Showing posts with label taiwanese_education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taiwanese_education. Show all posts

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Guest Post: The aftermath of colonial education in Taiwan


The hiatus continues, but so does my experiment in guest posting. While I wrap up my dissertation, I've been trying to open up this platform to other voices - especially Taiwanese voices. This is re-posted with permission from Annie Lim, lightly edited from her Twitter thread. You can read the ThreadReader version here and on Twitter (where you can also follow Annie) here. I think this is an important story to share because while it's a personal family story on one level, on another it tells the story of the psychological scars of a generation, and how it affects their relationships with their descendants.

- Jenna

The aftermath of colonial education and decolonizing is really tough, especially for families. My parents grew up having the entirety of Japanese era ripped out from text book and only learnt about ROC and China. 228 is a huge taboo to them, talking about it means causing conflict. 

We took a family trip to Tainan and me being a history geek made everyone visit a bunch of museums. The thing about Tainan is that unlike Taipei, people really put their heart and money into saving history (in Taipei many evidence of the past were intentionally whipped out by KMT).

Bits and pieces of colonial past (including the White Terror) are EVERYWHERE in Tainan. And my parents can usually appreciate the beauty of the structures. However, I can see them visibly flinch when anything about the KMT's wrongdoing is mentioned. Even when we are in an art museum admiring Tan Ting-pho's painting...the exhibition has a timeline matching artworks with his life. And in the end it's just, "killed in front of Chiayi station in 228". My parents immediately turned and left the room with me standing there feeling heartbroken.

My parents love us deeply, and they feel a strong sense of regret on how they "failed" to protect their children from the influence of the evil DPP. They are not KMT supporters, but will always choose KMT over any other parties bc anything KMT does looked justified.

Yes, they know KMT massacred people. But they will also argue that its all in the past and DPP is obviously worse than KMT (when we aren't even talking about DPP at all). They don't wish to argue with me, so they choose to leave the scene even when we are just looking at art. 

And here's the thing - everything is politics. Art, history, language, food, music, buildings...everything. Just because Tainan isn't hiding it's past, doesn't mean they are "too political". But, even stating the truth (such as this person was wrongfully killed) is too much. When we are reading about something built in 1930, my mom commented: "Oh! It's from 民國29年" [Republic of China Year 29] and was visibly upset when my sister corrected her saying that 1930 was before "retrocession" so it shouldn't be read in ROC years.

Our family has been in TW for centuries, but here we are, restraining ourselves from latching into fights, because someone taught our parents that this is a land with no history, and killed off anyone who could have taught them otherwise. 

They do not understand why I am so fixated on figuring out WHAT it is that I have been missing.

This kind of behavior can be seen in many people growing up under heavy censorship. Knowledge like this could have brought them physical harm so they will actively stay away from anything that could've make them feel "rebellious". Staying silent and obeying is how they stayed safe. This is the scary part about censorship: the danger isn't always exterior. In order to stay alive, people will actively build the "safe narrative" into their system and stay away from anything that tells otherwise.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Native speakerism, teacher training, culture and place

I don't have a good cover photo so just pretend this is metaphorical or something. 

I've been meaning to write this for awhile but current events have been pushing it to the bottom of the queue. Feeling depressed and anxious about the state of affairs in Hong Kong and the rise of Big Uncle Dirk in Taiwan, however, I think it's time for a more uplifting topic.

Teacher training has been my main source of income for about a year now; my trainees are mostly (though not entirely) locals whose first language(s) are not English, but are highly proficient English users. There's a mix of experience levels, though most have had no previous training. 

In the real world, where this is what I'm 'known' for as much as talking smack about Taiwanese politics, I get asked all the time what it's like, how I feel about it, what my impressions are. So I thought I'd share something about that here, as I so rarely write about my actual profession.

Having no particular order in mind for this, I'll just start with what I think is the most interesting part, focusing mostly on the cram school system. 

Native speakerism has been, quite honestly, a cancer in English language education in Taiwan.

I appreciate and value that the work I do is one tiny cog in the fight to end that. Training local teachers who already have the language proficiency but need the classroom know-how to plan and execute a lesson, ascertain and meet learner needs, manage a class room and understand key theoretical basics gives them a leg up: a piece of paper, yes, but also actual knowledge and skills that will make them more effective in the classroom and therefore more likely to succeed in a market that is biased against them.

Not that the word 'native speaker' means anything. I have a former student whom you would not be able to guess, even by accent, was a 'non-native' speaker unless you combed carefully through her writing. I've also met 'native speakers' who were not particularly proficient language users (yes, that's a thing, and the major English proficiency tests generally acknowledge this) and people who have used English since early childhood from countries like India, Singapore and the Philippines but are considered 'non-native'. 

Because, of course, when people say "native speaker", what they really mean is "white". They'll deny that of course - I'm sure I'll get some angry comments - but you it's true. You know it's harder for non-white English teachers, whether they're what might be considered a 'native speaker' or not, to find jobs and command similar pay to white teachers. This was also the attitude on display when everyone's favorite Uncle Dirk dismissed the idea of English teachers from the Philippines (who generally can be considered what most people would call a 'native speaker'), saying "how can a Maria be our teacher?"

Although I don't think that there is a big difference in the classroom between an untrained foreigner and an untrained local with strong English language proficiency, it's hard to argue this to your average person. Training up locals on what I think is a quality course helps make the argument that a "non-native" teacher is no less capable just a little more persuasive.

To be frank, it also feels good to have mostly relinquished my former place in what I see as a racist system. I don't particularly like being a white lady taking up a teaching job that an experienced and trained local could do, and being paid more to do it. It's not that I want to stop all future foreign English teachers from coming here because all the jobs have been taken by locals - I just want the bar to be higher, and the best way to raise the bar is to have better-trained local talent as competition. Bringing in trained and experienced talent from the Philippines and other countries is a great idea as well, and that will be easier if more parents and students (including adult learners) get used to a non-white face leading the class.

This is related to another aspect of teacher training that I find deeply rewarding: the creation of future role models. My trainees, when they become teachers, can be role models to local learners in a way that I could never be as a "native speaker" from an Inner Circle culture (look it up). Someone learning English as a foreign language in Taiwan is going to have a different experience, context and set of reference points and will benefit from having someone with a similar background and experience to look up to and think, "if she can do it, I can too". That's not only more achievable than trying to be 'more like' someone like me, which sets up the impossible standard of learning English as a second language in an attempt to imitate people for whom it's a first language, but I'd argue it's less problematic as well. If the notion of encouraging Taiwanese to imitate Westerners - especially white Westerners - as though we are some sort of ideal - doesn't squick you should. 

Here's where I admit that I lied above: I don't think that's the most interesting issue concerning my job. But I needed to say it to set up my next point. The cultural/identity aspects of Taiwan's education are often thought of as being in flux, depending on who's in power, between "Taiwanization" and "Sinicization". I'd argue, however, that since the debate about identity formation through education has existed in Taiwan - that is, ever since the Taiwanese electorate had a say in the matter - that it's actually been a three-way pull between Taiwanization, Sinicization and internationalization. It's a bit more complicated than that, with both sides trying to claim 'internationalization' alongside their preferred foundation of 'Taiwanization' or 'Sinicization' and both sides being somewhat insincere in the implementation process (though I'd argue the 'Sinicization' side, which I'm sure you've guessed is spearheaded by the KMT, is somewhat more insincere). 

