Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ACC: End-of-Term Program Report

Before I begin to evaluate my fall-term experience, I want to emphasis that many aspects of it are not only subjective, but also unclear in my own mind. My level of satisfaction with my own Chinese ability, as everyone who knows me well can affirm, fluctuates wildly day by day; my memory of my Chinese proficiency at any given time in the past is correspondingly hazy, and is influenced heavily by the environment and interlocutors of my living situation at the time. Thus, making comparisons over time (i.e., gauging “improvement”) is extremely difficult. Separating the program’s part in this improvement from my that of other, contemporaneous experiences was never easy but for various reasons has been especially tricky this time around, and adds yet another layer of complexity to the problem of providing an accurate analysis of ACC itself.

Caveats dispensed with, you know I’ll do my best. I’ve broken down my analysis of 4th year at ACC (Associated Colleges in China) into four areas: curriculum and teaching materials; instruction methods; teachers, staff, and administration; and student life. I will also try to make some comparisons with HBA along the way, as I have the unique perspective of having taken 4th-year Chinese at both programs.

Curriculum and teaching materials:

Both (non-summer) academic terms at ACC are split into four “classes”; these classes have official and somewhat nebulous names, but in reality they are the following:

1.     Modern Chinese. This is ACC’s “core class,” and its purpose is vocabulary building. Readings are mostly from articles prepared by ACC/Hamilton (ACC’s parent college) itself, and are (as expected) chock full of vocabulary. Although I had seen some of it before (a small portion in Yale’s 3rd-year class and more while at HBA), I was still pushing 60 new words per night, which after long periods of intensive Chinese education I have come to consider the maximum number of which I can retain an acceptable percentage in the long-term. One of the textbook’s strengths is that it does build vocabulary, and its new words and expressions are on average more often seen and heard in everyday life than much of what we learned at HBA. On the other hand, one would occasionally hear teachers grumble that some of these words are no longer frequently used; others, so specialized that we may never see them again. This is one of all students’ biggest qualms with every Chinese program in existence: We don’t know how to say “roof” or “your shoe is untied,” but we do know how to say “inanimate” and “irreconcilable differences.”

Problems specific to ACC: First, the text itself is nothing more than a set of articles and lists of new vocabulary: there is no emphasis on grammar whatsoever, and in the instances in which more complicated grammatical structures do present themselves the student must either go to office hours or (more likely) wait until the next day’s class to understand. Also, there is also a complete failure to distinguish between formal and informal diction. The textbook’s English translations of new vocabulary are extremely accurate (unlike at HBA, where I would often enter every word into a reliable online dictionary just to make sure), and also very thorough (at HBA I would often have to look up words that were new to me but had not been included on the list); however, adding one sample sentence per word and sentence pattern, a feature I really admire about the Yale 3rd-year text, would work wonders.

2.     Classical Chinese: 古代汉语 is a fairly simple supplementary class, taught once a week on average, which focuses on very short stories in classical Chinese, most of which are result in 成语. {Chengyu are 4-character phrases that usually contain a very specific meaning and often have historical or literary roots; e.g., “shaving a pestle to make a needle” means “indomitable persistence,” and comes from a story we read in this class about how the unrelenting pestle-shaving of a very determined old woman inspired a one-time scholar to go back to his studies.} Very little preparation was required, except before tests; the class was essentially fun, and somewhat informative in that we learned a few and more importantly picked up a basic feel for classical Chinese and an understanding of the roots of some current Chinese words.

The whole exercise was at times a bit of a fiasco, though: there was, for no good reason other than that we needed to be tested, an unreasonable emphasis on translation from classical to modern Chinese. This was ridiculous both 1) because an understanding of the idea in the classical text did not (for us) equal an ability to accurately represent that idea in modern Chinese, and 2) because classical Chinese is very idea-based (it’s a fantastically concise language) and thus often open for interpretation, which was evident in the varying explanations of individual words or phrases given by teachers, textbook, and tests.

3.     Media: One half of the media course was a textbook of real newspaper and magazine articles. Most had no dates on them (I think they were compiled mid-’90s), some of the vocabulary within got extremely specialized, and the amount of new words in each article would often reach 90 or 100; in short, the class suffered from an even more serious content problem than Modern Chinese. On the other hand, the articles were real, and that’s not to be underestimated: they took contemporary issues as their topic, and they were not written by teachers or directed at students of Chinese.

