Thursday, February 10, 2011


It has been a really long time since I last posted, but I do want to become more consistent with it.

The beginning of this semester marked some changes for me. I recognized that working with my current advisor was a bad decision.This also meant that I would need to change the concentration of my degree. However, when I came to the decision that if I remained where I was the degree might have my concentration's name on it, but I would not have truly learned anything. That's is absolutely not why I came back to school.

My decision to make this change was in part due to the lack of satisfaction I had with the courses taught in my concentration. Books were reassigned in different classes, and I did not feel we were focusing on key texts in International and Comparative Education. I was not learning anything about the education in other countries, at least not to the extent that I had expected to. In addition, the opportunity to give honest feedback about the courses was taken away by the instructor with the knowledge we had that our evaluations were not confidential (we believe she was looking at them before they were turned into to the department and we were told by her to give her a good evaluation because she wanted to teach the class again. Regardless of whether or not she actually looked at the evaluations, we all had the belief that we could not respond honestly. Apparently, this has been the case for several years. Thus, courses taught previously continue to be taught below (my) standard.

In addition, as our advisors courses suffer from low enrollment, some students were asked to re register and retake courses they have already taken or take an independent study with my advisor and sit in her class again (so at least it looks like there are more people in her classes). I did not want to face this kind of problem in my future either. My advisor had asked me to be a TA for one of her classes, and then because of low enrollment to also be a student in the class (with what I did for a course grade to be negotiated later). I was bothered by this concept.... How can I be assisting with the teaching of a course while at the same time be a student. I see these as very conflicting roles. I need to be one or the other.

Finally, I was under great pressure to take my qualifying exams next semester (given that you are supposed to finish coursework before taking qualifying exams, this did not make any sense to me). I resisted, but was often asked to take them. I was told that I was ready to take them and that I should take them. I said I wanted to finish my coursework first, but even after I switched advisors (and before my previous advisor found out) I was still being asked to take the QE.

For these reasons and the belief that 80% of the rumor you hear is true, I decided that continuing to work with this advisor for the next 4-6 years would be a mistake. I probably would have quit the program. So I made a decision to change. Making the change involved (but did not require) making a formal complaint to the Department. I was not the only student to do this and there were a few others who changed at the same time with me. The department had been very supportive of the students who had the problem with the instructor. Thus far, our complaints did result in the instructor returning our papers to us with feedback. It was so strange to get them. One student commented that she had not got any feedback for 3 years. Unfortunately, most of the feedback was glowingly positive, and I felt that I wanted to have more harsh criticism. The previous comment I had got from her was that my papers were too long, and yet this was not mentioned again nor did she mention what I should cut out of the papers.

It was a big struggle with figuring out what I should do, but I after I came to realize that a change was necessary, it made the task easier. I would not have changed if I was happy with my program, but I am not unhappy with the change I made. Now I am in Sociology of Education. It matches my background quite well. I really like the two instructors who teach courses in this area and they are very good. They have great classes and they do great work. I am happy to be working under them, and I think I will learn much from that experience.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Not Alone

So my previous post was talking about some of the difficulties I was having with the SAS/Stats class I am taking. After, the last week of confusing lecture (and what actually felt like torture for 3 hours), I got to work on my homework (that I had been somewhat putting off just because I wanted to file it away and not think about it).

I went to the lab myself in the morning, and then I asked the professor a question. He reminded me that the codebook was located on UB learns, which I had forgotten. That helped. Then I brought up the e-mail I had sent him last week and explained something in words that I was not able to express in the e-mail. I also wanted to apologize in case he felt I was being too critical in the e-mail after all he is the instructor and I am just a student (though, I do not think I would have felt angry if a student had articulated their concerns in a similar way). It took him 4 days to reply to the e-mail, and he told us that he generally takes less than a day to do that (and that had been the case with previous questions), so I told him I wanted to apologize if I crossed some sort of line. He assured me that it was not the case and he found the suggestions reasonable (he actually plans to use them), so I will see if they are, in fact, helpful.

Later, I went back to the lab to finish the homework because my conversation with him lasted a long time. I found one of my classmates there and we started to work together, but in some ways it was a case of the blind leading the blind. Neither of us was very sure, and found being questioned just made us more uncertain. It was very easy to break out the eraser and change without really knowing if that was the right thing to do. Then one more showed up, but the answers she had were somewhat different from ours. And then two more showed up, and we worked through the problems together. The problem was that we all had the same questions and did not really know how to go about getting the answers.