I also happen to believe that 'Taiwanization' is more compatible with internationalization than 'Sinicization' is, despite being dismissed by critics as a form of ethnic nationalism (which it no longer is - if anything that attitude is more evident on the pan-blue, pro-China side). Taiwanization doesn't only seek to promote the notion of a distinct Taiwanese identity, which is a civic identity as much as an ethnic one, and a nation founded on that principle. It also seeks to situate that identity, and Taiwan as a nation, in a regional and global context. Sinicization doesn't go far beyond "we are all Chinese and you just have to accept this identity we've assigned to you". Although this wasn't always the case, it's currently more of an inward-looking movement.

What does all that have to do with teacher training? Well, a lot of people misconstrue 'internationalization' as going no further than a concept of English teaching as something done by foreigners, to Taiwanese students - and bringing in more foreigners to do this. The smiling white person at the front of the classroom telling Taiwanese how to be better "global citizens" through improved English, with "global citizens" of course meaning "people who act in ways that make Westerners feel comfortable".

In a word, barf.

I see internationalization as improving the state of foreign language education without overly focusing on Western countries (which isn't to say that language can be divorced from culture - the general consensus in the field is that it cannot). It's understanding not just the cultural, international and socieconomic context of English learning, but English learning as appropriation - learning it for one's own purposes, to communicate with the outside world as a lingua franca - rather than subjugation to a foreign ideal. And you don't accomplish that with idealized Westerners at the front of every class. You do it with locals up there, or teachers from a range of international backgrounds beyond "Bill is from Canada, and Janice is from the UK!" It helps society get used to the notion that English doesn't have to be a "thing we learn from and about white people", but something additive rather than subtractive, taught for themselves and (mostly) by others who may be like them. And you accomplish that by training up mostly local teachers.

Finally, I simply appreciate a chance to offer the fundamentals of good teaching practice to teachers who will go out and not only use them, but build on them. It's been argued that the sort of approaches I champion are themselves ultimately derived from teaching practices that suit Western cultures better, but I'd dispute that. First, we do talk about methodologies that are currently out-of-fashion, though I don't encourage them. Besides, such methods weren't common in Western countries either until the late 20th century: before that, the way language was taught wasn't that different from how it's taught in much of Asia now. The difference is one of time and institutional constraint, not one of culture.

More importantly, those 'traditional' methods are research-proven to be less effective, depending on what your goal is. If that goal is to communicate, do you think sitting in a 50-person class memorizing texts and repeating grammar points will be the most effective approach, regardless of culture? That English class in Taiwanese schools alone, without outside practice, does not lead to particularly stellar results, should be sufficient evidence that it will not.

But, most vitally, it's that local teachers and students have shown themselves to be open to other approaches. Despite unfounded stereotypes to the contrary, your average Taiwanese student does want their language classes to be more vibrant - fun, useful, communicative - than a traditional grammar-focused approach affords. Your average Taiwanese teacher wants to deliver that, as well, although institutional constraints (such as testing requirements) make it difficult. And as time passes, some of my best students will become head teachers or teacher trainers themselves, and will impart their own advice on what works and what doesn't, and "what works" will be forged of an entirely home-grown consensus. That can happen without me in the picture, but I feel grateful that I get to be a part of it. 

That's just it - I'm not seeking to put people down (such as untrained foreign teachers who come and get jobs easily) or push my own ideas on others. I just want the state of English teaching in Taiwan to be better. My Big Bad - my Final Boss - is probably the national-level exam (and the over-testing that takes place leading up to it). Although there have been changes and improvements, it's not nearly where it needs to be in terms of creating positive washback on the classes learners take. There's not much I can do about that now, but if the overall state of language teaching is both more localized and simply better, it's a step in the right direction. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Improve English education in Taiwan with this ONE WEIRD TRICK!

My work in Taiwan is dominated by adult students who ask for help with accent training. They need to do business with Koreans, Japanese, various speakers of Southeast Asian languages, Australians, Latinx people, Indians or various Europeans.

You see, all their teachers have been from an "Inner Circle" country (UK, Ireland, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand). They are therefore most used to those accents, North American ones in particular. They might meet people with those accents, but for business, there is a real need to better understand other Englishes.

My life in Taiwan is unfortunately punctuated by people bloviating about how racism in the English learning industry is somehow acceptable because of "choice" or "the market" or something (their arguments don't make much sense, because they are constructed mostly to avoid confronting uncomfortable issues rather than as stand-alone opinions).

They might try to say that this is acceptable because of some sort of subjective "clarity" of certain accents, although of course how clear an accent is depends in great part on how exposed you are to it compared to other accents (these people are not exactly experts in second language acquisition).

Some pontificate on how it is preferable to be taught by a "native speaker", usually with a very poor understanding of second language acquisition or what being a "native" or "non-native" speaker might actually mean. There is even less recognition that many people in India, Singapore, Nigeria, the Philippines (and more) are, in fact, native speakers, let alone questioning why they aren't recognized as such.

(The answer is racism, by the way. But that's hard for Johnny McBackpacker to admit when it casts doubt on his strongly-held opinion that "the market" is the Fairest Arbiter Of Them All.)

My life in England is characterized by mostly non-native speaking classmates, all of whom are fluent in English, and all of whom know more about the pedagogy of how to teach English than the average Johnny McBackpacker.

Sure, they have accents. But many of them have the accents that my adult students say they need to better understand for their work. Every last one of them is qualified to teach in Taiwan, but many if not most would struggle to get hired here.

We talk about all sorts of things, not least of which is the idea of English as a lingua franca (ELF) or English as an international language (EIL). Most English learners speak regularly with other non-native speakers, some perhaps almost entirely so, especially if they are using English in business or academia.

Back in Taiwan, the consequences are not surprising - all that learning of English from Canadians, Brits and Americans (the so-called 'preferable' native speakers) has actually put those students who tell me they need help with accents at a disadvantage. They get to work and realize, oh, all that time I spent with Teacher Becky listening to dialogues between Tim and Karen, but I actually have to communicate with people who don't speak like Becky, Tim or Karen. I have to do business with Sandeep and Cheng and Fumiko and Nnedi and Abdurrahman and Lupa. 

Of course, most people making hiring decisions are not educators. Even if they realize that they are actually disadvantaging their learners by not providing the English education many instrumentally-motivated Taiwanese learners are likely to need, they don't care. "It's the market." And the market wants white - even Inner Circle "native speaker" teachers who aren't white struggle to get hired.

And I just can't help but think, if y'all hired fluent English-speaking teachers from around the world, ensuring that most learners through their time studying English were exposed to a variety of Englishes, maybe not so many adult learners would come to me asking for help, which I have trouble giving with my Standard American accent. Maybe if we hired more English teachers whose usage represented the speakers and Englishes our learners would actually be communicating with, we wouldn't have this problem.

I mean, I don't want to say "duh", but...duh?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Another kind of missionary

A very "Chinese" Last Supper at the Catholic church in Yanshui, Tainan

Something that's been kind of in the back of my head for awhile, brought to the fore by my friend Donovan's interview with a missionary, and then the editorial some guy wrote about it. Now I'm writing about the editorial. Perhaps someone will write a piece about my blog post, and someone will tweet about that, and someone will write an editorial about that incendiary tweet, and then someone will Snapchat it or Tinder it or Grindr it or Blendr it or whatever the kids are doing these days, right up until Donovan covers the whole thing on ICRT again. The circle of life.

Anyway, friends and regular readers will know that I don't care for missionary work. I understand that many missionaries do other good things for communities, but I can't condone the 'I claim to respect your culture but I actually think this part of my culture is better and you should trash what you did before' attitude, or the idea that one does good works toward the ultimate goal of converting people. I say this even as I acknowledge that I can like and even respect individual people of good character who are missionaries.

In any case, what struck me about Mr. Angrypants here wasn't his views on missionary work which I largely agree with, but this:

Academic institutions must focus on the enhancement of logical, critical and independent thinking. Unfortunately, core values of the local culture here are not amenable, often even inimical to such essential educational goals.

