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Integrating Chinese Students into American Universities
November 18, 2011 10:40 AM   Subscribe

American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit

Colleges, eager to bolster their diversity and expand their international appeal, have rushed to recruit in China, where fierce competition for seats at Chinese universities and an aggressive admissions-agent industry feed a frenzy to land spots on American campuses. College officials and consultants say they are seeing widespread fabrication on applications, whether that means a personal essay written by an agent or an English-proficiency score that doesn't jibe with a student's speaking ability. American colleges, new to the Chinese market, struggle to distinguish between good applicants and those who are too good to be true.

Once in the classroom, students with limited English labor to keep up with discussions. And though those students are excelling, struggling, and failing at the same rate as their American counterparts, some professors say they have had to alter how they teach.
posted by modernnomad (58 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
In other words, colleges have aggressively targeted the lucrative market of international students for financial and prestige reasons, grabbed as much Chinese cash as they could, and then realized, *shock*, that there was pervasive fraud and ongoing issues related to their sudden race for dollars. Sounds exactly like the mortgage crisis in a nutshell for me, complete with shadowy brokers, dishonest applications, and customers who are realizing the dreams they were sold aren't quite as described.
posted by zachlipton at 10:50 AM on November 18, 2011 [19 favorites]


I got roped into helping a student with their paper and - wow.

I understand that many of the Chinese students basically don't speak English. This one grad student couldn't really read or write it, either. The paper I started to help her with was a mixture of sentences that didn't make any sense and obvious cutting and pasting from online sources.

The really disturbing thing? I had seen her around the library for months - this wasn't her first academic term.

Found out later that grading standards for the "cash cow" students are very different and this is generally accepted.
posted by codswallop at 10:53 AM on November 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Both of the Chinese nationals in the class I teach are doing quite well. While neither of them have particularly awesome English writing skills, neither do most of the American students I teach. It's taken them a little bit of time to get into the groove of answering and asking questions in class, but they've certainly not been a disruption.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:00 AM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


The really disturbing thing? I had seen her around the library for months - this wasn't her first academic term.

Perhaps she was enrolled in an Intensive English Program (IEP) for a semester before becoming a grad student. That's generally how universities handle international students who aren't quite up to the school's English language standards when they arrive on campus.
posted by trueluk at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


some professors say they have had to alter how they teach grade.

Fixed that. But not for you, sadly.
posted by mhoye at 11:02 AM on November 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


One of my most interesting experiences in college -- which has a large contigent of Chinese students, both like the one the article describes and those who emigrated at a very young age -- was taking a Chinese Martial Arts Fiction class. It was given as a simultaneous Chinese and English literature class. It turns out that the Chinese part of it wasn't for students studying the language, but as part of a parallel curriculum for the sort of students the article describes. There were, literally, no Chinese students in the class who had grown up in the states.

Anyhow, the Chinese students -- who had a hard time with writing and speaking -- wrote their papers, exams and did their reading in Chinese. The American students wrote and read translated copies. The professor was Chinese, so she was able to actually hold a bilingual discussion, translating between the two groups of students. However, she generally encouraged the Chinese students to speak in English as much as possible

The professor, however, found an exercise to really take advantage of this. She broke us up into small groups, making sure they were all mixed. The American and Chinese students then worked together to discover the original meaning of the Chinese version of the literature and the liberties/stylistic flourishes taken in the English translation. The Chinese students didn't have the best grasp, so there were a lot of gestures and asking other people/the professor to help, but it was a pretty amazing exercise.
posted by griphus at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2011 [17 favorites]


I've found the Chinese students at my school to be very nice people. They're reserved, but I think a lot of that is that American students avoid speaking to them, or get impatient when the Chinese students are taking a while to explain a point.

I know that it's rough sometimes to follow the conversation of someone whose grasp on English is not the strongest, but I have to respect people who are doing something that is so challenging as to try to learn on a graduate level in a language in which they're not comfortable. I can't imagine how hard it must be, and how lonely.

Also they usually have really amazing shoes.
posted by winna at 11:14 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


While there certainly seem to be some very real underlying concerns, I can't help but feel that an increase in the number of the future Chinese leaders graduating from American higher education institutions will be anything but positive.
posted by lstanley at 11:17 AM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Spare me this yellow-peril bullshit. Yes, Chinese students are applying to American colleges and universities in record numbers and, yes, they are in many cases paying full tuition for the privilege.

But more than quick cash, instutions are cautious about protecting student outcomes. They aren't going to admit students who fail, nor are they going to compromise core values in the course of diversifying their student body. Any place of higher learning that did so would soon find its standing in the rankings start to slip, leading to a precipitous drop in prestige, donor giving and tuition income. The shifting demographics of student admissions are challenging American Universities to do better at educating a truly diverse student population.

American higher education is more than equal to this task. It's been doing that more and more effectively for generations now, despite the idiotic drumbeat you'll read in the Times and elsewhere. Opening our institutions to qualified foreign students strengthens American society and American security. Many qualified students get good training and remain in the US to contribute their efforts and their talents to our society. Others return home having received an in-depth exposure to the values of our culture and to its weaknesses.