It brings me really back to what I was writing about last week. Finding that it was not only me, and that these others were also having trouble. What was striking was that we were all female. In conversing, the others said they did not really feel comfortable addressing their concerns with the professor (in fact, they had said they liked the new way, but in reality, it was for different reasons--and the first week was ok, but it got more confusing). These students are not asking questions during the class and are not contacting the instructor after the class. They suggested that they did not want to rock the boat because if they were looking to work with this professor in the future, they wanted to stay on the good side. In other words, it seems like they viewed expressing dissatisfaction or lack of understanding would harm the relationship they had with this professor. There was little confidence in expressing this. In my mind, I wondered if this attitude would be different if the professor was non-male non-white (as a student mentioned in class the other day). In addition, two of the people who were there were non-native English speakers, a third was from working class roots. Which in my mind, are somewhat marginalized positions where questioning authority may be more challenging.

This experience really ties in nicely with what I am trying to write about for my paper in Sociological Bases in Education. I am very curious about gender and math achievement and the reasons that girls generally underperform boys in math, but when girls do get math they generally do better than boys. It is somewhat of a contradiction, and I wonder if much of these barriers are in how the math is being taught and who is teaching it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Top Down & Bottom Up Revisited

I was sitting in my Stats class this week and I realized that I felt lost. But I was lost in a way that i had felt lost before, and that was not so long ago. I felt exactly (exactly exactly exactly) the same way I felt when I was taking Chinese classes in China. In that respect, I suppose I could say that learning math and learning chinese are a lot a like. And I do not really like either one of them. But the thing is, I could.

I remember coming to this realization in China that I taught from a bottom up approach whereas my students were used to learning from a top down approach. This explained so many of the difficulties I encountered in the classroom, both as a teacher of English and a student of Chinese in China.

I learn best when I am given a big picture and asked to break it into part of if I am asked to examine parts after looking at the bigger picture. However, some people get really confused when they are given a big picture of something they have never seen before and asked to make sense of it. They need to have the little parts to put together and they can make the big picture once they have the little parts. In contrast, when I am given lots of little parts and I am not told what to do with them I get overwhelmed and confused (OMG! Is this why some people have neat houses and some people have messy houses?!?).

So I discovered in Stats class that I did not really get what the professor was talking about until the end, and had he started from the end then I could have followed what he was saying. And that this was exactly the same as Chinese. The teacher would start out by explaining unfamiliar vocabulary words and grammatical structures before telling me a complete sentence for an example. However, had she started with that example, I could have quickly absorbed the grammar and vocabulary.

Thus, it got me thinking more about the top-down and bottom-up approach. I wonder if there are gender connections to this as well as cultural connections. In fact, in China all the males (that I talked to) generally liked the way Chinese class was taught and found it useful whereas the females I talked to expressed the most dissatisfaction. (This really needs to be a more careful survey than just some impressions I had from talking to some people).

I think there could be a lot of advantages for students if they were placed in an environment where their teachers taught in the way they learned best. At the same time, there are also benefits for being able to understand information in both ways. However, if information is only taught in one way and there is a large group of people who are not benefitting from the way it is taught, then maybe it could be related to this top-down bottom-up difference. I know for myself, the bottom up is what works. I also get that top-down works for some people. I tried to incorporate both in my teaching, but I also found that it is hard to think in a way that does not make sense to me.

To me, this is one of the reasons multicultural education is important for everyone. I have the idea that teachers need to build bridges for their students to understand information and that it needs to be presented in different ways and in ways that may not make sense to the teacher (or seem backwards) but that would make sense to some of the students. Not all people think alike and globalization means that we are going to all need ways to approach problems and situations that are both critical and creative. By incorporating different styles of teaching and helping students be able to learn in both ways we can perhaps reach a greater percentage of students.

Another issue that came up was that of resistance, and I found a place where I wrote in my blog that I would continue to try to find ways to annoy my teacher under the radar. My students (see last post) did it to me, and I find I did it as well. When something does not make sense, we resist it. Acknowledging that resistance could be a gap in how knowledge is process is something very worthy of considering. I remember hating my psychology class in high school because the teacher was scatterbrained, disorganized, and nothing seemed to have a point. Now, I think she was probably using a bottom up approach. Thus, it is ironic to me know that I have came to prefer that way.