The prevailing culture here is authoritarian and honors blind obedience, its education awards rote learning without understanding, it discourages young people from thinking for themselves and it punishes inquisitive minds.

The disingenuous educational paradigms are implemented in so many classrooms here on a daily basis. Therefore, there is no need in Taiwan of an additional input of uncritical thinking by religious groups that aim to hijack the minds of young people through the indoctrination of dubious contents.

I don't entirely disagree with this, though I don't necessarily think my education was that much better. But, it can't be denied that this is a large component of the educational system in Taiwan. Every time I start thinking "oh it's not that bad", I recall a story an adult student (and legit genius and overall cool person) once told me. As a student, he'd had to write three essays, each on one of Sun Yat-sen's Three Buzzwords Principles of the People. For the first two, he just restated what was in the textbook, and got perfect scores. For the third, he decided to offer his own insights as well (I've forgotten what they were, but I remember being impressed with his incisiveness), and got a C.

I don't even blame Taiwan for it too much: it's a holdover from authoritarian rule (dictators want populations that can read, write and do math, but not think too much) that sticks because it claims on the surface to have cultural legitimacy (I'll come back to this). Changing it would take a complex organized effort that considered parents, professional curriculum development, exams, administration and long-term teacher development. I understand why it's so slow to happen.

In short, he's got his tenses wrong. The prevailing culture in Taiwan was authoritarian, but is now democratic with a strong penchant for social movements and activism. The education system just hasn't gotten with the program.

I also suspect quite a few Westerners fundamentally misunderstand the historic role of education in many Asian cultures. Yes, it involves a great deal of memorization, especially of the "classics" (or math equations, or grammar patterns, or whatever). If you do this, you will pass. But historically there has also been a belief that to be truly 'educated' - to be a scholar - it's not enough to simply memorize. You have to take what you've learned and glean insights from it that you can apply to real-world situations. You have to be able to use it, extrapolate on it, consider it, do something with it. Otherwise, you might pass, but you're not a scholar.

Or as we call it in the West, critical thinking.

I'm not an advocate of this particular method of leading learners to criticality and inquisitiveness - it's outdated and just doesn't seem to work that well - but it's simply not true to say that educational traditions in Asia sought to suppress such traits.

But that's not where the real problem lies. This is:

There is another reason for concern. It is obvious that so many young people in Taiwan are literally clueless about major issues that move the world. Their life experience is minimal, their minds are soft and malleable, underdeveloped, easy to bend....

Often, young people are emotionally and intellectually insecure; they have never developed their own ideas about topics of general concern. They are lost when having to move within competitive networks of opinions, assertions and claims — the stuff the modern world is made of.

Therefore, they can be easily manipulated and “guided” by those who do have opinions, no matter whether they are good or bad.
Asian Mary, Jesus and Joseph
(Frankly I'll take this over white supremacist blue-eyed blonde-haired Jesus)

I'm guessing he doesn't spend a lot of time around Taiwanese student activists. If you think they are easily manipulated or their opinions can be changed or bent, just ask Ma Ying-jiu how that worked out for him.

Seriously, this is one of the most offensive things I've ever read about Taiwan.

Mr. Dude turns a somewhat-valid criticism of the educational system in Taiwan into a narrative of ‘these poor dumb mindless Taiwanese are at the mercy of these missionaries’ as though they are hapless victims too stupid and thoughtless to run their own society.

You know, that society that I just noted above has a strong tradition of activism (nevermind that it used to be called 'rebellion')? The one with arguably the most successful democracy in Asia, some of the freest press in Asia if not the world, with a developed economy that they (not the dictatorship) built?

That society, apparently. According to him, it's full of morons who don't even know how to have opinions.

This literally makes me want to spit. While I don't pretend Taiwan is perfect - there are many issues here that deserve strong, if not vicious, criticism - in this particular way, I have to wonder if we're living in the same country. I mean, sure, I meet idiots here. Every country in the world has its thinkers, its average people and its, um, dimmer bulbs. Every country has its leaders, its normal people and its blind followers. But to just not see all the creativity and insight around him? What's up with that?

For every thicker-skulled person I meet, I also meet people like my student above, who risked a failing grade just to write what he really thought. I see students occupying...all sorts of things, or trying to. I see the student I had who envisioned his presentation as a series of interconnected three-dimensional cubes, in a really insightful way that I hadn't even considered as a potential mind map. I see all the great Taiwanese fiction I've read recently, the beautiful films, the students I tutored who came up with a way to safely and more easily carry water over long distances while using the movement of that water to charge a battery that could be used for electricity, the creatively-decorated cafes, the young people with ideas that they'll launch once they get the money.

I see that while the authoritarian-holdover educational system in Taiwan is accepted, it is not particularly well-liked. Most Taiwanese are well aware of the flaws, and it's entirely understandable that fixing them seems like an impossible effort (if you want to criticize this, fine, but go look at American public schools in underprivileged areas and come back and tell me you still think Western countries are 'better').

I see a country where the education system doesn't teach critical thinking, but plenty of people learned to think critically anyway.

So this guy thinks he has all the answers for how to make Taiwan better and if we’d just do what he says those poor, poor, POOR widdle Taiwanese wouldn’t be taken in by those evil big bad missionaries. Just listen to him, he’ll fix what’s wrong with Taiwan.

He knows how to make this foreign culture better, more thoughtful in ways he can relate to, more like his vision of what it should be like. Of course, without his brilliant insight Taiwan will be lost. Barbaric. Stuck in the past. Or something.

In other words, he's just another kind of missionary.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Islands in the Stream: on a lack of mentoring in ELT in Taiwan

Just recently, an opportunity more or less fell in my lap.

Well, I say that as though it appeared out of nowhere with no work on my part, but that's not entirely true. As a result of completing a Cambridge Delta, I made useful connections in the professional teaching world in Taiwan: a network I wouldn't have been able to build if I hadn't put in that work and, I suppose, stood out while doing it. One of those people helped ensure we had access to the reading and sources we needed and has been a supportive person in the field since. He hasn't been the only supportive person, but he's certainly been the most supportive one. Hence, a chance to level up. Climb one ring higher on the professional ladder.

In other ways, I've had peers, trainers and other TEFL professionals - yes, it is a profession if you do it properly - who have been helpful or supportive. What I've learned on all of these qualification and degree courses, including in my current MEd program, have been useful and interesting and have helped me develop as a teacher, but arguably the biggest benefit has been connecting to this international network of professional teachers more as I progress professionally. This is true in any field - TEFL is no less different once you get out of the "fancy daycare" sewer end.

I have tried to pass that on as much as I am able, referring people I felt were talented, doing classroom observations and giving feedback, being a part of a group that meets to discuss TEFL-related issues and loaning out books from my now-considerable professional library. I hope to do more of it in the future.

But, I've been lucky. I was in a position where I was able to do the Delta and move on to the MEd (again, with support not just professionally but financially), and having the foothold to even do that can be an obstacle for many in Taiwan. Even so, despite my good luck, local support is minimal: a handful of dedicated people at best.

Yes, there are associations - well, there's one - and very few of the long-term professionals I know attend their events. I've been given several reasons for this which I won't repeat here.

In any case, associations aren't really the answer - what the TEFL world in Taiwan seems to lack is mentoring. 

Some could benefit from group or individual support when studying for Delta, as it can seem like an impossible feat. Some need the security of knowing there are people who can be their Delta tutors - but in Taiwan, the pool of qualified people is tiny, and most don't have the time (myself included - I'm not there yet but I will be soon, and I can only hope that at that point, I will have the time).

