Hangzhou Evaluations

Two weeks remain to complete classes and finals. And so I think it’s a good time to begin reflecting and evaluating on my last four months here in Hangzhou.

Academic Program
Two weeks into the semester, many students signed a petition to reduce our workload. Tao laoshi, our academic director, made minor changes but, overall, it seems that the workload remained as it was before. She was right about one thing, though — we “got used to it.” But the reality of “getting used to it” was that we students got better at doing less work to achieve similar results/grades. The sacrifice was depth of study. Many students began studying to pass dictation quizzes and regurgitate the textbook. Different class topics (Business Chinese, Classical Chinese, Newspaper Reading, Discussion And Debate, etc.) is a fallacy. It’s all one class focused on the language study not the content matter. Of course, there were glimmers of hope on occasion (thanks to Cong laoshi and Mao laoshi) but the foundational setup is for language acquisition not cultural study. The academic program is not at the level intensity of Middlebury summer school nor the Middlebury Dept. during the school-year but, that said, the program accomplishes its goal: we learned more Chinese. Most important in the future is to manage student expectations coming into the program. Middlebury says little to its students about the program prior to leaving for China — this needs to change. Students need to know (before they arrive) that study abroad China is not a “walk in the park” academically and that there is no choice but to adopt the goal of studying Chinese intensely. For once, I think the Chinese program students may have run into the Chinese burnout. That should never happen or else you risk students losing their passion for studying the language.

Residential Life
CET, Middlebury College’s partner, runs the residential portion of the program here in Hangzhou. Our strongest connection to CET is through our Residential Director Lin Laoshi. There is a reason he is popular among students: he is upfront, open, and manages expectations very well. Any higher education administrator (including the well-respected deans back at Midd) can learn a thing or two from him. He helps set our expectations from before we even step foot on the continent and then ensures that our experiences exceed those expectations. For that, residential life here is good. Chinese roommates are great and that tradition should continue in that fashion. However, I think there is room for alternative residential options here in China. I asked about a homestay option before coming to China and was flatly denied. Too much work and hassle. But I think CET should make an effort to try homestays to vary the experiences of students here in Hangzhou. As it stands now, all us American students have almost identical experiences here in China and, yes, we’re learning but we’re not learning from each other. A deeper cultural experience here would require adding another dimension to the program and one was to do that would be adding homestays.

Odds and Ends
– It’s a pity that the School in China refuses to give up Friday afternoon one-on-two class. It prevents students from leaving in the morning after their exam. Dedicated students should get the opportunity to at least try to make it a three day weekend by traveling somewhere new. Instead, if you have a late Friday class, you feel the opportunity to leave for the weekend is greatly dampened.
– All of our essays are written by hand. While in first and second year Chinese, I understand the logic of remembering characters this way but by the time you get to China, not of even Chinese people hand write anything more than their name on a regular basis. Give us a break from the two hours each week we waste copying characters from the computer to paper.
– Still a little bitter about getting a forth-floor room which are somewhat less well-endowed than the first through third floors. But hey, you win some, you lose some.
– Extracurriculars (taichi, calligraphy, martial arts, street dancing, etc.) are fun. Keep that up.

Overall
I think coming to the Middlebury School in China is a very worthwhile opportunity for those studying upper-level Chinese. Middlebury students may not have much choice for now. But the city of Hangzhou and a well-run program here are attractive. It’s a no-brainer to come here for a semester. Certainly, the program needs some tweaking still, and I hope maintains its quality even as folks such as Lin laoshi (the resident director) move on.

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