This will certainly be a place where I pay attention in research as it is something that makes loads of sense to me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Grad school as I expected does involve loads of reading and while I could give a long description of everything I have read thus far, that is not my intention now.

The reading I am talking about is just something basic. I am taking this stats class, and we are given homework and exams. Thus far, on my first homework assignment, I managed to skip half of a problem from not carefully reading the questions.

Then on the first exam, I managed to misread a question and give the wrong answer because of it. Fortunately, I have a kind instructor who only marked the question half wrong.

Again, on the take home exam, I did the same kind of mistake with two questions. I wrote the program correctly, but told it to do the wrong thing. Fortunately, I have a kind instructor who allowed me to correct the mistake and resubmit the work for this exam.

From this experience, I reflect on some of the work I have done in the past few years. I cannot count the number of exam where students have answered a different question from what was asked. I always wondered how they could be so stupid (now I bet they at one time wondered that exact same thing--that is, how could they have made such a stupid mistake). I also know that when I came across these kind of mistakes I was never ever tolerant of them. I just marked the answer wrong and thought why can't these students be bothered to read the darn questions.

In marking the IELTS exam, it would also often be the case that someone misinterpreted the topic or it felt from reading their response that they did not read the question. I always gave the advice to students to read the questions several times to make sure you understand what the question is asking.

In fact, there was one question on the exam where I was looking for some information to tell me the way to put my variables (which one goes in the row and which in the column). I could not figure out what to do, so I just picked one way hoping it was the right way. When I first looked at it the numbers made sense, and I put it out of my mind until the day before the exam was due when I realized my mistake and found that the information I was looking for was in the question as it should have been. I felt so stupid and wondered why I could not find that information the first time and second and third times I read that question.

I am reminded of my own advice. Read the question. Make sure the answer you gave is to the question that was asked. Now I feel it is important to add... even if you checked once, check it again.

Looking back, I realize I probably graded quite harsh while I was in China. On one hand, I could say that I wanted to have a high standard or a reasonable standard, but on the other hand, I now wonder if at times I did not have enough understanding of my students. After all, on my tests they were also using their second language.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Liu Xiaobo--a Follow UP

One of the lessons I taught my students in the reading magazines and newspapers class in China was the value of reading stories about the same topic from different countries. I first heard of this story from a former student of mine who is currently still in China. She wondered if I had heard about this story and what I thought and she mentioned it would have made an excellent topic for my newspaper class. She was exactly right.
One of the first sources of information I check regarding what is going on in China is EastSouthWestNorth by Roland Soong in Hong Kong. I have found his blog to consistently take a middle line response to many of the issues that occur with China.
I also checked ChinaSMACK, and found that this topic was not a post although it was commented on in the comments section. This shows me that this is not a topic being discussed in China currently. I also consulted with Danwei (a blog which is generally blocked in China.
The next source for me to consider was the news in the US. For the most part the response of American newspapers was expected. Yeah, a dissident from China got the award! Oh look, China is not happy about it! Yeah! Ha Ha! Just as we always suspected China is back to her ways of censorship again!
I then looked at some articles from an English language newspaper in Norway. There were several articles, but the article announcing the news mainly just gave some details about Liu Xiaobo and explained the significance of the prize.
To me, I wish China could trust her people to come to their own conclusions on some controversial issues. I wish that there could be room for a public discussion and that the country would not need to block the news from her citizens. I wish China could have greater faith in her people to not believe all that the West stands for. I wish the Chinese people could see through western hegemony and present a counter view of the world events that serves to challenge the west. I wish China were truly able to engage in that dialogue. As a country that is developing economically and is being called to take on more social responsibility, I wish that this could be taken on her own terms. In order to engage with the west, I do think that reforms will need to take place. I also have some trust that China is aware of this and that these reforms should come on her own terms. Chinese reform should not be initiated through western pressure. Western pressure on this issue to some extent is a lack of respect for China. It is also wrong of the West to think that China will only change if she is pressured to do so by the west.
I also feel some disappointment in my own country for her predictable response. The news people in the United States want to hear about China all relates to dissent. American journalists love to report on protests or attempts to challenge Chinese communist rule. Few stories talk about the humanistic side of China. The majority of stories we are told about China serve to reconfirm the idea that Chinese people do not have freedom or human rights. And yet, for the most part, this is not actually the case. We can easily point to many isolated incidents where China does seem to not value human rights. The one Child policy, the forced relocations... the list goes on. However, there is always the equally valid moral justification that supports for the good of the people it is ok to sacrifice the rights of a few. In most cases, the United States places too much value on individual rights. I take the ownership of guns as an example here.
In short, I do believe we can learn a lot by looking at how different countries approach the news from different viewpoints. I also believe that few people in any country take the initiative to do so. Without the consideration of the viewpoints of other nations we also never learn how other nations see us, and it is often through their outside perspective that we can begin to see both the strong and weak points we possess. I believe it isn't just China who needs to do this. I would further like to add that this is what I gained from living overseas. When I hear something, I have learned not to take it immediately at face value. There are multiple perspectives and until these are also considered, it is not reasonable to come to a conclusion. Being critical also means learning to challenge the responses that come predictably by many.