Media class had a second half to it: Chinese film. If ACC’s image in my eyes could be rescued, this would definitely be its saving grace. Put simply, we set aside two weeks during the term to watch two different Chinese films. We were given the movie (probably copied illegally), a full script (also questionable), and a list of vocabulary, and asked to start by watching the film once through. Then, Sunday through Wednesday night, we would prepare one quarter (20-40 minutes) each evening. Film class was a fantastic exercise in listening and a great way to teach colloquial expressions, and I will be taking it as a model for a large portion of my independent study when I return to Beijing.

4.     Independent Project/Report: It’s tough to say why no one’s (that I saw) turned out particularly well, but I’m inclined to think that the major reason was that adding a requirement for independent research to an already heavy workload was simply too much; even those who started off with a strong interest in their topic found that in the end they simply had no time to create an impressive final product. Other possible reasons: Students found that they did not have access to the enough information (or at least nothing compared to the accessibility and readability of public databases in the U.S.), could not reach or communicate effectively with sources… or were simply lazy and only cared about getting a passable grade and moving on. In terms of benefits to the student, it’s unclear to me what the thrust of this class/project was – the best I can think up is the very broad goal of “skill-building,” or “practice,” as tasks comprised translation (one article, English-to-Chinese), reading comprehension (6 articles or pieces thereof in Chinese, and responses), dialogue (interview), and writing (aforementioned reading responses, and 3 drafts of the report), and speechcraft (two oral reports on the progress and conclusions of our research).

I personally started out with high hopes and a master plan: I would use the pretext of researching children’s television to watch a lot of easy TV programs and improve my listening. As it turned out, I had less time on my hands and enjoyed watching the popular kids’ programs much less than I had expected. I also found the project’s requirements and my own interests pushing me into a research-and-analysis paradigm. Combined with serious time constraints and the fact that I got along quite well with my teacher, what resulted was a semi-intellectual, very non-academic, 4,000-character report synthesizing some observations (my own and others’) on the characteristics of Chinese television.

Instruction Methods:

The quality of instruction at ACC was, in a word, disappointing. I had just come from HBA, where the teachers were on the whole inexperienced but extremely effective and where I could very much feel the learning that was going on each day. Come September, I was disheartened to find that a program as comparatively old and established as ACC, with its comparatively large and experienced body of teaching staff, could make me feel like going to class was such a massive waste of time.

The first problem with ACC’s teaching is a classic one, shared by every single program that promotes itself as “rigorous” (including HBA): there is not enough class time in a day for every student to use all of the vocabulary prepared the night before. But a bigger problem is that most courses (movie class aside) lack focus and purpose. In HBA 4th year, we had, by way of example, a segment specifically aimed at improving our debating skills; a series of texts filled with descriptive words and metaphors; and all throughout, class was clearly focused on repetition and application of grammar and sentence patterns. In ACC, on the other hand, it’s all a constant smattering of new words, each receiving about as much emphasis as the next and none focused on improving our Chinese thematically or grammatically.

ACC large/drill classes (大班课 & 小班课, 1 hr ea) also lacked the important element of creativity, which is vital to mastering (and showing an instructor that one has mastered) a new word or phrase. I question the educational value of constantly repeating sentences given to us by a teacher, or answering very pointed question with the sentence that we hope is precisely what the teacher wants to hear. And I feel that said educational value diminishes even further when these sentences are spoken together with classmates and with the teacher: ACC students quickly perfect the art of speaking in short bursts of one to four characters, appearing to speak “together” and “with the teacher” but really usually a few tenths of a second behind. I appreciate a challenge, but if the teacher is always speaking too fast while not realizing that students are mimicking instead of keeping up with her (in the muttering of five voices, especially when they include one’s own, it is of course hard to tell who is really on top of things and who is just pretending), then the student’s brain is simply not processing full sentences in Chinese. This is of course a huge problem – consider the importance of grammar, or the necessity of putting vocabulary in context.

Another reasons why students were often behind, and confused, was that teachers would make mistakes so often that I just wanted to stand up and scream. To give an example that works in English, imagine that in practicing the phrase “to make ___ one’s first priority,” a teacher first says, “I would make attending college my first priority, everything else comes after that,” and then asks us to repeat the sentence. While repeating it with us, without realizing she says “university” instead of “college.” Naturally, it’s all the same to her; whereas we students, already struggling to keep up with her speed, are completely derailed. I consider this a defect in teacher training, as this is a fault prevalent in ACC but nearly nonexistent at HBA.