Every student requires some degree of personal engagement and figuring out how to communicate and educate across language and cultural boundaries can be tricky. But that's pedagogy, folks. The greatest misconception people have is to imagine that higher education could become a static industry with generalized practices and quantifiable outcomes. It can't. It isn't a factory or a laboratory. The classroom is a workshop. Students come in rough and ill-formed in their thinking. If you're doing your job properly, they leave neither sanded down into uniform shapes nor unfinished through neglect. Education should take what is there, strengthen it through criticism and polish it by practice. The result being thoughtful, worldly people who know how to speak with one another seriously and respectfully about things that matter.

Before we bemoan the influx of Chinese students to American campuses, perhaps we ought to ask what the alternative is. A world in which a rising China chooses to educate her children without including our best and brightest in the conversation? A world in which an energetic and ambitious nation is systematically excluded from the best resources we have to offer? There's nothing good down that road.
posted by R. Schlock at 11:20 AM on November 18, 2011 [28 favorites]


To be clear, I'm not opposed to educating international students and trying to achieve greater diversity. Just as the subprime lending crisis has obscured the fact that getting middle class families into affordable homes is a Good Thing, the foreign student boom has obscured the enormous value of educating international students. However, when the exercise turns into little more than a quick cash grab by massive institutions, these goals can be out-weighted, if not actively hindered, by the drive for quantity over quality, short-term results over long-term stability, and deception and obfuscation over honesty and frankness.

American universities continue to represent the dreams of millions of students worldwide, and whether those students wind up staying here or returning home after their education, the international student program remains one of the country's most powerful tools (second perhaps only to Hollywood) to directly engage with the world at large. Ignoring all the benefits of diversity, multiculturalism, globalization, and full-fare paying students, educating foreign students is very much a good idea just to serve our own self interests. When a Chinese central banker is debating monetary policy or a Chinese general is debating military posture, I'd frankly much rather he attended Harvard or Yale than, say, Tsinghua or King Abdullah University. At a minimum, I'd like him to have formed his opinions of us first-hand. It's really in our best interest for to have the young future leaders of the world want to spend a few years of their lives here.
posted by zachlipton at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


R. Schlock, I've been asked, more than once, to provide fake references for relatives of Chinese acquaintances. I've been asked to write fake letters of recommendation from the *Chinese* side, with the student saying that she'd just sign it herself and send it in. I've been asked to write admissions essays, and give advice on how to convincingly cheat one's way into the Ivy League with phony job references (as if I'd know). It's not all hype, at least some of this stuff is really happening. It's not about qualified students, it's about the unqualified ones who manage to overwhelm the system with unverifiable crap.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:36 AM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah, and hear they keep talking on their cellphones in libraries, and their parents do all their laundry.
posted by delmoi at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


My university had a program that sort of tried to take the edge off of this and make the best of it. It was a "conversation partners" type program where native English-speakers would volunteer to spend some time each week just talking with these (mostly Chinese) students. It was good for everyone involved, probably--the natives got to look all volunteer-y and the foreigners got good English practice just talking about whatever.
posted by resurrexit at 11:44 AM on November 18, 2011


They aren't going to admit students who fail, nor are they going to compromise core values in the course of diversifying their student body. Any place of higher learning that did so would soon find its standing in the rankings start to slip, leading to a precipitous drop in prestige, donor giving and tuition income.

I don't know about that. A lot of Div 1 schools especially do a lot of finagling when it comes to admitting heavily recruited athletes, and the fact that a significant percentage of football or basketball team players end up not graduating (and not because they got drafted to the pros) doesn't seem to unduly upset donors or sink rankings.

Of course, all of this may play out differently regarding the admission of non-athletes.
posted by rtha at 11:45 AM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I work at a small liberal arts college whose current freshmen class is, I think, roughly 1/3rd international students, of which a significant percentile comes from China. I don't directly work with students, but it has been really interesting to see how social dynamics play out, and how classes work. Unlike many of the bigger schools, we have very strict divisional requirements, and while some majors definitely require less paper-writing, no one (should) get away without writing anything at all. I think it's great. It's introduced new ideas and thoughts and ways of life onto campus, and though some of the transitions are bound to be tough (do we have the support staff necessary; is the library accommodating; etc.) I hope they enjoy their time here and thrive. The stories about cold and unfriendly Americans are, I hope, not at all common here. I also hope that our Admissions Staff has been able to check and make sure that the applicants really do want to come here, and make it--because sending a kid halfway around the world just to fail seems like a really cruel trick.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:45 AM on November 18, 2011


This is stupid. I've taught CS classes with lots of Chinese students.

I'm sure some of them lied on their applications -- many of them could never have written an application essay in English. But overall they studied harder, learned more, and got better grades than their American counterparts. I wish them the best of luck, they're a great addition to a classroom full of white suburban dudes.

I only hope our government is smart enough to let the best of them stay in the country permanently.
posted by miyabo at 11:49 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Someone I used to know who taught English over there said that cheating was absolutely rampant on the TOEFL, which I took as exaggerating back when I was in undergrad and in a program without a lot of foreign students. Then I got to graduate school in a program that was very heavily Chinese and was assigned to do a project with a girl who did a lot of smiling and nodding and we assumed she was just quiet.

