Culture Shocked (2)

I guess no one reads blogposts that are not about the five comment-required topics, but in case you happen to, please refer to my previous post for context and the first story.

I was a hall advisor in my senior year at Bryn Mawr. Before the semester started we had a hall advisor training, and in one of the sessions we talked about past cases the dorm leadership teams came through.

One of them talked about dealing with students from a different cultural background.

She was a customs person, and at Bryn Mawr customs people are a very important part of the dorm leadership; they help freshmen adjust into traditions, college life, and serve as a valuable resource to them throughout their years at Bryn Mawr.

During the move-in week the year she served as a customs person, there was a dispute between two students on her floor. The two lived in a double room, and one of them was Chinese. The Chinese student arrived on campus first, claimed the bigger room of the double, and when the other student came, she wanted the bigger room as well.

The custom person quoted the Chinese student: “In China there is a saying that the person who arrives first owns the success.” She explains the dispute between the two students and the Chinese student’s refusal of a settlement with this Chinese belief.

The thing is, I happened to know this Chinese student in the story. We actually came from the same city in China. When we went out for lunch the other day, she told me about the same story, but from her point of view.

The two students talked to each other on Facebook before the move-in week, and they agreed on the room assignment prior to their arrival. After the Chinese student moved in, all by herself, the other student showed up, changed her mind and wanted the bigger room. This student came with both her parents. The custom person taking care of that hall was of the same ethnic origin as the this student (sorry I don’t remember which). It was the Chinese student’s first few days in America and she wasn’t that fluent with English.

She felt isolated and insecure; they made an agreement beforehand; and she had already put all the furniture in place and room décor on. That’s why she refused to switch room. And in the end, she gave in; they switched room anyways.

That Chinese saying? No such thing. It doesn’t exist. The closest thing to “the person who arrives first owns the success” I could think of is 先到先得, which is a direct translation to “first come first served”.

I told the story to the hall advisor cohort. The director of the training concluded: “We are not here to judge who was right or who was wrong; the important thing is that we try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes when coming into situations like this.”

I agreed. The Chinese student could be biased. The customs person could be biased. I’m certainly biased in retelling the story. We should definitely consider the situation from both perspectives.

But I’m not satisfied. No.

You can’t just attribute someone’s behavior that you don’t quite understand to their culture. You can’t just think someone is rude, unreasonable, incomprehensive, and refuse to further understand what they are saying and just go ahead and explain that with your false interpretation of their culture. You can’t just be like there is a Chinese saying, and this is why she was stubborn and refused to communicate. No.

Cultural relativism is great. You have to understand other people’s beliefs based on their own culture and not judge them against your own criteria. But you are not Franz Boas. You are not a particularly civilized American anthropologist observing the life of jungle men. Oh these people cannibalize because there is a jungle saying that sponsors this barbarian behavior. We live in this modernized, and by modernized I mean westernized, society, and we share some common beliefs. Not everything should be attributed to cultural differences. And in this everyone tries to be politically correct higher education circle, don’t cover up your bias or stereotypes with cultural relativism.

Change in Higher Ed

One thing I believe should change in (American) university is tuition; although I don’t know how feasible it is. The other day I was on Facebook, and my high school teacher from the States posted that he finally paid off his student loan, after like twenty years.

I’m privileged enough that my parents paid for my tuition. As an international student, if I don’t have proof of funding for my college education, be it internal (from me myself or from my family) or external (from a grant or scholarship), I won’t be issued an I-20, or permission to study in United States. This country initially made of immigrants seems to have great fear of foreigners trying to stay here illegally.

As an international student, it is also illegal for me to work outside of campus, and obviously on campus work is not profitable enough for me to be financially independent. I graduated college one year early because I felt bad spending their money as an adult and didn’t want to rely on them any more.

Even now I look back on how much my parents put on my education, I still feel ridiculous. Higher education is important and it changed a lot of aspects of my life, but is it worth so much money? If I was back at age 15 and making the decision of attending an international high school to prepare myself for studying abroad or a traditional high school, I will 100% chose the latter. This “debt” to my parents also affected a lot of my life decisions – I can’t be unemployed or do jobs that make little money but important (like high school teachers); they’ve spent 2 million yuan on me. I have to do things that make it worth.

