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[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos, where it was just rescued from diary oblivion.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Classes have been in session for two weeks now. It’s taken me a while to build a head of steam for blogging. Been a little busy, as you will see.

As was the case last year, I am teaching 16 classes a week (that’s eight groups of students for 100 minutes at a go), but with some changes in subjects and students. This term, I am teaching oral English to the freshman and sophomore undergraduates majoring in Business English, and Western Culture and Civilization to the juniors in Business English.

None of the juniors have oral English classes anymore, which befuddles me, but apparently It’s the Way Things Are Done Here™, according to fellow foreign teachers at other schools. The Business English students have a course in public speaking, but the English education majors — who will presumably be teaching English — have no more English language classes. More about that later.

Previously, my writing classes were the biggest consumer of my prep time, what with reading essays and diaries and plotting more ways to get my students to write English. This term, it’s the Civ class that takes the prize.

The last time I learned anything about ancient Greece and Rome was maybe (if I can remember correctly) in junior high school, which was, oh, about 40 years ago. And for some reason, I’ve always been more interested in medieval history than ancient history, so I’ve got some pretty huge gaps in my cultural background knowledge. (Confession: I tried to read both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but never got through them. And don’t even ask me about The Republic or The Aeneid. Not yet anyway.)

Once we reach the Middle Ages, I’ll feel a little more secure, but there is still a lot of history I need to review.

Adding to my workload is the rather inadequate text we are using, which covers 3,000 years of Western culture in about 380 pages. There are no pictures, no maps, no diagrams — just lots and lots of words, names and dates. Most of the students have never learned anything about Western history, so this book is like Greek to them. (Ahem.) Despite being written by Chinese authors in English, the reading level is miles above their current reading comp skills, so I need to supplement it big time.

It’s not a bad text, really. To its credit, it spends a chapter each on Judaism and Christianity, and tries to summarize the OT and the NT. (The summaries are not that cogent — for some bizarre reason it reprints most of Revelation verbatim — so I have to be a Biblical scholar now, too. Oy vay.) But there is one major omission. In discussing the Enlightenment, the text takes pains to highlight the French Revolution as the most important consequence of the Enlightenment, but says nothing about the American Revolution which preceded (and inspired) it.

Oh, and for you history teachers, there is a noticeable Marxist slant to its historical analysis. The Renaissance and Reformation was the first time the bourgeousie were able to fight against the “feudalistic autocracy and theological yoke” of the aristocracy and the Church, for example.

I’m not bothered so much by the slant, as by the dearth of visually appealing graphics. So, my lectures by necessity need to be illustrated, requiring me to spend hours finding images on the ‘Net when I’m not poring over ancient Greek and Roman lit and philosophy. It’s like I’m back in school again.

My first lecture was about ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Phoenicia, which the text mentions in passing, but supplies no details about. Next up is “Greek Myth and the Poet Homer.” That’s in the can now, and I am now boning up on Greek politics and philosophy. Plato’s Republic, here I come!

The junior classes have gained nine new students each since last term, all graduates of three-year programs who have earned the chance to become candidates for the bachelor degree. One is a student I taught my first term at JiDa; the others have come from other unis. They will spend two years at JiDa.

Meanwhile, the freshmen have arrived on campus, and are already in their green camos for military training. Our college will either have 120 new students, or 160. We’re still not clear about the numbers, as some 40 of the three-year students just didn’t show up.

Maybe I’ve done this before, but here’s a primer on the Chinese university system, at least as it applies to me here.

First of all, every high school student takes the gaokao (college entrance exam) in June of their final year. They are stratified by the results. The top scorers can go to the premier unis in China, like Beijing University or Fudan U in Shanghai, and lower scorers to lower-ranked schools. In addition, they may qualify to be undergraduates — bachelor-degree candidates who attend school for four years — or what we in the States would term junior-college candidates, who have a three-year course of study, ending in a certificate of completion.

But students can sit for the gaokao again, so we think those missing 40 are waiting for a year to see if they improve their scores and become four-year candidates. It will save them money in the long run. You see, once they arrive at college, the three-year students study on their own to take self-study exams. If their scores are high enough, they can qualify to be bachelor-degree students, finishing their college careers in five years instead of four. There are no guarantees they can pass those exams, so they have to weigh the advantages (and costs) of improving their gaokao score and getting a bachelor degree in four years or enrolling as three-year students, taking self-study exams, and getting a degree in five years.

Now, about those oral English classes. As I mentioned above, none of our juniors are taking English language classes, but they are learning Japanese as their second foreign language. The English ed students on the three-year plan have only 10 hours of class, including teaching methods and English-literature classes. I was dismayed to learn that, for one thing, I would not be teaching them again, and for another, these future teachers were not expected to take any more English language classes. Needless to say, this runs completely contrary to the American curriculum for language teachers-in-training.

Well, my former students have lots of time on their hands, and I could fit two more teaching hours into my load without exceeding my contractual limit of 18 in a week, so I offered to teach them oral English for another term. The answer from my college leaders was a very polite, but very firm, no.

Now I suspect one reason was we don’t have enough classrooms yet to schedule anymore classes, but the other is the educational culture of China. Here, teaching to the test is the head of the educational dragon.

Among the battery of standardized tests these students have to take are the CET-4 and CET-6 English exams, which they take during their first two years. It seems the sole purpose of their English language classes is to give them enough background to pass the tests. If they don’t, it’s their problem, not the college’s. After their second year, there is just no language instruction offered, or even expected.

In other words, the overriding (but unspoken) duty of the university is not to educate students deeply in their chosen major, but to enable them to pass their exams. We are not talking about a liberal arts education here.

Adding to this mentality is the prejudice against the three-year students, who in the eyes of officialdom are not “worthy” of the same opportunities offered the four-year kids. Thus, the junior undergrads have classes with foreign teachers, while the three-year certificate candidates have none. (There are other examples of such discrimination, but I will skip them as they not germane to this post.)

This whole situation just burns me up, but there is not much I can do about it. It’s the Chinese university way, and as a “foreign expert” I have next to zero influence on educational policy, even within my own college.

Fellow foreign teachers elsewhere have advised me to hold English corners for those students, which I started this week. Quite a few students are eager to improve their spoken English, so I’m hoping the turnout will increase as the weeks go by. Right now, they’re too focused on preparing for … that’s right .. standardized tests this weekend.

It’s No Child Left Behind run amok.

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