Some have trouble even accessing the readings they need for Delta and Master's programs - someone in Taiwan likely has the books they need, but it's hard to know who.

Some quite rightly want to find work that will help sponsor them for professional development, which is not impossible but certainly rare.

Some burn out as university teachers in an academic setting with little support, because the language department is so poorly run - low pay, purposeless meetings, large class sizes, with no incentive to publish nor many opportunities to collaborate with others on development, research or publication. There don't seem to be too many mentors there, either, nor much advice they can offer for dealing with such poor working conditions.

Some are talented but can't get their foot in the door at institutions that would value them because of bad timing and a lack of opportunities to demonstrate that talent.

The support I'm talking about doesn't have to be very high-level: it needn't be advanced degree holders working together or reaching out to bring others up. It could be peer-to-peer, with teachers working together within schools - yes, even buxibans - and finding, creating or referring opportunities to receive or provide training, observe each other for learning/feedback, design or improve a curriculum or syllabus or research or write. Yet not even that is always readily available. Not even the "fancy daycares" need to be the "sewer end" of the industry, and arguably would be far more pleasant places to work if there were more incentives to work together. It doesn't have to be as horrible as it is, and it should be easier to climb out and do better than $600/hour in an insecure job where educating the learners is not the chief priority.

All in all, people just don't seem to talk. The official learning and classwork inherent in professional development is important, but so is talking, and it's not happening. I know quite a few professionals in the field, and none so far has described to me a real mentoring experience they've had in Taiwan. Having that former Delta tutor who has passed opportunities my way - essentially a form of the mentorship I'm talking about - feels like a stroke of luck few others get in Taiwan.

I'm describing what I see in the foreign teaching community here, but I'm not sure it's much better in local circles. Certainly, local and foreign teaching circles don't overlap much, which is another problem. They can and should. Why they don't is beyond me, although I can't help but think we are actively disincentivized from creating such an environment.

Across the sea, I see a friend teaching at a university in Japan who goes to conferences across the country, has a strong professional network, is able to publish and attend conferences abroad, and is not only able to climb the ladder, but there is a ladder to climb. She has people to talk shop with, people to meet, avenues of collaboration.

I want that for Taiwan. While I know that anything that happens here will necessarily be smaller-scale, it's sad that it doesn't seem to exist much at all.

One problem is the difficulty in accessing the professional development training where one builds such networks. While arguably fair for a fresh college graduate to be earning NT$600 a month - this works out to about US$20/hour in a country that's cheaper to live in - it's not enough to save to go abroad to do training. There is little professional development available in Taiwan itself (yet).

Another is that the vast majority of English teachers in Taiwan are unqualified. A strong professional support network of mentors and mentees requires a mix of leaders and learners, and there are so few leaders in education in Taiwan. I can name maybe 20 whom I know personally in the foreign community outside of the international schools, and I'd imagine some out there whom I don't know - but the number is likely quite small. Many schools have teacher trainers, most of whom were given the job because they've been teaching a few years longer, nothing more. While there is value in this, teaching for a longer period of time doesn't necessarily make one a better teacher (though it helps) or necessarily qualified to train. Many of the truly qualified ones I know in Taiwan are either too busy to take on that kind of role, and some have either left or are planning to leave. Of those, I've heard more than one story of someone who doesn't want to leave, but feels pushed out by how education works in Taiwan.

Of those who stay, as far as I know not one of them stays because they think the situation here is great. They stay, as I do, because they want to be here. It actively costs them career-wise, as it will probably cost me.

It doesn't help, either, that most institutions are run by businesspeople with no background in education. Although the atmosphere is collegial at my various workplaces now, I've seen plenty where building professional relationships for development purposes wasn't even considered, because it didn't occur to the businessperson at the top that teachers were professionals who could benefit from it. Other times, it's simply not encouraged, or seen as an active threat (in one memorable case I think they worried about us organizing, and organized labor is more difficult to exploit). Certainly as all such work is currently unpaid at most institutions, leading to a further lack of incentives.

I'm not sure what to do about all this except to do my best to be a mentor myself to the extent that I am able. When I reached out my arms, a few people pulled me up; I want to do the same for others. But if we create a stronger professional support network in Taiwan, it will make professional development easier and more accessible. We might not have a ladder in terms of training programs (yet) but we really ought to have one in terms of networking and support.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Who gets an 'Ideal Mother' award?

A door goddess on the Five Concbines' Temple in Tainan.
I like to think that women are seen as good for more than just sex, good looks and motherhood. 

Mother's Day was yesterday, but I am only getting around to writing this now. I don't do a lot on Mother's Day - although I have a grandmother and mother-in-law, it's still hard to do more than maybe offer a quiet tribute of some kind to my own mother, who passed away in 2014.

Anyway, I don't I'm not meaning to make any deep social commentary here, I just wanted to point out a common practice in Taiwan that I've never heard of being done where I'm from.

Perhaps you've heard of the "Ideal Mother Awards" (or "Exemplary Mother Awards", or however you'd translate it).

Basically, every Mother's Day, local communities, including my own, vote on which mothers in their communities are "Exemplary Mothers". There's a little ceremony and an award of some kind, often but not always presented by the neighborhood chief (里長). I can't imagine it's much. You might have your name published in the community newsletter if there is one. I only know about the one in my area because of that newsletter - I tried to read it once for Chinese practice, found it horribly boring, and haven't tried again.

According to the excellent Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan,  this is a 'custom' (a government-created tradition) dating back from the days of Soong Mei-ling  -Chiang Kai-shek's wife -  and has deep ties to state-sponsored women's groups in the ROC on Taiwan. (Autonomous, non-state-sponsored women's groups were not permitted, which is not surprising.) It's directly related to these organizations, and Madame Soong's 'leadership' in women's issues, and their/her vision of what ideal Taiwanese (well, Chinese from her point of view) womanhood should be. You won't be shocked to learn that it involved traditional gender roles, hard work as a homemaker, helpmeet and supporter of the (male) ROC troops in what was perceived to be an ongoing war effort. Basically, calling themselves advocates for women while pushing sexist, traditional gender norms. 

I'm not sure who decides who is an "Exemplary Mother", to be honest, although I know there are a lot more community organizations than I am aware of as a foreigner, even as one who speaks Chinese and gets along more-or-less well with her neighbors (except, ahem, in 2014. You know why). I'd kind of forgotten about it as I no longer read my (again, horribly boring) community newsletter. I was only reminded of the practice again when a student told me that her mother-in-law would receive such an award.

Great! I thought. Here's a chance to ask a few questions about this particular...uh, tradition? Is it even one? 

Ugh, my student seemed to think. It's such a silly old-fashioned thing. I hope nobody ever foists one of those awards on ME. 

I have to admit, I had conceived of the "Exemplary Mother" awards as a sort of patriarchal pat-on-the-back, a carrot of reinforcement of outdated gender norms. Convincing women to think of their "place" as mothers and wives in the family so the whole Confucian train can keep rollin'. Though this is not limited to Asia, in Asia it's often associated with Confucianism, however, we are not innocent in the West, where I suppose it's just associated with being misogynist. Same difference?

And I write that even as someone who strongly dislikes the tendency of foreigners writing about Asia to revert straight to "Confucian!!!" to explain everything, even when that thing can be explained by saying "this is a thing that sucks." But maybe it can be used accurately in this particular case?

Back when I read that article in my community newsletter, I recall at least one-third to one-half of all of the "exemplary mothers" having dual surnames (e.g. Chen Zhuang Mei-ling or what have you), signifying that the mothers in question had taken their husbands' surnames in addition to their own: a practice that is considered by most to be very traditional and old-fashioned, and something of a social signal showing that you, too, are something of a traditionalist.