When MOOCs first came out I thought it would be the future of higher ed. I mean, a lot of universities are doing their own online classes. Under this quarantine classes are forced to transform into an online format, and some of them are working just fine. If in the end one is enrolled in college and taking most classes online anyways, what is the point of paying so much tuition?

But turns out MOOCs are not working that well. Coursera provides paid, verified certificate for course completion, but probably not a lot of companies acknowledge that. The intro classes are fine, but hardly any advanced level classes. One needs to actually work in a lab for some science classes. Face-to-face communication between the professor and students are important for seminars. There is still a long way to go for MOOCs.

As far as I know Virginia Tech is not issuing refunds of spring tuition to students, because “instructional costs have gone up after the university moved nearly 6,000 of its classes online“. Business Insider outlined a bright future of higher ed: “it’s (tuition) only going to get worse.”


Culture Shocked (1)

I attended an international high school in China whose purpose is to send students abroad for college, and I thought I was well prepared for any collision between the upcoming four years of American college life and my values constructed through my past 18 years of living in China.

Of course I was wrong. But really I wasn’t shocked by how bold, modern, or liberal this American culture is, but what a horrible mess the Americans interpret the Chinese culture into.

TL;DR: don’t use cultural difference to cover up for your racist shit.

The first culture shock I experienced was during the summer break of my freshman year. I applied to do some research work in the summer, and before that I would have to do some research ethics training with other summer science research fellows.

To get things straight: cheating is big in China. A few relevant examples for you: there are no SAT test centers in China because of *systematic* cheating. Prior to the year I took SAT some of my friends’ scores were either delayed or canceled due to people cheating in the same month. In my year, I heard of at least two of my classmates buying answers for their SAT and that got them into decent American colleges.

Therefore, this research misconduct training started with the instructor giving case studies to us in which some names are clearly Chinese. She also continued with her interpretation of Chinese culture in a pretentiously understanding way: I know in China plagiarism is a tradition, but when doing research here you must not plagiarize or manipulate your data.

I immediately understood what she was talking about, and immediately realized she was wrong. “In China plagiarism is a tradition” – nope, first, that wasn’t plagiarism; second, that was a literary tradition, not a tradition.

In classic Chinese literature, poets quote their predecessors without including any reference or providing any context, and that’s called 用典 (I don’t know the exact translation, but some dictionaries give me the word “allusion” if that helps you understand); these poets don’t, at all, credit themselves for the quotations, and fellow poets and scholars read just as much as they do to know that the quotations came from someone else.

典故, or allusion, could originate from mythology, historical events, a paraphrase of someone else’s poems or essays, or sometimes a word-to-word copy and paste, etc. The last case I mentioned might be where “in China plagiarism is a tradition” comes from; but no, this interpretation is wrong. This form of 用典 is totally different from dishonesty or violation of academic ethics: first, the poets don’t claim that as their original idea; second, in fact, later scholars making annotations and comments of literature would always point out where the 典故 comes from.

Here is a quick example. My favorite poet 李贺 in Tang Dynasty wrote “衰兰送客咸阳道,天若有情天亦老”; In Song Dynasty 石曼卿 modified it to “天若有情天亦老,月如无恨月长圆”; 欧阳修, a famous politician and poet in Song Dynasty quoted this line in his poem as “伤怀离抱,天若有情天亦老,此意如何,细似轻丝渺似波”; 贺铸 again in Song Dynasty: “不知我辈,可是蓬蒿人 (this line is from the greatest Chinese poet of all time, 李白),衰兰送客咸阳道。天若有情天亦老”. Skipping numerous cases in between, right to the People’s Republic of China in 1949, 毛泽东 or Chairman Mao, quoted this line in his poem as “天若有情天亦老,人间正道是沧桑”. In all cases the original meaning has been slightly or drastically changed. Sorry that if you don’t know Chinese you won’t be understanding any of these poems, but here’s my point: 用典 as a tradition in Chinese literature, is different from “in China plagiarism is a tradition.” Very different. Nothing to do with my classmate cheating in their SAT, or researchers committing misconduct in their studies.

