Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

5 thoughts on “Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

  1. Hey Julien!
    I just read quite a few of the articles here on your blog – and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed them. You’re a great writer, and I feel as though I’ve gotten to know you a bit! You seem to be a very genuine and switched-on person. Anyway, I just wanted to touch base and let you know I’m enjoying reading about your adventures!
    加油!

  2. Aye, mate. Julien, looked up the blog b/c I had read your Marco Polo project blog on expats. I got upset, b/c I think if you would initially meet me, you’d say “I was one of those housewives”. Well now that I read this I see more of a kindred spirit in you! I came here with the hubby, left my career and everything in a psych hospital in the U.S. and found one cannot get a work permit for much else besides teaching (English). I could have done Dietetics (my 1st career years ago) but my commute would have been 3 hours each day.

    I have a Masters in Ed Psych so,I thought, “why not”. I taught for one semester at Tianjin Uni of Science and Technology in an Australian Business program. It was hellish for most of the experiences you name above. I liken it to teaching in Russia. It was a joke. I had 124 students for nine classes a week. Any innovation in my course planning was thrown out the window by the powers that be. My grades for the students were looked at and then I was told the Chinese dean would decide on the student’s final grade (most wouldve failed because they never did any work, failed the tests and wouldn’t converse). Not many were even interested in Business and couldnt answer why they were there. The level of maturity was that of perhaps a 10th uear high schooler in the States (which doesnt say much!) Students were not able to engage on a mature, interactive level. It seems an antiquated system and not geared towards modern language learning. I’ve taken years of languages (French, Spanish) in the States, and interactive and integrative works. Direct translation, heavy dictionary use and rote memorization and teaching to the test don’t.

    Well after having a student write “f—off” on the board after an incident, and then falling on the ice on the marble (un shoveled) stairs and then no classroom heat and broken desks, I decided I didn’t need the money or headaches and I quit.

    Now I’m back to writing and maybe publishing someday…
    ….funny…the kids were very upset when I quit…

    Anyways, would love to follow your progress..I myself am not going to be learning much more Chinese as I will not be in the country too much longer. The upside is that I have made many Chinese friends including many of my former students and that made it pretty much all worth it!

    …. And, I like the fact that you’re an FrancoAussie, I was an exchange student in Luxembourg back in the day. Good luck! Keep writing!

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