So, I imagined this whole shebang as a way to reward housewives, perhaps conservative ones, perhaps ones in very traditional family structures who not only upheld those structures, but believed in them and maybe even felt everyone else should too. I certainly imagined them picking mothers who defined themselves by their family, deferred to their husbands, and embodied a certain middle-to-upper-middle-class ROC - can we call it waisheng? - aesthetic, whether they were actually from that community or not (I've long felt that the aesthetic is the thing that seems to count. Whether or not you are actually descended from the KMT diaspora doesn't always make a difference when it comes to this kind of patriarchal elitism. You just have to act like them.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised. A quick rundown of the questions I asked and the answers I got:

So these awards - what do you have to do to get one?

Well, you have to have at least a few kids. Maybe three is enough - a lot of kids anyway, probably more than two. And you have to have sacrificed a lot for your family.

What do you mean by 'sacrificed a lot'? 

Like, spend a lot of time raising your kids, and they should be successful, good students or high-level workers if they are older. Always cooking nutritious food, that sort of thing. And usually you are not rich, I guess they think it's easy to raise kids if you are rich.

So, housewives?

No, sometimes the mothers have careers. You don't have to be a housewife to get this award.

Do they have to be particularly traditional?

No, I mean, I guess if you're divorced you won't get the award. But you don't have to be very traditional. Like I said, you could work or have a career too. Actually if you just do everything you are told you probably won't get it. You have to be a leader in the family.

Anything else? 

You should take care of other family members, like your husband's parents. If you take care of kids and the older generation, that's really good. And you should have a...'harmonious family'.

What about your own parents? 

I don't know, but I think if you take care of your own parents and raise kids, that's actually okay. It doesn't have to be so traditional.

So, are there "Exemplary Father" awards? 

Yes! We have those on Father's Day. But honestly, people don't pay as much attention to them. And you also have to sacrifice a lot for your family to get that.

Sacrifice how?

Like do a lot for them, raise your children well, and have a lot of kids, spend time with them, and the kids should be model citizens too. Just like with the mothers.

So it's not about earning money for the family. 

No! Anyone can do that. An 'Exemplary Father' has to do more than that.

It seems like the main thing here is rewarding people who have a lot of kids. 

Yup. Well you know our population is low, people are not having a lot of kids these days. So maybe the government wants to encourage that by rewarding the parents who do that even though they are not rich, and who raise their kids well.

Other than being good students or successful adults, what does it mean to be a 'model citizen'? 

Well, like a good person. Maybe you do something for the community.

So it's about more than obeying your parents, or growing up to earn a lot of money? 


What do you think it means to have a 'harmonious family'?

Like, you get along, the neighbors don't think of you as fighting all the time, maybe you seem happy as a family. Not divorced. But also, not arguing all the time.

Do you need to have a son?

Not as far as I know, no. But I guess most people who win this award have at least one son, because they always have many kids.

* * *

Anyway, this is one person's answers, and narrators can be unreliable. I don't know how true her statements are regarding the entire practice. Perhaps in her neighborhood they are more progressive, but you never know, perhaps they are less so, or perhaps her views of what it takes to be an "Exemplary Mother" are not as in line with the committee members' ideas as she thinks they are. There's no way to know (well, there is a way to know, but I'm not an academic with a research budget, so there's no way for me to know).

There are things I could nitpick, though many could be nitpicked in any country: the idea that one needs to have many kids to be an "Exemplary Mother" (or father), the idea that fathers get less attention paid to their awards (though fathers being thought of as less involved with family is an issue hardly unique to Taiwan). I wonder to what extent female obeisance is required to maintain a 'harmonious family', and what behavior at home might be known about but ignored by neighbors. I wonder to what extent wives and mothers might not speak out lest their neighbors think of them as less than 'exemplary' (again, not a problem unique to Taiwan).

The award also only seems to be open to same-sex couples, as we don't yet have marriage equality in Taiwan, and the idea that one can't be an "Exemplary Mother" if one is divorced. It reinforces gender norms and gender identity, and provides a frighteningly pre-fab idea about what 'sacrifice' and 'harmony' mean. I also wonder how often it really happens that a woman who receives such an award really does have a high-powered career on par with her husband's. Perhaps it is possible, but is it common?

I could also nitpick what this means for the kids. Sure, what my student said above is all well and good. It sounds wonderful on paper, but what does it really mean? Does it mean pushing kids to study all day for pointless tests, so they get good grades and thus are "good students"? How narrow is the definition for "model citizens"? I mean, that last one sounds like something Ma Ying-jiu would have been called as a kid, and something Hung Hsiu-chu would blather on about now, and I wouldn't call either of them model citizens. Do they really not define 'successful' as 'high-status and earning a lot of money' or is that just something one says because it sounds like the right sort of sound bite? And is the fact that the winners generally have sons really because they tend to have more than two kids in general, or because sons really are considered more important by the committee that hands these awards out?

I don't know, and I can't know, but I have to admit the whole thing is a lot better than I'd imagined it to be.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Those "letters of agreement" Taiwanese universities signed are scarier than you think

The caption reads "Chinese hearts are easily broken" - it can also be read as "Handle Fragile Chinese Hearts With Care"

Update: apparently the number of schools who signed these letters is "at least half" of the originally reported 157. Here's a link to an updated article. 

I just want to make a quick comment on the story that at least 80 or so universities in Taiwan have signed "letters of agreement" that students from China would not be exposed in class to certain areas of political discussion (namely, Taiwanese independence or sovereignty, or anything that might challenge the idea of "One China").

The agreements don't seem to have had any impact on what is actually taught in classes (from at least one account, orders are not handed down to the actual educators regarding what they may and may not cover in class and these issues are discussed), and seem at this point to be mainly intended to smooth the process for Chinese students coming to Taiwan.

I'd argue, though, that this doesn't mean they are a non-issue.

Chinese universities are hardly independent academic entities with the full range of academic freedoms one can reasonably expect in free societies. I am not an expert, and so do not know the exact extent to which individual universities are beholden to, or take orders from, the Chinese government, but I believe I can safely assume that they are all beholden to some extent, and take orders to some extent - more likely than not, to a great extent.

If, then, the letters are indeed 'pro forma', it is because nobody in China is insisting they be enforced. I don't see it as being a strategy far removed from "we'll send Chinese tourists": sure, they'll send Chinese tourists, until it is strategically convenient for them not to do so anymore. That move backfired (ha ha) but we all know it was the intended strategy. Those who relied on Chinese tourism complained as predicted, and "Taiwan's economy hit hard! Cross-strait tensions!!!!" became a bigger issue than it ever ought to have been, had the whole truth been reported rather than simply the loudest voices.

In this case, is it too hard to imagine that these letters are being asked for, and yet compliance not insisted on, for now - but that once it is strategically convenient to do so, that could easily change?

What happens when there are enough Chinese students in Taiwan, or at any given university that can be reliably expected to complain, that immediately cutting off new enrollments could serve as a threat, or be otherwise beneficial to China, the next time the people of Taiwan vote in a way China doesn't like, or the government they've elected doesn't adopt the supplicant position China demands? It seems clear to me the government could do that, and their own universities would comply.

Then it turns into headlines around the world: "Taiwanese universities suffering as China cuts off student programs", which lead to articles about how this is hurting Taiwan, which lead to piss-poor punditry about how Taiwan, by being a 'troublemaker' rather than taking the most conciliatory stance possible, is causing its own problems and creating 'tensions' across the strait. It never seems to matter that China is usually the one taking the actions and making the threats.

Indeed, bent-over, cheeks agape appears to be the only position many around the world feel Taiwan is allowed to reasonably take vis-a-vis China - often from people who in any other context talk real big about freedom, democracy and respect for sovereignty.