I don’t think the instructor of that research ethics training is being blatantly racist though. In this higher ed setting, anything politically correct is on the surface maintained correct. She probably doesn’t think she is racist, at all. It was more like taking cultural relativism too far: plagiarism is not right in United States. People in China practice plagiarism, a lot. Shouldn’t be judging Chinese behavior against American standard. Trying to find a root of this plagiarism in Chinese culture. Plagiarism is a tradition in China. But here you are in United States, stop cheating.

But that IS racism, the very meaning of racism – one race is superior than the other. The cheating Chinese and in this land of America in which plagiarism is strictly prohibited.

I have another example but as I write this down I gets so sick of it so I will save it for a later blogpost. If anyone’s reading it (it’s not an assigned topic so I doubt any) sorry for this abrupt ending. 😛


Do I have to join?

I started to train myself not to use that much of social networks since college, so when I started grad school, saw so many of my co-workers, graduate students and faculty from other departments using social networks to do outreach and public engagement, I was pretty lost.

I know of a fellow graduate student giving nutrition advice and debunking diet myths on Instagram, and through her wonderful work I got to know a bunch of other academics sharing science and correcting bad science through Instagram. I’ve never thought about Instagram as a medium for science – I share my amateur photography on my Instagram page, and I keep it private.

Not to mention Facebook and Twitter. I’m only using Facebook to connect with old friends but after entering grad school when scrolling down the webpage and going through different memes, I started coming across journal articles shared by my colleagues – I use social networks to get a break from work and I don’t need Facebook to remind me to read more papers.

But at the same time I kept wondering: should I embrace this academic social network thing? Should I use my social networks to talk about science as well? I am 100% up for public engagement, and I believe that we academics, people who are privileged enough to have this level of education most others don’t, have the responsibility to talk science in plain language to the public, to debunk myths, to be role models for women/POC/gender minorities, etc. However, as a millennial I’m already struggling a lot not to let social networks consume too much of my time or distract me from work. And when I got on WeChat, Instagram, or Facebook, I want that to be a place for me to relax. Do things that are not science related.

For this assignment, I read an article called A Defense of Academic Twitter. I never entered the world of Twitter because I found it terrifying and overwhelming, but I’ve known of many people, including a lot of faculty members in the geo department, are quite active on this platform. This article provides a good guide to why and how to use Twitter for academic purposes, and also very importantly, things to avoid. But most importantly, I feel reassured when I read this: “Even more than that, I am asked, ‘Do I have to join?’ The answer is no, you do not have to join.”

Professor raped; University let him

Gary Xu is a Chinese professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a sexual predator.

I knew of his sexual misconduct because Ao Wang, a literature professor at Wesleyan University, posted about it on a Chinese social network Douban. The posts were later deleted by site administrators. One of his friends, whose name is unknown, was sexually abused by Gary Xu. Wang stood up to speak for her and other victims. Gary Xu denied the accusations, threatened to kill Wang, and filed a lawsuit against Wang in China. In China.

For this blogpost I looked up Gary Xu’s cases again, and the details are way more horrible than what I remembered. Based on a filed complaint (2019), Gary Xu was the department head before he resigned in 2018, and abused his power in the department, university and his field. He raped several women and made money from his students’ work. Faculty in the department was aware of his behavior and even victims too.

Most of the details in this complaint was provided by Xingjian Xu, a victim and a named plaintiff. She had a 2-year abusive relationship with Gary Xu, and this started in 2013, when she was 19 and Xu was 45. Not only did he raped her, but he also brutally beat her. She was pregnant and forced into abortion. She had depression and attempted suicide. Twice. She reported Xu to the university, and dropped the reports. Three times. The university forbid Xu from any contact with Sun, but no actual measure was taken.