It turned out she had *literally no idea* what we were doing, we had no possible way of communicating it to her, and there was really no way to salvage our presentation when we were all required to do equal time speaking. The presentation that was our final grade in the class. The only C of my post-secondary career, and it was only that because I had A's on everything else. We were told that the group grading thing was because we were supposed to be helping each other, but you can't do that without a shared language.

This isn't just something that serves as an annoyance for universities to be balanced against the impact on the budget. I found it really damaging to my program that these students basically passed by doing very well on exams that required few English skills, but then torpedoed whoever they were stuck in group work with. I am fully willing to believe that there are tons of Chinese students who speak fine English, but I think a lot of the bottom-end universities are being deliberately obtuse to the amount of cheating that goes on in order to get the tuition dollars.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:54 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


But more than quick cash, instutions are cautious about protecting student outcomes. They aren't going to admit students who fail, nor are they going to compromise core values in the course of diversifying their student body. Any place of higher learning that did so would soon find its standing in the rankings start to slip, leading to a precipitous drop in prestige, donor giving and tuition income. The shifting demographics of student admissions are challenging American Universities to do better at educating a truly diverse student population.

That's where I disagree though. Universities are cautious about protecting their reputations, but student outcomes just don't seem to be that kind of a priority on the institutional level (certainly many individual faculty care deeply about student outcomes and make great efforts as a result). You can't tell me that University of Delaware went from eight to 571 Chinese students in less than four years with anything but pragmatic motives for big tuition dollars. Does that money keep the lights on in cash-strapped departments that all students can benefit from? Absolutely, but that has nothing to do with ensuring the best possible educational outcomes for these international students.

Rankings don't have very much to do with student outcomes anyway. Just look at the US News methodology. Around a quarter of the ranking is based on the "reputation survey" in which colleges rank each other. 30% consist of "faculty resources" and "financial resources," points that can literally be bought. 15% is student selectivity, which is best improved by soliciting and rejecting as many applications from unqualified candidates as possible. The only category that really has a relation to student outcomes is graduation and retention rates, but that's a figure prone to manipulation (especially when not graduating a student will hurt the college's ranking) and one that does little to measure anything related to actual educational achievement and learning.
posted by zachlipton at 11:57 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Luckily for me, the university I'm at has actual competent international students, but reading this article, WOW!

Professors are reducing discussions and presentations just because Chinese students can't keep up?? How is that supposed to help them or the other students? Lectures can only get you so far in a class, and a lot of the epiphanies I've had in classes come from my classmates when they say something that the professor hadn't brought up. This is just ridiculous. These students applied to colleges in the US knowing that our system of schooling is much different. If professors just give out exams and lectures, how is that any different than the type of education they'd get in China? It should be up to the students to step up and take charge of their own education. College isn't high school anymore. No one should really be there to baby you along because in the long run it's not going to help anyone.

One thing that this article doesn't quite address is what the students plan to do after college. Are they looking for jobs in the US post graduation? If so, then catering to their non-existent English abilities isn't helping them out either. No one is going to want to hire a college graduate who can't communicate well with their co-workers and possibly clients. I doubt the excuse of "My Engrish is bad." will fly with employers as well as it did to their universities.
posted by astapasta24 at 12:01 PM on November 18, 2011


My graduate department (engineering) has a large number of both Chinese and Indian nationals (they outnumber domestic students), and my labmate is from China. There's a few specific things I've noticed, from both discussions with him and from going to the CSA events:

- The Chinese students come from educational systems which imposed a large degree of structure, and so they have to adapt to one where they're left on their own. For example, my labmate's high school had dorms and their schedule was entirely planned for them (from 7am-11pm). They were given 30 minutes of free time during the weekdays. To deal with the transition once they reach US soil, they have developed a remarkably strong and tight-knit community in practically every aspect of their lives. They go grocery shopping together, cook together, study together, organize large social events, and pool their resources in a way that no other grad student group does.

- Chinese students have a much harder time picking up English, in large part because they all speak to each other in their native tongue. It's too frustrating to speak English to each other casually (why would they, when they can convey what they need to say faster and more clearly in the language they're comfortable with), so they just don't get the practice. Contrast that to the Indian students, who don't struggle with English out of necessity because they don't share a common native language (it's about 30/70 Hindi/Tamil, plus the dozen or so unique regional dialects). The variety of languages in India forced them to become better English speakers.

- It seems that international students get outwardly and generally accused of cheating, but I haven't observed this. They do work in study groups more often, but it's much more of a communal learning situation where they go out of their way to make sure everyone gets it. Again, this ties into the community. It's not to say that they don't cheat, but I feel like there is a disproportionate amount of blame put on them. Compared to the (predominantly domestic) undergrads, it's nothing. The undergrads here cheat through their teeth.

- From the small sample that I've known, the Indian students were more likely to stay here and work permanently, whereas almost every one of the Chinese students I spoke to have plans of moving back to China after about 5-10 years of working here. I'm not sure what conclusions you can draw from this, and my information is a bit dated (since India's experiencing a booming economy, this might have shifted in the past year or so).
posted by spiderskull at 12:03 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


"My Engrish is bad."