A list of articles relating to Liu Xiao Bo from a variety of sources:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Congrats China

This morning I was chatting with a former student of mine, and she asked if I knew about who won the Nobel Prize this year. Given who was asking, my first guess was a Chinese person. During the six years I lived in China, one of the sorest spots among educated Chinese is that they have not been the winners of a Nobel Prize. In my mind, Chinese people believe that winning the Nobel Prize would be a sign that China was truly taking an leading role on the world stage. Just as hosting the Olympics was a huge deal to the Chinese people so to was winning a Nobel Prize.
However, this prize was awarded to a person who is in jail. His name is Liu Xiaobo. From what I understand he was a student who did take part in the Tiananmen Square protests and he recently wrote something called Charter 8 which calls for greater freedoms for the Chinese people (including open elections, judiciary reforms, and human rights guarantees).
In classes, we have been talking about multiple layers of meanings and struggles countries go through to decide whose story gets told. In the case of Japan, there is still a struggle over what is taught about war atrocities during the Asia Pacific War and namely the Nanjing Massacre, comfort women, and other incidents. In Taiwan, there was debate over curriculum that emphasizes nationalist or nativist sentiments. There is a constant struggle in politics, on a legal front, and in the court of public opinion as to what becomes the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Now with the spreading of globalization, countries are no longer in isolation. Injustice that is carried out within the borders of one country may be challenged by the international community in ways that could not have been imagined just decades ago.
I told my colleague today about the Chinese Nobel Prize winner, and it was the first she had heard of it. Her reaction was one of great surprise and I could see the sense of pride she felt and then I told her he was in jail and the reasons for this and there was also some shock. My husband's sister also did not hear of this news. It seems the Great Firewall of China has been at great work to keep this under wraps. Just now, she reported that as she was watching CNN and they were about to mention something about Liu Xiaobo, the CNN signal was suddenly unclear.
As China was preparing for the torch relay, Tibetan protests abounded. The moment of glory was somewhat tainted by others. Now standing in what also should be a moment of glory for China, it too comes tainted but from within. During the Olympics, China wanted to put her best foot forward and give the world a wonderful impression of her developing greatness. However, I hope the world is watching China now. I am truly curious how she will respond to this prestigious, but somewhat unwelcome award. The world should watch at the same time, because it is right now that China can make a decision to shine, however I feel it is unlikely to happen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Who needs cable? I got internet!

I am a big fan of the Big Bang Theory which airs on Thursday nights. However, I am not able to watch it on Thursday night because I refuse to spend around $60 for cable every month. Instead, I rely on catching shows on the internet.

In the US, some networks also put their own shows on line (ABC, CW, are ones I have checked). You can watch those shows from the websites quite conveniently.

However, in China, the majority of these networks do not allow their shows to be accessed from the international IP, so that wasn't a choice. I eventually discovered that it was possible to catch some shows on the Chinese website Tudou. Youku is another option, but for some reasons I always preferred Tudou. In the past I had just bought the DVDs when they came out (i.e. 10 seasons for friends could be purchased for less than $10, and one season of any show would be about $1.50). I was a great cheap form of wasting time. Now this is not such an option either.

Now that I am back in the states, I continue to use Tudou. Big Bang Theory aired in the US last night. It was able to be accessed on Tudou from 5AM this morning. To me this is a huge feat because not only has the show been uploaded to the internet, it has also passed through the censors AND it has been subtitled in both English and Chinese. In addition, for the most part, the people who are doing these subtitles are not being paid. They just do it for fun. As of now, it also already has 5000 views.

I am waiting for it to download and I will soon too begin my enjoyment of watching it!