it is our duty (as future educators) to tap into this potential and not let it get bottled up or go waste.

How I viewed my Teachers

Being born and brought up in India, I had a very different view-point of Teachers with respect to what I found here in the US. Since my childhood, I was made to believe that teachers were infallible people; that they were responsible for maintaining discipline in the class and that they knew most on the subject they taught. It was unthinkable for me to argue with a teacher even if I knew in my heart of hearts that I was right. The teacher could punish me (even physically, at times) if I did something wrong and it was in his/her right to deduct points if he/she felt that I had crossed the line.

Strangely enough, this concept of the teacher being the disciplinarian did not change even when I went to middle school, high school and even as an under-grad. This idea was so home to me (and to most of my classmates) that I/we never pointed out the teacher’s mistakes openly. Even if he/she wrote something incorrectly on the black-board, we believed it to be our responsibility to correct that in our notes or in the worst case scenario point it out at the end of the class. The norm was such that it was considered rude on the part of the student to stop a teacher during his/her discourse to ask “stupid” questions or (worse) to point out his/her mistakes.

So one can clearly imagine the great cultural shock that I was in for when I started attending classes in the US. Here, I found that students had the kind of freedom that I could not even dream about. They could interrupt a teacher during his/her lecture and ask questions which might be relevant to, but at the same time very different from, the topic being discussed. To be very frank, I was really amazed at the guts of these “American” students. They could think “out-of-the-box” and “argue” coherently in a manner that we (international students, in general) never thought was possible. They could challenge the so-called existing norms and (what was really surprising) more often than not, get away with it!

I have always liked to admire the multiplicity of cultures that we find in this country and being a supporter of the doctrine that “no culture is bad”; I believe in absorbing the good practices of other cultures while rejecting the bad ones. I feel that the kind of freedom that students get here is essential for the learner-centered pedagogy that we want to go for in the near future. Although I don’t advocate uncontrolled freedom to the students, I do believe that there should be a “balance of power” between students and teachers and more importantly, students should not be in fear of their teachers. I believe that the best way to disseminate knowledge in the 21st century will be to have an open environment, where teachers and students can interact freely, where neither side feels over-whelmed by the other.

Publish or Perish?

The academic world has been plagued with this dilemma for quite some time now. Wikipedia describes it beautifully as the “pressure in academia to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one’s career.” Nowadays, it has become necessary to publish as frequently as possible in order to demonstrate one’s academic talent. But is that the sole goal of doing research? Shouldn’t focus be given more to quality than to quantity? These are some of the fundamental questions that the present world of academia needs to find answers to.

This mad race to publish more and more had its origins in the late 1990s. Before that, scholars would do research and publish only when the final objective had been attained. In the 80s, graduate students would publish papers only after their dissertation was over and/or when a considerable breakthrough had been made. Focus, at that time, was more on the content of the publication rather than the time it had taken to publish. But as industry and money became more involved with research, scholars started publishing their results in the midst of their research. This resulted in the first paper becoming the precursor to the second one, the second one for the third one and so on and so forth. Instead of one good paper encompassing the complete work, a plethora of papers emerged describing parts of the work done. Instead of doing “radical” improvement focus was shifted to doing “iota” improvement.

The justification that university administrators give for stressing more on publications is based on the notion that it will act as an impetus for scholars to do cutting-edge research early on in their career. However, the flip-side of this argument is that scholars in their efforts to publish more and more give less and less time to develop good research ideas. Moreover, in their efforts to publish, scholars are often forced to forsake part/whole of their teaching responsibilities resulting in a break in the knowledge transfer process which is so important in universities. The fact that getting “tenure” depends upon the number of publications does not help either.

So the question is what can be done to avoid falling in this trap. How can we do quality research and still publish at a decent rate to maintain our academic prowess? Well, an innovative approach that IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has come up with to address this issue, is to split publications into two parts – conferences and journals. Conferences are more in number and easier to publish; Journals are much less in number and therefore, more difficult to get published in. However, getting a journal publication is considered much more creditable than having a conference paper. Thus, those scholars who want to publish more can do so in the form of conferences whereas those who want to do high-quality research have the option of getting their work accepted in a journal. This creates a win-win situation where both the individual, in particular, as well as the academic world, at large, is benefited. I, personally, feel that this is a great idea and that more and more disciplines should follow this tactic to ease the load on their respective scholars.

Spare the rod, spoil the child?