Their relationship ended in the fall of 2015. Sun was trying to avoid Xu that day. Xu was in his car following her, and attempted to hit her with his car till she finally arrived at the Champaign Public University. The public witnessed it. Police arrived. Sun was safe.

The university issued an investigation. However, Xu remained a faculty member at UIUC for three more years. It wasn’t until his sexual misconduct was made known in China that Xu resigned in August 2018. When he left UIUC, Xu received $10,000 from the university.

How could a sexual predator get away like this? You may ask, and I don’t have an answer.

By the way, UIUC tolerated faculty-student relationships. The brighter side though, because it is dark enough, is that the university launched a consensual relationship policy task force after Sun’s case. The task force suggested banning relationships between faculty members and undergrads, and relationships between faculty members and grad students within the same academic unit.

When the accuser is male and the accused is a feminist scholar

Amid sexual harassment cases in higher education with a male perpetrator and a female victim, the lawsuit filed by Nimrod Reitman, a gay man and a graduate student at NYU, against his advisor Avital Ronell, a queer woman and a world-famous scholar in German and ComLit, is quite unusual.

According to a New York Times article, Reitman said Ronell had harassed him for three years, including inviting him to her bed, kissing him, touching him, appearing at his apartment uninvited and insisting on sleeping with him for a few days. And uncommon in other sexual harassment cases in higher education with a female accuser, Reitman had to follow her order because of her overarching power and reputation in academics. This might not be the most powerful evidence against Ronell because there was not witness to it, but Reitman did also provide email correspondence between Ronell and him in which Ronell was clearly not behaving appropriately as an academic adviser.

However, a group of feminists, including my former academic idol (yes, former) Judith Butler and the chair of Department of German at New York University Christopher Wood, wrote a letter to the president and provost of New York University to testify for Avital Ronell. In the letter they said, “although we have no access to the confidential dossier” (WOW), they “have all seen her relationship with students”. At the same time, Andrea Long Chu, a former teaching assistant of Ronell, wrote in an article supporting Reitman that anyone in the Department of German knows that Ronell is abusive. Some of these feminist scholars also know “this individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her”, aka, the victim Reitman. They also mentioned Ronell’s “grace”, “keen wit”, “intellectual commitment” and “international standing and reputation”, all of which have nothing to do with Ronell being a potential sexual predator to her graduate student.

When the accuser is a female student and the accused is a male advisor, people in the #metoo movements know not to blame the victim. But apparently it is not the case when the scenario is reversed. When the accused is a feminist scholar (worth noting that Chu in article made this distinction, other female scholars teamed up and defended her, and this is no different from people defending male scholars with a high academic standing and power in other #metoo cases in higher ed.

Well, unsurprisingly, Avital Ronell returned to NYU to teach after the Title IX investigation and last time I checked, she is still on NYU’s website and a university professor.

Probably just like other male scholars with a high academic standing and power in other #metoo cases in higher ed.

Open Access

The open-access journal in geosciences I chose is Biogeosciences. I’ve read a few papers from this journal but never really realized it’s open access till I did my research for this blogpost. I guess for students in an R1 university in United States like Virginia Tech, it does not really matter if a journal is open access or not – we are privileged enough to have subscription to it from the library. However, there was this one time I tried to access a really old paper from SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), and Virginia Tech surprisingly did not have access to it. I could be charged for something like $25 but I discovered SciHub. Then I started to realize it would be hard for people at universities without enough journal subscription to access papers, and probably people from underdeveloped countries as well.

Biogeosciences is based in Europe and founded by the European Geosciences Union. It accepts articles about the interactions between physical, chemical and biological processes on earth and other planets within different spheres. In its objective, Biogeosciences emphasizes an interdisciplinary view.

There is not a particular page on the Biogeosciences website that talks about open access in particular. However, on the About page, it does talk about a two-stage publication process, and in the first stage, “a rapid access review” and papers are “immediately published” after this review on the website. I’m not particularly sure if it is a common thing for open-access journals, but this emphasis on its website and rapid publication seems like a theme in terms of open publication. There is also a flat rate towards article processing charges, which is 77 euros for LaTex submissions and 93 euros for Word submissions. As far as I know, for traditional journals, they tend to charge per page and per figure, while open-access journals tend to have a flat rate per article.