This would be worse than the tourism strategy, however, because Taiwan does have too many universities and, rather than allowing them to close without complaint, they actually will suffer when Chinese students are recalled or new enrollments ceased because China has found it strategically convenient to suddenly insist on the enforcement of these agreements. And they will complain, and it will make the news, and people will call Taiwan the 'troublemaker', wash, rinse, repeat.

Meanwhile every other country gets to more reasonably debate what growing Chinese influence means for academic freedom in their country. Everyone else gets to talk about how China's actions globally - most clearly revealed by the actions of Confucius Institutes worldwide - are part of a strategy to dominate the narrative about China, and truth in general.

Some universities may feel the pressure to comply, and, if this practice continues now that it's been brought into the public eye, we will have no idea which ones they will be. Academic freedom will be threatened, and students from Taiwan (as far as I am aware no class is made up entirely of students from China - even if one is, China has no right to insist that a university abroad educate them in a certain way) will also be shorted. China wins either way: the universities comply and education in Taiwan becomes influenced by Chinese censorship, or they don't and a bunch of bullshit articles are spawned that make it look as though Taiwan is the problem.

This is one reason why I get so annoyed with the "but any warming relations with China are good! It's always great for us to have good relations with China!" crowd. No, it's not, because every single thing the Chinese government does towards Taiwan that appears conciliatory is meant to advance their end goal of annexing Taiwan. No exceptions. The tourists, the students, the trade deals, the investment, all of it - is aimed directly at eating away at Taiwanese sovereignty and creating a vortex of integration that they hope will eventually push Taiwan over a critical event horizon.

In truth, this is their strategy around the world - it's not even that subtle! - but with the less critical aim of controlling the world narrative. With Taiwan they want both to control the narrative and to succeed in their goal of territorial expansion. In other countries it's a problem to be discussed, a peripheral concern to be addressed. In Taiwan it's critical to address for the very survival of the nation. Many countries do this - the US tries to promote its own narrative as well - but again, in the case of Taiwan, its own continued existence is at stake.

So, perhaps this sounds like a crazy-ass conspiracy theory - the Chinese are always out to get us. But it's quite plausible, it's in line with their actions toward Taiwan in the past, it's in line with their actual stated goal (it's not like they hide it!) of annexing Taiwan, and it makes perfect sense in the context of how universities and academic freedom operate in China.

These letters may seem like pro-forma non-issues now, but, even if you call me crazy, I truly do not believe that if they continue to be signed that they will remain a non-issue. This does not mean that I have a problem with Chinese students in Taiwan - I would like to see them here, and be exposed to Taiwan, the successes of Taiwanese freedom and democracy, and what true academic freedom means. I have no problem with them, and in at least one of my work capacities I engage with them frequently. With very few exceptions, I have never had a problem or complaint. This is not about the students.

However, I cannot stress enough that agreements like this are not an acceptable pre-condition for those exchanges to happen, and that the Chinese government will certainly attempt to use its flow of students abroad to further their political agenda.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on News Surrounding 228

There is a lot to say about the commemoration of this year's 228 Massacre - as can be expected given that it's the 70th anniversary of the tragedy - that I feel ought to be more broadly disseminated. So, while it's rare for me to do this, I've put together a summary of various 228-related news and thoughts.

My friends and I had planned to spend the morning at the Nylon Deng Liberty Museum near MRT Zhongshan Junior High School. I had wanted to go on April 7th, which will be the 28th anniversary of Nylon's self-immolation, but others were not available. 228 is also a suitable day, as much of Nylon's work revolved around appropriately recognizing and commemorating the 228 Massacre. Deng is almost a mythical figure and hero among activists and the socially and politically engaged, but remains somewhat unknown in mainstream society - I have many students who have never heard of him, and I had been in Taiwan for several years before I learned of his work and sacrifice.

It's a quieter sort of reflection, away from the speeches, music and even protests. I strongly recommend going - it's a small museum but a very emotional experience - I'll post a few photos later. The office where he set the fire, preserved in its charred state, is hard to look at straight on, to be honest. I also recommend watching the longer, 50-minute film (English subtitles available on request, and you can buy a DVD of the film for a reasonable price). Be warned: you will cry, especially if you care about Taiwan, but even if you are not so attached to this country.

Downtown, participants in the Gongsheng music festival (a 228 commemorative event) and members of one of the most conservative - and geriatric - factions of the KMT clashed before the two sides were separated by the police. A full piece will be out later on this (here it is!), but I'll go out on a limb and say the old folks started it.

I may be wrong, but it seems like these sort of scuffles are more common this year than in the past (perhaps in the past I didn't notice as much, but it really feels like an escalation). Skirmishes not only took place between the pro-KMT folks out waving their ROC flags - a few days ago pro-unificationists attacked a 228-related book signing.

If my impression is correct, all I can say is this: when a privileged minority with outdated views starts losing their privileged position in a society and with it their ability to dominate the cultural narrative of that society, they tend to react angrily. Finding that your views are not only no longer mainstream but that people are not letting you manipulate what your collective society stands for tends to cause people to lash out. Nobody likes having their power taken away, and nobody likes being faced with the cognitive dissonance of realizing society now believes that the party or ideology they've supported is not only outmoded but in fact morally wrong, or even requiring justice to rectify wrongs that you never thought were actually wrong. We've seen it recently in other countries - I mean, look at where I'm from - so it's no surprise that the Huang Fu-xing (a far-right chapter of the KMT consisting mostly of Nationalist veterans of advanced age) would be acting this way.

As we continue to strip them of their privilege and cultural power both in general society and through specific acts of transitional justice, expect them to lash out more. Be vigilant, as well: we know they are in the minority, and we know they are behind the times and reacting out of anger that they are no longer in control. However, if recent events in the country of my birth prove anything, it's that you can never be sure that they won't strike back hard enough to actually win even as it seems that their beliefs are (literally) dying out.

On the other side of the ideological divide, Chiang Kai-shek Dead Dictator Memorial Hall was closed for the day, which is the first year I remember that happening. The reason given by the Ministry of Culture was that it was out of respect and to 'memorialize the dead'. What many socially aware people are saying, however, is that it was closed to preemptively stop vandalism of the hall or the statue within it. Other statues have apparently been vandalized, and there has been renewed call to remove the statue altogether and repurpose the hall into something other than, well, a memorial to a brutal dictator and murderer.

Regardless of the reason, I would say that closing the hall even for a day is the right thing to do. It is an insult to the dead to have a large memorial complex celebrating the man who is ultimately responsible for their deaths. However, it doesn't go far enough. That statue ought to have been removed years ago (as I once said in a TV interview back when it was renamed Freedom Square, only to have my words purposely mistranslated into "everyone has their opinion, I think we should all be able to hold different views", which I never said). The entire place ought to be repurposed (I find it visually appealing enough, but really can't stand that it memorializes a deeply evil man). The memorial hall has said that they will stop selling CKS-related merchandise and other things that show him in a positive light, but until it is truly Freedom Square - or perhaps the new building for the Legislative Yuan - it still doesn't go far enough.

Honestly speaking, beyond 228 - for which Chiang was, in fact, responsible - when I look at Taiwanese history post-1945, at every turn (every fucking turn!) the person most responsible, almost singlehandedly responsible, for fucking over Taiwan. He completely fucked the whole country (fuck!), and yet there's a creepy-ass personality cult monument to him taking up prime real estate downtown. Fuck him - it's time for that to change.

Of course, not everyone understands the role that Chiang did play in 228.