Can we not?
posted by griphus at 12:06 PM on November 18, 2011 [19 favorites]


An unfortunate reality is that many institutions which had previously trusted a great deal in their admissions to weed out the unqualified are now having to turn to more aggressive in-house evaluation. Graduate programs have basically discounted international GREs for a long time. You still have a lot of excellent students coming from China, but you have to go to a model where you're much more ready to kick people out. I don't think this is anything intrinsic to China, just that the penalties against Chinese institutions for students cheating are minor compared to domestic universities. Cheating scandals happen here, too, but if a university didn't do anything about it their reputation (and their students) would rapidly suffer.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:08 PM on November 18, 2011


It seems that international students get outwardly and generally accused of cheating, but I haven't observed this. They do work in study groups more often, but it's much more of a communal learning situation where they go out of their way to make sure everyone gets it. Again, this ties into the community. It's not to say that they don't cheat, but I feel like there is a disproportionate amount of blame put on them. Compared to the (predominantly domestic) undergrads, it's nothing. The undergrads here cheat through their teeth.

I agree; much of the covariance of assignments is due to shared learning. However, in these groups it becomes easy for some individuals to really never get it, depending on the group dynamic. As long as you think about homework as part of instruction rather than measurement, no problem.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:18 PM on November 18, 2011


Imho, there isn't any problem here since universities have alway offered remedial courses for students with poor backgrounds. An 18 year old still learns languages pretty damn fast.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:18 PM on November 18, 2011


I don't suppose this is somebody's brain-dead scheme to protect America from foreign competition? Lure China's best and brightest to the USA and give them a lousy education while lying to the students, telling them they're doing great work, A+!!!
posted by straight at 12:22 PM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine makes his living writing papers for Chinese students at University. He gets around $100 an hour to do it.
posted by dobie at 1:01 PM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Canadian university I'm a professor at has started a real push to increase the number of foreign students. Even our department, which is almost by its very nature domestically focused, is under some pressure to develop a stream that is more international. So the pressure put on the faculty by the administration is becoming pretty intense.

I think we're probably game to give it a go, but we'd need (non-existent) faculty hires to do so. That, coupled with a pretty good understanding on the part of everyone of the issues discussed in the article, has led many of us to take a go-slow approach with trying to serve this market.

Seeking out international students may be good business for North American universities, but we've got to be careful that we aren't short-changing the students we bring in. We need the resources to teach them effectively as well as programs that are relevant to them, not just shoehorning them into existing programs to try and make a buck. It's not clear to me that university administrations are prepared to spend the money required to do this properly.
posted by sfred at 1:07 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Part of the story of the rush for international tuition dollars is that a lot of universities were hit really, really hard by the 2008 crisis. Even here in Canada, model recession survivor, many universities saw their endowments shrink by 20-40%. UBC went from $1 billion in 2008 to 600 million in 2009. These institutions were already trending towards larger class sizes, less tenured faculty, and more emphasis on "saleable" degrees, but 2008 really stepped on the gas.
posted by mek at 1:17 PM on November 18, 2011


Tight budgets make international student dollars extremely attractive in academia, especially smaller private institutions dependent to a greater degree on tuition. This leads to immense pressure from the top on the Graduate Recruiting and Admissions department, with subsequent responsibility falling squarely on Student services. Not all the under the table activities are necessarily from abroad, particularly since lower grade staff may be susceptible to temptation. I believe the DHS has a list of institutions under particular scrutiny.
posted by infini at 1:40 PM on November 18, 2011


When I was in school in the 90s, there was a sharp uptick in international students (not specific to one nation) when the province froze tuition. The tuition freeze only applied to fees charged to domestic students; international fees could rise unchecked. At the time, fees for international students were twice what they were for domestic; now they are 3.25 times the price. There's no denying part of this is about money.

The impact can be positive or negative, depending on how the universities handle the changing demographics of the students. It should be a good thing to encourage a cosmopolitan student body. Unfortunately, because I think it a lot of cases it is a cash grab, and is coincidental with the changes mek describes, there hasn't been a lot of effort made to change the institution to serve international students' needs.
posted by looli at 1:45 PM on November 18, 2011


> A lot of Div 1 schools especially do a lot of finagling when it comes to admitting heavily recruited athletes, and the fact that a significant percentage of football or basketball team players end up not graduating (and not because they got drafted to the pros) doesn't seem to unduly upset donors or sink rankings.

There's a strong distinction to be made.

The nonacademic program moves along as normal because academics have nothing to do with its ranking; in many cases athletes can more or less treat classes as a hobby, with little or no impact on the athletic program.