The case of Anil Potti

I looked into the case of Anil Potti because this one is unlucky enough to be the only case in 2015 in ORI’s archive. It turns out to be a really interesting case.

The investigation of the case happened in 2015, during which a cancer researcher at Duke University was found responsible for research misconduct by ORI. However, two outside biostatisticians questioned his studies as early as in 2006 – 9 years before Potti was found guilty.

In 2008, a medical student named Bradford Perez removed himself from a few papers he co-authored with Potti, and reported his concerns on Potti’s potential misconduct to Duke officials. According to The Cancer Letter, not only the report was paid little attention (or, ignored), the whistle blower was also silenced by Joseph Nevins, Potti’s mentor. Duke’s deans also allowed Nevins to investigate Potti’s case himself.

In 2010, Potti was finally put on administrative leave and a few months later he resigned from Duke. As of today, eleven of his publications were retracted and seven were corrected, according to The Retraction Watch.

I was interested in where Anil Potti is today so I looked him up. Most of the things that showed up in Google are about his very (in)famous research misconduct. His LinkedIn profile discontinued at the year of 2010, when he resigned from his position as a staff physician at Duke University. On a US News report, he is now an oncologist in North Dakoda and is affiliated with several hospitals. he has more than 21 years of practice and the patient experience with him is very positive.

Bradford Perez, the whistleblower in this case, is now a resident radiation oncologist at the Duke University School of Medicine.


Beware of the Watchdogs

News has been rather disturbing since the coronavirus outbreak in China: the malfunctioning and incompetent government and Red Cross, discrimination against Chinese (or Asians in general), death of the whistleblower, you name it. And yesterday came another piece: a professor at University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was fired because she posted “inappropriate messages” on social media.

The official statement to fire Peiyi Zhou by the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Let’s get the thing straight. This professor, Peiyi Zhou (周佩仪), is originally from Hong Kong. A social worker for intellectually disabled people, she moved to Beijing in 2002 and was hired by the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The social media we are talking about here is WeChat Moment/Friend Circle (微信朋友圈). Nothing like Twitter, or its Chinese equivalent, Weibo, WeChat Moment is a perfectly private space and the messages there are only shared with friends on WeChat.

And the “inappropriate message”? I’m paraphrasing here: “Problems rooted in the social system cannot be solved by attending one or two psychology classes. Every unjust death becomes hate…… I can’t stand positive vibes (正能量) anymore! Pinkies (小粉红, nationalist netizen) please unfriend me.”

Someone commented: “China cannot be perfect when it is still developing, but every Chinese loves China forever and grows with China, because this is the power of family, and this is the blood line of China that’s everlasting.” I’m at the same time disgusted and offended, but just so you understand what it means by “positive vibes” (正能量), I still made the attempt to translate it.

And this is Peiyi Zhou’s reply: “Fuck off (滚).”

Love it. Couldn’t have said it any better.

The screenshot of Peiyi Zhou’s post and comments.

This dose of absurdity might leave you speechless for a moment. First there is nothing wrong with what she said. Second if it’s wrong in any sense, it can’t be so wrong that gets someone fired. Third, it’s WeChat. Not Weibo. She’s only asking her nationalist pinkie WeChat friends to unfriend her.

But ironically, I don’t find this thing absurd at all. It fits perfectly in today’s China’s logic. The so-called whistleblower, Dr. Wenliang Li, was only trying to warn his friends and family about this coronavirus in a WeChat group. And he got called to the police, punished for “spreading rumor” (huh, rumor), and forced to sign a statement to acknowledge that he did something wrong. In that context, you will probably find this a pretty normal thing to happen: people get into trouble for what they say (in most cases, truth) in a supposedly private network.