As for discussion class (1 hr), a lot depended on the topic and classmates, but I rarely felt that I made gains there. Admittedly this was in large part because I was “re-taking” fourth year, and so unsurprisingly I found myself to be one of the best speakers (or perhaps the best?) in my year; thus it was hard to pick up anything from the others but a few bad habits and some vocabulary I had forgotten or never learned. That said, discussion class by its very nature was in my opinion not particularly helpful to most other fourth-years either: topics included everything from “how children should be disciplined” to a few instances of “I would compare [character] to [free choice of inanimate object] because [reason],” and as a rule had nothing whatsoever to do with anything we were learning in any of our texts. Worse, we often had to do homework in preparation for the class, which always felt like a huge waste of time. (I could not help feeling that writing a defense of my comparison between the main character of the movie “Stay Cool” and a cargo train was not exactly the best use of my late-night study time.)

One-on-one class (1 hr) was, in a word, a good idea. Here there was also a clear lack of training and standardization (I spent one class in what can only be described as an interrogation about my views on happiness and love), but the enterprising student could usually steer it toward what he or she wanted to talk about, and most ACC students enjoyed one-on-one sessions. Personally, I oftentimes wished for the opposite – I wanted the teacher to lead me in more directed practice of new vocabulary – but I also tended to not have the energy or motivation to steer the conversation there myself, so in the end I should take most of the responsibility for any disappointments encountered in one-on-one.

Homework: In complete contrast to the very directed, review-oriented homework at HBA, ACC’s homework had a very cobbled-together feel to it. Not only was some of it clearly quite literally done in a rush the night before (more than a few times, our discussion class homework lacked clarity or contained errors; once or twice it flat-out didn’t make sense), but very few assignments actually required us to apply vocabulary learned in the past few weeks. Essays were rare – 4 in a 12-week term, compared to HBA’s 6-ish in 8 weeks – and I only remember one in which it seemed appropriate to use recently learned vocab.

Testing: ACC’s tests were stricter than HBA’s, because (a bit ironically) the former were largely vocab-based and an excellent (not “good”) grade required one to do some vocab review on one’s own. However, the actual difficulty of the tests – as measured in the speed of the listening portion, the difficulty of the reading comprehension, and the complexity required of written responses – was not up to the challenging standard I had been faced with over the summer. The review materials for each week’s test were excellent in that there was always one portion focused on vocabulary, one on new short phrases and 成语, and one on word choice (e.g., the difference between “to take” and “to accept” responsibility) – though the latter category was rarely true “review,” and should instead have been categorized, “important things we should have taught you in class.”

Teachers, Staff, and Administration

Teachers: I have little to say. As everywhere, ACC 4th year had a range of teaching talent, passion, and experience; however, as I learned at HBA, deficiencies in any of these areas can be supplemented by good training. ACC clearly lacked that training, especially in preparing teachers to lead the (slightly) larger lecture and drill classes: the only one whose class I ever truly looked forward to was the head teacher, Li Hongyan, a woman in her forties who had clearly been at the job for a long time and was adept at everything from adjusting the speed of the class to answering detailed questions about connotations.

Staff: Always helpful, though I have my suspicions about their methods. (A friend’s visa extension was secured through dubious methods made possible by a comparatively large sum of money; also, some of the teachers suspect ACC is operating under the radar, because employees have never had payroll taxes deducted by the government. It’s China, friends.)

Administration: My feelings about the director, Zhang Yin, are very conflicted. I had read very, very good reviews of her in nearly every past review of ACC, so I had very high hopes going into the semester – and indeed, she seemed to meet those expectations when, only a few weeks into the semester, she scheduled a short meeting with every single student to discuss their adjustment and any concerns they might have. However, I found that when I did voice my concerns about things like curriculum and policy, I felt distinctly brushed aside. (For example, I told her I thought that the policy of ‘no notes during lecture class’ was counterproductive; she told me she would “open a door” and allow me to take notes but didn’t seem concerned about the larger question of whether or not the policy was a good one.)