The graduate-level academic program is boned because it has to maintain standards of excellence in the performances of its students and graduates in order to maintain its ranking, and that's not possible when its student population is underperforming or washing out. With slipping rankings come less grants money, fewer alumni donation, and reduced ability to draw the best faculty and student candidates that can turn things around.
posted by ardgedee at 1:54 PM on November 18, 2011


...and then thee are the professors from Asia who can not be understood in classes here....
posted by Postroad at 2:14 PM on November 18, 2011


From the Beijing-based Danwei.org - Opening the door to American universities with lies
“You’ve got schools admitting people quite literally to graduate schools who only have a high school diploma, because they misunderstood what the credential represented. And you have people with degrees that are being rejected because they don’t understand that the degree is in fact comparable to a US bachelor’s degree,” said Dale Gough, director of International Education Services at American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

“The sad fact is that most [American] institutions do not have staff trained or are equipped with the necessary resources to do a credible job in evaluating foreign credentials.”

posted by gen at 2:50 PM on November 18, 2011


NY Times - The China Conundrum

* 40,000 Chinese students at US universities (largest segment of
International students from 1 country)
* U. Delaware has 517 Chinese students up from 7 in 2007
* Iowa State has 1200 Chinese undergrads
* Ohio State received 2900 applications from China in 2011
* Zinch China consulting report: "90 percent of Chinese applicants
submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their
personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10
percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive."
posted by gen at 2:56 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


We should use the opportunity to infect their minds with notions of democracy and political freedom when we teach them English.
posted by Renoroc at 3:59 PM on November 18, 2011


Then they'll take over the call centre business
posted by infini at 4:11 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Graduate programs have basically discounted international GREs for a long time.

I once had a conversation about the GRE with a Chinese student in my department and she was baffled that we only had only seen one version of the subject test for our field. She'd definitely seen all four tests that have been released, three of which are pretty much considered apocryphal in the US, as no one can find them.

From the article: She's not surprised that they would want to stick together. "Even if there were Chinese students who wanted to break out of their pack," she says, "they wouldn't necessarily get the warmest reception."

I find the attitude towards the Chinese graduate students in my department incredibly frustrating at times, but I don't know how to reverse it. It's entirely logical that new Chinese graduate students would meet up with other Chinese grad students when they arrive (you're in a new country, someone in the department probably went to the same university as you, you want to hang out with people who speak the same language, etc), yet the American grad students assume they only want Chinese friends or something. But no one thinks twice when someone's excited that one of the new students speaks the same dialect of Spanish as he does.
posted by hoyland at 5:11 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Both of the Chinese nationals in the class I teach are doing quite well. While neither of them have particularly awesome English writing skills, neither do most of the American students I teach. It's taken them a little bit of time to get into the groove of answering and asking questions in class, but they've certainly not been a disruption."

This is my exact impression teaching in a different department at the same University. Its just a reminder to rely as much as possible on Globish while talking and grade on an understanding of the materiel not reading or writing comprehension. I haven't had much trouble in the classroom.

My Chinese colleagues in the department are all kinds of awesome students and friends.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:49 PM on November 18, 2011


Just to add my experience from teaching in Australian universities, which have been pursuing international students for some time (in part to make up for a substantial drop in funding from government over the last 20 years or so):

1) I have marked my share of copypasta essays. In some cases the student didn't even realise that they were doing the wrong thing. My favourite was the one where the font changed every sentence.

2) Very occasionally you'll get students that basically have no competency in English. Once I had to explain the concept of an example to a student, which can be quite tricky when you can't do what you normally do when someone doesn't understand a particular word or concept - illustrate through use of examples.

3) Otherwise they are much the same as domestic students: some are excellent, engaged and committed, some just want to do the bare minimum necessary to get through, some really shouldn't be there and it's somewhat of a mystery how they got through the selection processes.


Also, my post-graduate colleagues from overseas were all kinds of awesome.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 7:50 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have marked my share of copypasta essays. In some cases the student didn't even realise that they were doing the wrong thing.

This happens a lot with Japanese/Chinese students. I've heard it said that they view ownership of ideas differently than we do in the West, and that what we would call "copying" scholars, they think of more as showing respect.
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:38 AM on November 19, 2011



I have marked my share of copypasta essays. In some cases the student didn't even realise that they were doing the wrong thing.

This happens a lot with Japanese/Chinese students. I've heard it said that they view ownership of ideas differently than we do in the West, and that what we would call "copying" scholars, they think of more as showing respect.


Seriously, this isn't a thing that only happens to Asian undergraduates. This is a thing that happens to undergraduates. American school systems don't do an awesome job getting students to understand the finer points of citations. I'm a graduate student and figuring out exactly what parts of an argument I need to be citing multiple times in a paragraph, for example, takes me a few minutes to work out. It's not the function of some different conception of ownership of ideas, or something... it doesn't need to be explained by vague mysticism and Eastern Philosophy. It's just an endemic problem in American universities.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:57 AM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a frequent poster using a sock-puppet account.

I'm an academic adviser at a university that has been on the forefront of this trend. About ten percent of the students in my caseload are from China, which may not seem very high but actually is, if you consider that five years ago my university had almost no international undergrads. We've undergone a pretty massive demographic shift in a very short amount of time, and it's not terribly surprising that there are challenges. I think the challenges are largely the fault of the university. Once the administration realized that they could solve our financial woes by attracting wealthy students from China, they immediately moved to admit as many Chinese students as possible. We weren't ready, and we're still playing catch up. This year is the first year we've had enough English as a Second Language classes for all our Chinese students. Last year we were desperately scrambling to get them into calligraphy and kickboxing classes, because they didn't have the English skills to do anything that involved reading or writing, and we didn't have enough ESL classes for them. We put everyone in calculus and chemistry, and then we tried to fill out a schedule with whatever art or PE classes we could find. It was ugly.