And is this the first case a professor/instructor in Chinese higher education get reported and fired because they said something inappropriate (aka did the right thing)? Nope. Look up Shengdong You, Zhangrun Xu, Jia Lv, Yun Tang, and they are not even the only few. Professors getting reported by their students and reprimanded for whatever they said is not rare any more in today’s China, and “student information officers”, watchdogs in the classroom, are legit titles.

In comparison with this speedy punishment, it takes so long to press a charge on professors who are sexual predators. I read a comment yesterday and I’m translating it here: “it would probably be way easier to take a rapist down if you report them saying things against the CCP in bed.”

I feel so tired writing these, and I actually have no idea what I can help with this terrifying reality. If the higher education circle is not the most liberal and the most inclusive, I would expect nowhere else. And yet, more and more students are becoming Pinkies and watchdogs for the government, and more of more professors would be too afraid to speak up or teach the right thing to their students.

I saw the picture of a girl with a “freedom of speech” poster yesterday. The picture got censored and deleted several times and yet people were reposting it again and again. Many were worried about her safety and someone commented that the best way to protect her is not to let her be the only one. I guess I’m writing this down to let some people know that they are not the only one.

Thoughts on Mission Statements

I’ve never really paid attention to mission statements before, so before I did my research I read the blogpost from Julián David Cortés-Sánchez (linked in this week’s assignment page) trying to get some insight. I’m sure the author elaborates more in his preprint Mission and Vision Statements of Universities Worldwide – A Content Analysis, but this post left me only with confusion. What do the five most frequently used terms in mission and vision statement entail? What’s the point of comparing the length of mission and vision statements? I don’t think the author provided an answer convincing enough for my questions. In the “what for” section, he offered access to the database his study was based on. To be fair I downloaded some of the excel files and skimmed through them, and most of them are compiled “to” statements from different universities. It’s highly likely because I don’t work in higher education, but I really don’t see how it helps “define the purpose of a university” or whatsoever. Therefore till this point, both the blogpost and the idea of mission statements are to me “a Starry Night replica hung in the main hallway”.

However, I did find something quite interesting when I started looking through mission statements from different universities, namely my alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, and where I am at now, Virginia Tech.

Bryn Mawr is a women’s liberal arts college, one of the seven sisters and is located in the suburb of Philadelphia, while Virginia Tech is a public land-grant university in … the middle of nowhere (sorry). I expected a ton of differences when it comes to their mission statements, and the first thing that stroke me was the difference in length. Bryn Mawr has a quite lengthy mission, with a total word count of 217 words, while Virginia Tech’s mission is composed of 47 words, however clearly defines what Virginia Tech is and what guidelines it abides by.

It seemed like a liberal arts college versus public university thing at the first glance, but through a few searches I realized it is not so. Length of a mission statement really does not say anything, and many schools with a short mission statement supplement it with a few other subsequent sections, leaving “mission” all but a name. For example, following that 47-word statement, Virginia Tech provides three links on inclusion and diversity, public service and university leadership to expand on how the university carries its mission. Ohio State has a 62-word statement, but on the same page it clearly defines its value and provides a rather lengthy section of core goals, which I think is what the idea of mission entails.

In terms of content, the mission statements of both universities share quite a few similarities: both talk about inclusion, community, civic engagement and global perspective. In line with the motto, Ut Prosim, more than 20 of the 47 words (depending on how you count it) in Virginia Tech’s 47-word mission statement talks about serving the humanity. I think this matches with the school’s identity of a public land-grant university, and following this guideline, Virginia Tech is doing a pretty ok job on service learning (at least to me).

Bryn Mawr doesn’t surprise me by emphasizing “rigorous liberal arts curriculum”, “equity and inclusion” and community, but it is interesting that the mission statement opens with this sentence: “Bryn Mawr College educates students to the highest standard of excellence to prepare them for lives of purpose.” I have very mixed feelings when I read this, and it is really unique even among mission statements of other liberal arts colleges. Anyways, now that I look back on what Bryn Mawr has done for me, albeit rather unsuccessful, this school was indeed doing a lot towards that preparation. And this is the kind of place I hope to teach at in the future, and this is what I hope I can prepare my students for as well.