Cut loose at fifty: Chapter Twelve – Trouble brewing
By Chris Clancy
The presentations began in week three of the second semester
I knew from past experience, that if students are told to give a presentation and then left to get on with it by themselves, the result is normally a mess. This is to be expected. A good team presentation, especially one lasting more than thirty minutes, takes time and effort.
I made the use of PowerPoint obligatory. Being able to use the thing properly in today's business world is a must. Without doubt, it's a marvelous tool, but it won't do presentations by itself.
If students get some support, in the planning and practice phases of their preparation, the result is usually very good.
A fairly common misconception about Chinese students is that the educational system turns them into exam-taking machines. That too much time is spent memorizing facts in order to pass exams and not enough spent analyzing and discussing them. The upshot of all this, is that they lack real understanding of much of what they've studied, which impacts on both their confidence and their imagination.
There's something in this - there's a reason why so much in China is copied or imitated – but not to the extent that most foreigners think. If this really were the case – you could hardly blame them – not after spending almost their entire childhood studying and sitting exams.
The fact that it's not true, that they can emerge from this process with even a few shreds of personality left intact, must be some kind of testament to the power of the human spirit.
The system does cause damage to both confidence and imagination – there's no doubt about this – but it does not destroy them.
Given the right opportunity these qualities will surface.
Had it not been for the presentations I would never have had any idea about the array of talent, skills and extra-curricular abilities which quietly sat before me in class.
Put them in front of people and ask them to perform, whether individually or in a group, and the results are usually quite amazing. Very few display nerves and will talk, sing, dance, act – whatever their talents happen to be – and with great proficiency at that.
If you only ever saw them in a classroom situation it would be impossible to conceive of.
When I decided to introduce the presentations, my main worry was that they would not see them as directly relevant to their course. That they would not co-operate properly, or, to put it another way, that they would not "perform".
For this reason I asked the monitors to make sure that the strongest groups in each class did the first few presentations.
The monitors didn't let me down and neither did the groups.
I think I was exceptionally lucky, as the first two or three presentations in each class, set a very high standard. Of course, when I told classes that these presentations would receive a very high grade they didn't need much more incentive.
All the groups learned from each successive presentation. The use of PowerPoint became more and more extensive and imaginative, as did their full use of the blackboard, the space available to them in front of the class, making their own props and even bribing classmates with candy if they answered any questions asked.
In effect, they were competing with each other. The topics chosen went from things like advertising, natural disasters, UFOs, movie stars, books, cartoons, the world of work, job interviews, information technology, and the internet and on and on.
The ideas spread not just within classes but between classes.
Now, I don't want to give the impression that everything was plain sailing. It wasn't. There was some resistance from some groups who came at the end. These were usually made up of boys.
Most of the students in the accounting department were female – maybe as much as seventy or eighty percent.
Unless they have connections, girls have a much tougher time getting a decent job than boys. This is just a fact of life in China.
Studying accounting was usually their parent's idea. The reasoning being that, as long as there were business enterprises, there would be jobs for accountants. Most of the girls accepted this and just got on with it.
The same could not be said for some of the boys. They were not working under the same pressure - and it showed.
In each class you could usually find a handful that'd take up residence at the back and either sleep or play on their mobiles.
When it was their turn to perform I sometimes had to crack the whip – just to get them going – but they usually ended up doing a good job anyway.
After all, who wants to look foolish in front of their classmates?
Some have suggested that the lack of motivation amongst boys is one of the many adverse side effects of China's one-child policy. The argument is that because boys are prized over girls, they are spoiled as children. Therefore they grow up lazy and unmotivated.
There may well be something in this.
As for the girls being more motivated than the boys, the same is generally true in the West. But the reasons are very different. In the West there is far greater equality of opportunity in the workplace and girls usually get more spoilt than boys - yet they still tend to outperform boys at school?
The answer to this apparent conundrum lies in how school children are assessed.
In China, continual assessment is practically unheard of. Everything rests on formal examinations. In study after study it has been shown that boys do better than girls under this kind of system.
The fact is that most girls hate exams!
In the West, continual assessment, in one form or another, has become the norm. In study after study it has been shown that girls do better than boys under such a system – which they do.
To be sure, girls in China have a tougher time of it. The job market is less fair, boys tend to be favoured above them and, to cap it all, they labour under an academic assessment system which doesn't suit them.
Chinese people from humble beginnings, who get to the top in life, without handles or leg-ups, are very special people indeed – and all the more so if they are female.
I mention this in passing.
Something else I mentioned above was China's one-child policy. Having done so I will say only one more thing about it. If you are going to ask how successful the policy has been, you need to be clear about what you mean by the word "successful"?
If you mean, "Is the population less than it otherwise would have been?", the answer is an emphatic, "Yes". In fact, it's estimated that it's about 300 million people less!
However, if you mean, "What have been the consequences of this policy?", then you enter an economic, political, social, ethical, moral, legal and philosophical minefield.
Which is why I'm steering well clear of it.
The only other major event of the semester was my introduction to the unfettered world of English language provision in China. I've already alluded to it as China's version of the Klondike – as a description it's not too far off – more detail on this to follow shortly.
By the end of the semester it was clear that the presentations had become a very popular and enjoyable part of the course. I knew they were not that extra "something" which I had been looking for, but, as events would transpire, they did put me on the right road.
They had helped to keep the classes together and had also given the course some variety and flexibility and, dare I say it, had actually allowed the students to have some fun.
That damned foreigner!
We were doing OK before he turned up!
How dare he come here and try and make students happy!
Yes, some in the department were not very pleased about what I was doing. It was resented. To them I became a sort of "non-person" – or should I say an "un-person" - like I didn't exist.
The others in the department did acknowledge my existence – but that's all – they were waiting to see which way the wind was blowing.
The important point is that nothing was said openly.
As long as this was the case I knew I was safe. I knew that someone with power, somewhere, was protecting me.
I was being allowed to carry on doing something which was very new. However, I also knew I now had some enemies; but, for a time at least, I was bulletproof.
Wheels within wheels. Invisible signals. Smoke and mirrors.
I need to jump a few months ahead at this point – just to tie up my first year at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.
In October 2006 one of my students, from the first semester, asked me if I'd write something for their 2005/6 Yearbook. His English name was James Bond. I remember writing something which I thought was OK but could have been better. I also remember giving it to James who was very happy with it.
Here it is, word for word, exactly as I wrote it.
Reading it now, these years later, it's not so bad after all. But even if it wasn't there's little I could do about it. "The moving finger writes … ", and all that.
But the sentiment remains true.
And as true now as it was then.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.