That situation has improved a lot. This year we have plenty of spots in ESL classes, and the university has made some changes to housing and other policies that had hurt international students. We're still reacting to problems, though, rather than thinking creatively about how we can adapt to this change in ways that improve the educational experience for our entire student body, including but not limited to students from China. That Chinese Martial Arts Fiction class that griphus described sounds amazing, and there is literally nothing like that at my university.

I think the cultural issues are real, but it's also important not to overstate them. It's clear that there is some cheating on the TOEFL, but I think the problem is more that Chinese students are very adept at studying to tests, and that means that their TOEFL scores reflect their study skills more than their mastery of English. My sense is that our Chinese students are perfectly capable of participating in class discussions, writing papers that aren't considered plagiarized by American academic standards, and things like that. Their language issues are a much bigger deal than the cultural issues. And the cultural issues cut both ways. Those of us who work with Chinese students are receiving a crash-course in intercultural communication, and we're all coming to terms with how narrow and culturally-specific a lot of our ideas about education and late-adolescent development were/are.

Finally, I think it's worth pointing out that a lot of people, here and elsewhere, are getting their ideas about students from China and about American education from situations that are really different from what we're talking about here. This is a phenomenon of non-elite, not-particularly-selective American public universities. The Chinese students we're talking about are financially well-off, but they're not typically academic superstars. Going to college in the US is typically a fall-back plan for students who don't do well enough on their exams to get into top Chinese universities. (And at my university, recruiting those Chinese students is an extension of one of our longstanding economic survival strategies, which is to admit students who don't get into the more selective state colleges in neighboring states and who can pay out-of-state tuition.) We're not talking about Princeton here, and the Chinese students in question don't have a lot in common with the Chinese students in your engineering grad program.

Supposedly we're going to see an influx of similar students from India soon, which will be interesting if it happens.
posted by sockpuppy at 8:23 AM on November 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


This is a phenomenon of non-elite, not-particularly-selective American public universities.

A friend of mine is a grad student at the 'elite' public university we both attended. I don't think she knew any international students as an undergrad, whereas I maybe knew three or four, plus a handful of people on exchange programs (I'm in a STEM field, she's in humanities, which might account for the difference). We were talking recently about how the introductory language courses in her department now typically have one or two international students per section, which is a drastic shift from six years ago, when I took my first course in that department. I think the push to attract/admit more international students is on at all public universities, as they desperately need the money. The difference is probably whether they're having to go out of their way to attract applications or if they're accepting international students who would have been rejected in favour of an in-state student a few years ago (not on qualification grounds, but due to preference for in-state students).

I'm now at a drastically more homogenous public university, which also seems to be on a push to admit more students from overseas. I really hope that they find a way to have everyone benefit from more people from varied backgrounds. (To be honest, I have little confidence they will. I feel like intercultural communication or whatever is a definite weak point here and immigrants and refugees are sort of seen as permanent outsiders. I can't imagine the culture can handle foreign students who are, by definition, probably only going to be around for a brief while well, if it can't incorporate all the people who live here.)
posted by hoyland at 10:14 AM on November 19, 2011


I'm okay with foreign students from anywhere. I was one for a while. It's both difficult and worthwhile.

What I'm not okay with is having graduate students who effectively don't speak English in charge of undergraduate grades. It just isn't fair to undergrads to have important courses taught by someone who is still gaining proficiency in the language of instruction.

As it turns out, both my best and worst TAs during my education have been foreign students. So as far as I'm concerned, this has nothing to do with country of origin, or being a foreigner, or anything like that. It has everything to do with getting undergraduates a good education for their money.

One TA spoke accented but perfectly good English, the other hardly spoke English at all. In the latter case, this was obvious and should have factored into this grad student's workload. It made that semester really difficult for everyone involved (TA included!), and perfectly bright students were getting bad grades because we had no idea what the TA was asking or expecting us to do.

I think it's fine to expect a university student to spend the time and money to get proficient in the language of instruction. Most universities offer courses to that effect, or should, and that's awesome and desirable and really important for cultural awareness and communication.

But it's really not okay to obligate anyone else to spend their time and money being instructed by someone still meeting this requirement.

My suggestion? If your grad student arrives and has misled you regarding their English proficiency, waggle your finger at them disapprovingly, feel sorry for yourself as a professor for a little bit, then stick them in ESL courses on the university dollar until they're ready to handle their courses.

But for crying out loud, don't make a bad situation into a worse one by throwing the recent arrivals into a lab full of freshmen. It's lazy and inconsiderate to everyone involved.
posted by edguardo at 10:41 AM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the latter case, this was obvious and should have factored into this grad student's workload. It made that semester really difficult for everyone involved (TA included!), and perfectly bright students were getting bad grades because we had no idea what the TA was asking or expecting us to do.

This is a particularly sore point for me, so this might get a bit ranty, but I would be interested in knowing if anyone had ever collected data on the number of TAs for whom language poses a significant problem in the classroom.