During the semester, I became fairly close with one of my teachers, so I heard a lot of things that I doubt any of the other students ever realized, and it became very clear to me as the semester went on that the director’s focus on “putting students first” often came at the expense of the teachers themselves. Whenever a student complained (and they would, with or without cause), it was automatically assumed that the teacher was at fault; the duties of teachers also tended to go above and beyond what they had expected when they signed on; and they, too, felt the ineffectiveness of much of what they and the program were doing. ACC 4th year had 2 head teachers and 9 ordinary teachers; of the latter 9, six had resigned before the semester was out. (A second-year teacher also quit near the end.) Some of this must be chalked up to a lack of connection with the students, a weak sense of responsibility, the high expectations of youth (most teachers were young women in their mid-twenties), and the self-feeding nature of the anger among a group of dissatisfied employees who only dare voice their complaints to each other and not their boss… but the intense dissatisfaction among both students and teachers in fourth year should not be taken lightly.

Student Life

ACC’s location is fantastic, and my experience outside of class was incredibly beneficial both to my Chinese proficiency and to my understanding of the local culture. In fact, this is probably a major reason for my dissatisfaction with the program itself: Everything else I was doing was so valuable to me that attending class felt like a crime. At first, I threw myself into extracurricular activities (ping-pong, Chinese chess, Go), started exercising again, and began the very helpful practice of watching Chinese TV. ACC gave me a “Chinese family” and a language partner, and every day I ate in a cafeteria surrounded by Chinese students of several different ethnicities. My roommate was in my opinion the best I could have possibly been paired with: always upbeat, more than willing to humor my cravings for games of Frisbee and Go, and serious about sticking to the language pledge. (I must admit to a downside of this: He was a 3rd year student, and his Chinese wasn’t the best. I know I was a huge help to him throughout the semester, and I’m glad I was able to play that part, but at the same time it wasn’t a terribly good for my own language skills.)

Then, about the fourth or fifth week, I began attending training sessions in preparation for Beijing’s ‘higher education foreign exchange student Chinese debate competition’; as we made it to the last round, what this meant in practice was something like an average of five hours of every day, 6 days a week, completely focused on debate. My classes slipped a little; other extracurriculars disappeared from my life; and we made it to second place out of 15 participating schools. I learned a lot, some of it foundational but much of it very specialized, and it was a trying but ultimately rewarding experience during which I also made the acquaintance of a whole gaggle of Chinese graduate students.

For those who have more time in their lives, ACC (at Minzu University/Central University of Ethnicities) is located just a few minutes’ walk from two subway stops, a string of great little restaurants and markets, and the largest library in China. The dorms are fantastic – the quality of a four-star hotel, though the hot water is provided on Chinese university terms (i.e., only for showers, at morning and night) – and in fact I would even place them above HBA’s famed Conference Center, provided you get along with your ACC roommate. There were a few students who had been at ACC over the summer (when the program was still based at the Capital University of Economics and Business, with its comparatively squalid dorms) and said that the isolation and ease of living at Minzu actually contributed to the distance that students felt between each other and between themselves and their teachers, which I can believe but can also forgive in light of the ease of studying in a comfortable environment where living conditions aren’t a concern.

What I Gained

Let’s break it down like we always do:
1.     Reading: A palpable improvement, following on the heels of an expanded vocabulary. This was ACC’s biggest success. Unfortunately, my speed did not improve in the least, as we were never pushed to read faster (especially on tests) and the amount of material we read was actually rather small all told.
2.     Writing: Besides an incremental improvement in my overall grammar and the addition of new vocabulary, my writing changed very very little from September to December. This is because, as I mentioned earlier, ACC’s writing assignments were few and unfocused.
3.     Listening: I could and can definitely feel my improvement – I have taken the first few steps away from the “only able to understand teachers” situation. There are two elements to listening: from a vocabulary point of view, I have ACC to thank, whereas the (very much ongoing) adaptation of my ear to the sounds of the language and the use of words in conversation has almost all occurred outside of class, particularly at debate, watching television, and especially spending time with the aforementioned teacher.
4.     Speaking: I have days when I feel I must be close to fluency, and days when I can barely express myself. In general, though, I can say that I have improved in my ability to express a wide range of emotions and opinions, though the vast majority of this is due to the non-ACC factors mentioned above.

I’ve typed out all of my thoughts, and they’re probably a jumbled mess – but at least there is a superstructure organizing them, which I hope the reader will find acceptable. If you can think of any aspect of ACC that interests you and I have neglected to touch on, please feel free to comment/reply/e-mail me; I will get back to you and/or edit my report accordingly.

But in sum, let me leave you with this wish: that my impending semester of independent study be five times as rewarding as ACC ever was. If it can be done, I will be sure to see it through.

1 comment:

  1. I can pretty much promise you'll have many, MANY amazing outcomes from independent study. Please post ALL (O.K., at least some) of them for us. =)