Along those lines, a "revelation" (it wasn't really) of great interest was also made public this month: some scholars have long suspected that Chiang Kai-shek was ultimately responsible for the 228 Massacre, despite one of the accepted narratives being that he was in China at the time and could not have been responsible for the actions of Chen Yi. Now, we have proof that he was, in fact, responsible. Correspondence between Chen and Chiang in which the former asks for troops (which were granted) has been found and published, giving clear proof that Chiang was aware of the situation in Taiwan and authorized troops to be sent. It isn't hard, if you understand how the wheels of history work, to figure out that he must have known how those troops were going to be used.

In any case, an excellent run-down of the document and its significance (and a strong case for why it shows that Chiang is ultimately responsible for the massacre) can be found here. I won't repeat what has already been said so well.

Moving on from that into shallower waters, apparently there's some dumb kerfuffle over Pizza Hut offering promotions over the long weekend, because other countries commemorate tragedies in an appropriately solemn atmosphere. The example given is September 11 in the United States.

First, I do need to say that what Pizza Hut did was insensitive and stupid. My issue is not that the ad was fine; it wasn't. (I did not realize at first that they changed it from "Killer Deals!" to something less horrifying. "Killer deals!" is never okay.) I just think focusing on this takes up time and discourse over things of greater importance.

That said, regarding September 11, I can't speak for every public holiday surrounding a tragedy worldwide, but September 11 in the US is not a public holiday, whereas 228 in Taiwan is. The only closely analogous holidays that are actually days off (well, for some people) in the US are perhaps Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. And, let's be honest, in terms of how those are actually celebrated, we may as well rename them Mattress Discounters Day or Raymour & Flanagan Super Blowout Sale Day or whatever. Come on. Are people taking trips or visiting relatives rather than attending commemorative events? Some are, but given how little free time and how few holidays Taiwanese get, can you really blame them? I have no patience for this line of criticism.

Let me be clear - I do not think it is appropriate for Pizza Hut to offer promotions on 228, especially if they reference the massacre in particular. I just want to point out that plenty of public holidays are commodified or commercialized around the world, even the ostensibly solemn ones. This isn't some isolated incident of corporate apathy (Big Business is always apathetic, this is nothing new. That's why I don't get my moral code from Pizza Hut. Or my pizza...)

Finally, being the 70th anniversary of the massacre, and also a politically charged year as the "opposition" (they're not anymore) has control of both the legislature and the presidency for the first time in Taiwan's history, it is understandable that there are more media offerings on the legacy of the tragedy of 228. The Duty of 228 is a touching video, which feels more like flipping through an interactive scrapbook than a traditional 'video' and is worth a watch. The New York Times has a pretty solid article on the massacre, although I take exception to the assertion that, when the Nationalists arrived in Taiwan, that Taiwanese as a whole were overjoyed or particularly welcomed them.

That is, of course, the prevailing narrative and it is true that the streets were lined with "supporters" as the soldiers arrived. However, I question the degree to which they were really happy to be "liberated" from Japanese colonial rule (Japanese rule itself being a complex topic that I will not tackle here). Everything I've read on the topic - which admittedly isn't much - points out that many Taiwanese were disappointed to see how small and ragged these 'liberators' really were. One credible acquaintance points out that many of the "supporters" on the street were children who were told by their teachers to be there - if you're told to go outside and cheer, you don't count as a "supporter". I have also read that the crowd of "supporters" (scare quotes included) when Chiang and his wife appeared in the Presidential Office was, well, there - but it wasn't clear how much they really "supported" the KMT's taking over.

What's more, as much as anti-Taiwan, pro-China voices claim otherwise, there was in fact a Taiwanese autonomy/independence movement in existence at that time, and George Kerr even makes reference to Taiwanese who want autonomy. (I also have trouble believing that the ideologies and thought processes behind the formation of the Formosa League for Re-Emancipation, which was founded in 1948, were birthed in their entirety by the events of 228. I find it very hard to believe that there were no smaller groups around before that talking about Taiwanese independence. Furthermore, he and others were quite clear that plenty of political elites in China worried about how the ROC was going to approach the governance of an island full of people so different from the rest of China - in great part because most of them grew up under the Japanese. It is inconceivable to me that Taiwanese did not, to some extent, share similar worries.

In any case, the article is pretty good, the video is lovely, and although I haven't read it yet, I am sure Tsai's speech will be of interest (almost the least interesting thing to have happened surrounding 228 this year, although I would also like to hear what the first DPP president since Chen Shui-bian has to say).

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I am really sick of those Nazi re-enactment kids

There is a reason this was OK but the high school students' Nazi re-enactment was not
From here

...and yet here I am writing about them. 

Make no mistake, however, I am sick of them. I just don't want to hear about it anymore, and I won't write about them again.

I'm not going to get into the "but their freedom of speech!" retort because it's intellectually shallow. These kids have freedom of speech - they have not faced and will not face criminal charges for this. Freedom of speech never gave anyone the right to freedom from criticism or backlash from the public regarding what they've expressed.

I'm also not going to get into "why is it so taboo?" It's not taboo. Movies and even war re-enactors re-enact painful scenes from history, including the horrors of Nazism, fairly frequently. If the subject matter is handled sensitively then there's generally not a problem with it. The issue here is that it did not meet that standard. This is true for historical re-enactments of all sorts for a variety of purposes.

Remember how we all watched a re-enactment of executions under the White Terror during President Tsai's inauguration? Remember how, while people remarked on it, there wasn't this kind of critical backlash? Because the re-enactment had value: learning value, historical value, emotional value. Nobody (well, nobody with any sense) thinks that such re-enactments should be forbidden or are all in bad taste, no matter what. It's how the events are handled when acted out, and why the re-enactment is staged in the first place, that matters. (Edited to add: not everyone thinks that the re-enactments in the inaugural play were handled well - I too have some criticism of them, but overall do feel they had historical value if, perhaps, it was not portrayed as accurately as it could be).

Also on the trash heap: "well they don't know that much about WWII. The evils of Nazism haven't been ingrained in them the way they have in us". Sure, but there's no excuse for that. Just as we Westerners could stand a more comprehensive approach to Asian history - from the horrors of Mao to the White Terror to Pol Pot, Japanese imperialism and beyond - this should be better taught in Asian schools. In fact, even in Asia these subjects don't always seem to be fully understood: why is it that Chiang Kai-shek and Chairman Mao bobblehead toys can be purchased in half the gift shops of Taiwan? What is the purpose of making two brutal dictators adorable?

And yet another one for the dumptruck: "people do lots of worse things, Americans can be just as insensitive!" Yup. Thinking of all the idealistic young Westerners a generation ago who wore Mao suits to be "cool" (or worse, because they actually bought what Mao was selling) or make tasteless jokes about some of the more awful events and people of Asian history also makes me shake my head. But "they do it too" is not an excuse.

What bothers me, really, then, is the complete lack of value - historical, pedagogical, emotional - in this particular re-enactment.

The dramatically staged executions during the inauguration performance had historical value and emotional weight. Through them, we can be reminded of the horrors of the past - it pushes us to remember the history of agonies Taiwan has battled through and in some way pushes Taiwan to come to terms with its own history (something that is avoided more than it should be). Through the re-enactment, the horror of what took place in that era is laid bare, and it provides a useful lens through which to examine Taiwan's progress, current status and future. It was not a perfect dramatic performance, and there are reasons to criticize it - and the depiction of Han settlers driving out the original aboriginal inhabitants of the land - but nobody would say that no re-actment should have taken place. If it made you upset, good. It should.

There is similar value in films dealing with history, whether fictional, semi-fictional and documentary, and value in historical societies re-enacting battles and other scenes from potent events from the past: through them we can understand what it was like for the people involved, in some small way, and hopefully learn from it.