I'm a native English speaker born in the US. My name is perceived as 'foreign' and my English is perceived as a bit 'off' as it's a mix of British and American English (I was raised by a British parent). I've heard students whispering in the first class about where they think I'm from. I've had students say point blank in office hours "You talk funny. Where are you from?" I had a student come up to me after the first class and tell me how relieved they were I spoke English 'clearly'. I've never figured out if this was a backhanded compliment of my English skills (with the student assuming I wasn't a native speaker) or an insult to my fellow TAs. But in talking to undergrads you notice a clear pattern--they are suspicious of the English skills of Chinese TAs (and other Asians, because all Asian people are Chinese), but not of those of people from other countries. The other day, I heard someone say they preferred Professor A to the guy they'd had the semester before (call him Professor B). One of the downsides to Professor B? He was Eastern European. Professor B wasn't named, but I'm pretty confident the department lacks any Eastern Europeans with dubious language skills.

My university makes most overseas grad students arrive early their first semester and do a language course. (This is based on country of origin, I think. Francophone Canadians got a pass on it. I'm not sure if Indians have to go or not.) They make everyone who's either not from the US or not a native English speaker do an English test. That you might have attended a well-respected university that conducts classes only in English is irrelevant to them--you're 'foreign' so obviously your English skills are suspect. Having a separate international TA orientation makes sense--you're being thrown into a university system with which you're not familiar--but some of my colleagues found being summoned to take a language test rather insulting given their background with English.
posted by hoyland at 11:34 AM on November 19, 2011


But more than quick cash, instutions are cautious about protecting student outcomes. They aren't going to admit students who fail, nor are they going to compromise core values in the course of diversifying their student body. Any place of higher learning that did so would soon find its standing in the rankings start to slip, leading to a precipitous drop in prestige, donor giving and tuition income.

Unless they all do it, in which case it becomes the norm.

See: Housing Crisis (2005-2011)
posted by hal_c_on at 11:55 AM on November 19, 2011


We should use the opportunity to infect their minds with notions of democracy and political freedom when we teach them English.

That's what my parents thought would happen to me raising me in the states. But now I glue tea bags on my hat and spew hate when someone opposes my candidate.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:57 AM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've also seen virulently xenophobic attitudes towards non-native TAs and it bugs me too.

In my department, when foreign graduate students are first recruited their English is assessed and if it is anything less than perfect they are either given a fellowship that allows them to not teach or they arn't accepted into the program. In my experience "My TA doesn't even speak English!" is a lot like most undergraduate excuses, valid once and in certain circumstances, but repeated so often everyone thinks it must be valid for them too. Departments are, if anything, excessively sensitive to this kind of thing.

Instructors having accents is a feature not a bug. Part of college should be learning how to communicate with people not from Bumfuck, West TX and besides, a pleasant South Indian accent, Szechuanesse syllable assault, or Irish brogue makes lectures less boring and more interesting.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:57 AM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Supposedly we're going to see an influx of similar students from India soon, which will be interesting if it happens.

I don't know if we'd see it in the US but I've seen this in Finland. In their strategic effort to attract the research PhD/grad students from India, they put in a pretty generous scholarship program. Tuition (up until now) has also been free. It makes it a very attractive proposition but what I noticed was the quality of the majority of students. Within India, locations like the US or the UK would be first choice, due to the ease of adjusting to the location, language (or as my mother says, you won't have a language problem in England, they all speak English there) and as a location for immigration. Then you have the recently rising places like Singapore and Australia. Finally you have the Arctic circle.

So what happens is that you're really getting those who wouldn't have gone anywhere at all and it did surprise me when I was first there. Also the shock of realizing that say 10 or 15 years ago, the majority of these students wouldn't have been upwardly mobile even within INdia - so similar to China, there's that shift taking place, however, due to the financial help, they aren't well off either.

The downside is that then, in an equitable society like Finland, where there are few class distinctions, they have the weirdest image of Indians and Indian society.
posted by infini at 11:58 AM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


On accents:

- a friend of mine in grad school emigrated from China to the US when she was 10. Her English was almost indistinguishable from that of a native speaker. But some of her students would complain that she had an accent. (Our department also maintained a list of graduate students who would tutor for pay; she says that she never got calls about tutoring until she asked the person who maintained the list to use an Americanized version of her name.)

- a current colleague of mine emigrated from India in her mid-20s or so, and is now in her early 40s; she, too, gets students complaining about her accent. (And she's not a TA!) I don't remember if she grew up speaking English but she certainly speaks it well now.

(Both of the two people mentioned above have independently told me that they think students automatically assume their English will be sub-par because they have "foreign-sounding" names and they are not white, so they're climbing uphill from the start.)