While recently talking with a colleague who has two small kids, regarding the primary education system in the US, I was surprised to know that there exists a law here which states that parents/teachers cannot “touch” their children/students. Now, I am not in favor of physical punishment here but I do feel that sometimes it does become necessary to enforce discipline on a child, if only for his/her own good.

I was born and brought up in India. There, I was spanked countless number of times by my parents and teachers, till, if my memory goes right, as high as middle school. Now, although it wasn’t a very pleasant experience at that time, I realized later that they did what they did for my own betterment. Through them, I learnt some lessons regarding life and how it works which I might not have learnt otherwise. But then, I come over here and find out that if a parent/teacher so much as harshly scolds a child, he/she is liable to get arrested and even jailed. I really don’t get it! In such a scenario, how can parents/teachers inculcate virtues in their kids?

When I brought this topic up with my colleague, he stated that this law was in place to prevent children from getting manhandled by step-parents/guardians; that children were becoming victims of broken homes and that this law had resulted in them having a much “freer” childhood than what it would have been otherwise. But I have a question to ask. By doing so, aren’t we exchanging their happiness in childhood with sadness in adult life? By sparing the rod earlier on in their lives, aren’t we spoiling them in the long run? Isn’t there a better approach towards this problem?

I personally feel that it is the duty of the parents/teachers to make the child distinguish right from wrong and some amount of freedom should be given to them in this regard. There is a difference between abuse and discipline and although one should definitely prevent the former, one should also definitely support the latter. I believe that workshops and seminars with parents/teachers/guardians which make them more aware of their responsibilities is a much better solution to this problem than a blanket law that ties their hands behind their backs. It is because every child is unique that it should be left to the “responsible” grown-ups to handle them differently.

Indian Education System – an insider’s view

Indian students are generally forced to choose between one of the two fields – engineering or medical. “3 Idiots” is an Indian movie which has depicted this fact beautifully. One of the dialogues in that movie goes like this – “My father wants to know the sex of the unborn child as he wants to know whether there will be an engineer in the house or a doctor. If it’s a boy, he will be an engineer and if it’s a girl, she will be a doctor”. Although it might sound funny to people who are not used to statements like these, believe me, when I say that it’s one of the most commonly-held sentiments in an average Indian family.

The general view of the masses is that only an engineer/doctor can bring prosperity to the house. People (especially boys) who want to pursue a life in arts/humanities are typically termed “losers” and in order to succeed, they not only have to compete against their peers but the society (social stigma) as well. Considering the fact that India is the second most populous country in the world, one does not need the brains of an Einstein to figure out the immense cut-throat competition that a child has to go through to survive the first twenty years of his/her conscious existence.

However, there is a positive side to this as well. The individual who comes out of this highly pressurized system is ready to face any challenge that is thrown at him/her. Irrespective of the stream that he/she has followed, once he/she emerges successfully out of this “system”, he/she becomes an asset to the company/firm that he/she joins. He/She can hold his/her own against the toughest of opponents and the hardest of situations. It would not be wrong to say that he/she is the “coal” that has metamorphosed under immense pressure and strain to become what the world cherishes – a “diamond”. Thus, although this kind of an “education” system might be unbalanced and painful for those in it, in the long run, it does benefit the individual, in particular and the society at large.

My first few days in the US

I landed in the US for the first time on August 4, 2010 and the first thing I remember seeing outside the JFK airport in New York were sparrows hopping around on the ground. Since this was a site that I was very used to in India, it somehow made me feel happy and I felt that life here would be as enjoyable as it was back there; and I was not mistaken. I reached Blacksburg in the evening and one of my seniors from my undergraduate college took me to his place for the night. I met my roommates the next day and moved into our apartments (which we had booked earlier), the day after.

We learnt so much in those first few days. None of us knew how to cook properly. Each time we went to buy grocery, we converted dollars to rupees (currency of India) and concluded nothing was worth buying (too expensive). I remember spending the first few nights on ramen brought from India. The attitude of the people was even more astonishing. Total strangers would greet you on the streets; cars would wait for you to cross the road, all-in-all, it was a totally different experience. Even the weather felt so appealing. There was bright sunshine, with a pleasant breeze and no sweat, a trio that people who have lived in the tropics can only dream of.

I bought a laptop in the third week of August and once we got internet at our home, we knew we were in for the time of our lives. Classes began soon after that and it was then that we realized more than ever before, how convenient a fast internet connection can be when it comes to knowledge transfer. I got so immersed in learning cooking, solving assignments, and going out to parties with my lab-mates that I never realized when I began to think of this place as my home.