- another grad school friend of mine is South African; English is his native language, and he went to an English-language university. Apparently someone got confused and told him he had to take an English test before he started being a TA. He walks into the office where they give the test, says "I'm here to take the English test", and they tell him he doesn't have to take it. (Ironically, out of the three people I mentioned here, I have the most trouble understanding this guy when he talks, because he mumbles, but you can mumble in any language.)
posted by madcaptenor at 2:26 PM on November 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


madcaptenor, as a former Director of Admissions for a grad program, I can clarify the 'english language university' bit - the universities aren't specified, but the countries are - Canada, NZ, Australia, UK etc. South Africa is definitely not listed.
posted by infini at 3:16 PM on November 19, 2011


One of the nice things I have learned, in college and beyond, is how to understand people who ave different accents than me.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:46 PM on November 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wow, it strikes me that there is an amazing opportunity for a business here. A 2 week US-style academic bootcamp that covered the norms of class discussion, academic originality, citations, etc and held the students to those standards would be an amazing thing to put together. I'd love to do that, but to benefit the population it was targeted at, you'd have to deliver it in Mandarin, which I can't.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:09 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Couple of things:

I regularly deal with multiple English accents and Globish in my work, so I have absolutely no problems communicating with virtually any nationality, although it's often a bit frustrating to switch to Globish and go easy on idioms etc.

Ironically, the accents I have the most problem with are the regional British accents, Birmingham, Cockney and so on, and to an extent even BBC-isque Queen's English because the gentle British often lop off the final syllables in their sentences. I'm more used to getting every syllable rounded. and enunciated. clearly. so I need to pay twice as much attention when I hear British people speak, than I do when I speak with Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians or Americans. Just me, I'm sure, but just to give a post-colonial perspective on dialectal dynamics.

(Also, when I applied to.. a certain Ivy League school, they insisted I take the TOEFL as well. I wrote them a very long, but polite, email detailing the classes, years, months, days and hours I spent studying and conversing in English, that I had scored near perfect scores in SAT I - Verbal, SAT II - Writing, GRE - Verbal, and that with so many hours vested in English, they should in fact really be checking on my stated abilities in the other languages I had listed, because I certainly hadn't published by then in any of those languages, but had in English. They waived the requirement off.)

From the small sample that I've known, the Indian students were more likely to stay here and work permanently, whereas almost every one of the Chinese students I spoke to have plans of moving back to China after about 5-10 years of working here. I'm not sure what conclusions you can draw from this, and my information is a bit dated (since India's experiencing a booming economy, this might have shifted in the past year or so).

Yeah, these days everyone has these plans of moving back to the motherlode, except eye-in-the-wool IT professionals from Tier 2 cities in India; to an extent, it's a fairly visible trend in India too, most of the people in school alumni gatherings in India are returnees. Heck, most of the people living in Bangalore now are returnees; it's not just IT-types who are returning en masse, but also people in other brackets, such as IPR professionals (HOT in India!) and, well, a jazz musician with a bachelors from Berklee. Kid told me he had more gigs in Bangalore than in Boston.

My assessment is that the visa regimes are more to blame than economic slowdown, by which I mean that people still get offers, but they've had issues with getting work-permits (Or to put it more finely, the overall impression is that immigration regimes seem to be reacting to unemployment across the board by tightening emigration, while there's still a fair amount of jobs in specific, often emigrant-heavy, sectors such as hardware or software)

Of course, that's not the only demographic to return to India; a colleague explained to me that his plan was to return to India after he took American citizenship. That way, he reasoned, he'd get the best of both worlds; an Indian permanent-residency-equivalent would give him the option of staying and working in India indefinitely, while his American passport would allow him to return to the US if he didn't like the conditions in India.

It's a highly fluid world now, is how I'm looking at it.
posted by the cydonian at 6:35 AM on November 20, 2011


The difference is probably whether they're having to go out of their way to attract applications or if they're accepting international students who would have been rejected in favour of an in-state student a few years ago (not on qualification grounds, but due to preference for in-state students).
The difference, I think, is that Berkeley can fill its international student contingent with high-achieving kids, who will choose to go to college in the US at a top-rated public university, rather than Directional State University. The Chinese students who end up at DSU are not typically the high achievers.

I was reacting mostly to this:
But more than quick cash, instutions are cautious about protecting student outcomes. They aren't going to admit students who fail, nor are they going to compromise core values in the course of diversifying their student body. Any place of higher learning that did so would soon find its standing in the rankings start to slip, leading to a precipitous drop in prestige, donor giving and tuition income.
And that's spoken like someone who doesn't know the first thing about drives decision-making at non-elite public colleges, which don't have a lot of prestige, don't get a lot of money from donors, where some of the domestic students can't do the work (and I'm not talking about athletes in particular), where upwards of 30% of all undergrads leave without a degree... I'm cautiously optimistic about what the influx of international students means for my institution, but I don't think it pays to be naive about what's driving this trend or about the potential for exploitation.
posted by sockpuppy at 8:26 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sure some of them lied on their applications -- many of them could never have written an application essay in English. ... I wish them the best of luck, they're a great addition to a classroom full of white suburban dudes.

Wow, this reads like a parody of glib leftism. "Who cares if they can't even write in English? Anything's better than those horrible white male students!"
posted by John Cohen at 10:21 AM on November 21, 2011


Well, it was at a mid-ranked Midwestern college. Most of the students had never left the US -- a significant fraction had never even left the state. I feel pretty strongly that working on a group project with a Chinese student is an eye-opening experience, and depending on where they end up, it might even be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Plus, it's a CS class, writing essays isn't required.
posted by miyabo at 1:21 PM on November 21, 2011


We should start looking for top notch artistic and literary talent form China because China plans on canceling college majors that don’t produce employment, although this might not be only the humanities either.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:01 PM on November 26, 2011


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