This, though? This was a group of teenagers choosing a decidedly un-fun subject and having, well, fun with it. It was not handled sensitively and, as a teacher, I fail to see what learning outcomes this might better bring about. What exactly did these students learn about Nazism by putting on snazzy uniforms and marching around? What of the weight and pain of history did this impart? What greater understanding did they gain? How did they learn to examine the issue critically, look at various sources and discuss the ideas within, or apply the lessons to the timeline of history, the world as it is today and the future?

There are certainly ways to teach Nazism in schools in Taiwan and elsewhere. The subject is not taboo - or should not be - and there may even be room for historical re-enactments if they serve a purpose.

However, one of the first things I learned in my teacher training is that every activity included in one's lesson should be carefully and critically evaluated for how well it will enable the class to meet its aims: how it will enable the learners to learn what you want them to come away with. Not only are we asked to look at each activity and decide if it is the best possible choice to propel the class toward successful learning, or if another choice might be more targeted, more efficient, more engaging or more relevant, but also if each activity is properly scaffolded and ordered to bring the class, in stages, through to a greater understanding of the subject (whatever level of understanding you have specified in your aims).

I am not a perfect teacher. Sometimes I get lazy - I try not to do it often - and perhaps I grab an activity because I'm short on time when another, more involved one might have been more fruitful. Sometimes I reflect on a class and think "that wasn't scaffolded as well as it could have been, I shouldn't have had to give such a long explanation of this or that issue". Sometimes I think "well, we met our aims, but I'm not sure that the level of understanding is as deep as I'd like it to be." I think all responsible, professional teachers think this way.

Certainly, syllabuses and curriculums are littered with pointless school projects that amount to wheel-spinning or extra whiz-bang showiness but do little, or nothing, to actually promote absorption of and understanding of the subject matter. Certainly - and not only in Taiwan - is critical thinking training often sacrificed for these surface-level school projects that are usually money and time sucks (or they are sacrificed at the altar of 'this is on the big exam so memorize what's in your book, we don't have time to think too deeply about it, you just need to answer some questions').

I can honestly say if I were tasked with teaching Nazism to a history class, this sort of re-enactment would have no place in it. Not because it is tasteless, though it is that, but because it lacks value. If, however, in some lesson a re-enactment, handled appropriately, did have value I would incorporate it.

I could give you a very long list of things that might be better included: from debates to class experiments (such as the brown eye/blue eye experiment) to readings (not only textbook readings but books such as The Wave, The Book Thief and perhaps even Stargirl which is seemingly unrelated but in fact carries that us-against-them mentality so intrinsic to the Nazis into the modern world in a different way). I am not afraid to face slightly unnerving lesson plans - if you are not unnerved by Nazism then you didn't learn it properly - and would not even be opposed to a class experiment where some children had to hide, others had to find them, and the hiders were punished if they were found whereas the finders were greatly rewarded - and to see if the finders were willing to capture the hiders for their reward, knowing the hiders would be punished. Then to bring them all back and talk about how that felt and why, and how it might manifest in the world today.

I might include something like the lesson told in a Facebook post that's going around:

When I was in 7th grade, our teacher put on a video and told us to take notes. Ten minutes in, she threw the lights on and shouted at Steven [Lastname], telling him he wasn't taking notes and he should have been. But the thing was, Steve was taking notes. I saw it. We all saw it. The teacher asked if anyone wanted to stand up for Steve. A few of us choked out some words of defense but were immediately squashed. Quickly, we were all very silent. Steve was sent to the principal's office. The teacher came back in the room and said something like "See how easy that was?" We were reading "Anne Frank."

But this? What does marching around really teach? Does mere imitation really have any value? Thea answer is no, and that goes for any re-enactment. Was the Wushe Incident re-enactment of any greater pedagogical value? I'd say no. Had the students chosen to re-enact events in a different way, with teacher guidance leading them to better understand those events through the resulting play, would that have been more valuable? Certainly.

It's tasteless, yes. It shows a deep and painful lack of understanding of important events in world history, yes. It also shows a lack of understanding of why the backlash was what it was - last I heard, the principle of the school was resigning but the students themselves did not really seem to understand what they'd done wrong or why they were being criticized so heavily.

All of that is true, but it's the complete lack of educational utility of the whole thing that really gets me.

All that said, I really am sick of this story and I'm going to stop talking about it now, or writing about it in the future.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Master Hunt

If you've noticed that in the later half of this year I haven't been the most consistent blogger in terms of frequency of updates, it's because I actually have some exciting news!

First, I've been published! This isn't my first publication (I worked for a regional newspaper before I started college, and more relevantly have a story relating one of my experiences in Taiwan published here) but it is my first academic publication. It's not even all that academic, because I don't work at a university, don't have academically-based postgraduate education (my Delta is technically equivalent to a Master's but is more of a professional degree than an academic one), don't have a research budget and, thus, can't really do hard research. But, I did enjoy writing it, and hope you check it out - first link in this paragraph. I explore teaching note management skills as a method of introducing learner autonomy into the classroom, with an exploration of my own note-management teaching strategy.

Second, I've been accepted to grad school! I'll be starting at this program at the University of Exeter in July 2017. It's a program with a special schedule made for people like me who can't just up and move to England, or somewhere else, for postgraduate study but don't have a lot of options where they live. I applied quite early, but I was ready to and the platform was open, so I don't feel too weird about that. I would have gone this year if I'd had the money. That's what took away my blogging time, to be honest.

Anyway, I have a few thoughts on my process of researching, choosing and applying for Master's programs as an American in Taiwan. I am sorry to say that while there are some good things, it's mostly bad news. That is unfortunate not only for Taiwan, but also the USA.

A dearth of options in Taiwan

My biggest hurdle was finding a good program - I started in Taiwan but just couldn't find one that quite met my needs. I may not be in Taiwan forever, so I did need something from a school that is highly regarded internationally. I'm sorry to say that nothing on offer in Taiwan fits the bill. NTU is the only university of international repute, and doesn't offer my desired program. That doesn't mean other universities are necessarily "bad". They are not, however, universities whose degrees will get you noticed abroad.

There are MA TESOL and MA Applied Linguistics/Applied Foreign Languages programs in Taiwan: Shi-da, National Taiwan University of Technology and other schools offer them. Many are taught in English. They would not, however, help much internationally. Also, testimony of what one actually learns on these programs from a friend who did one in teaching Chinese turned me off to the idea of studying in Taiwan. He was, shall we say, less than impressed.

I have heard that there's a Master of Education program available through a small university in the US that allows you to take classes here, but that was something someone told me - I haven't found any evidence of its existence in my research. Anyone?

Columbia University Teacher's College Tokyo would have been an option, but they are apparently closing the campus - at least, a friend of mine went there so I know it's a real thing, she says it's closing, and I can't even find a reference to it existing online. Not that it matters: the tuition was similar to that in the US, and I can't afford US tuition. So, studying in a fully face-to-face program from Taiwan was quickly dismissed as 'not an option' for me.

Distance programs aren't great options

There are a number of distance programs: Nottingham, University of Southampton with the British Council and more in the UK (many, many more - I couldn't possibly link to them all), USC and Anaheim in the US (these were the only two distance programs I could find) - but I didn't want to do a distance Master's.

Why? The first reason is that, rightly or wrongly - and I happen to think wrongly - distance-learning postgraduate degrees tend to get the side-eye from academic institutions looking to hire, even if they are from reputable institutions (they also run the risk of not being recognized in Taiwan). The second is that I did distance learning for my Delta. It was fine, but I want something different. I want to actually meet people in person and have real-time discussions using my actual voice.

...neither was going abroad

So, I looked into what it would take for me to do a face-to-face Master's outside of Taiwan. Brendan and I are super-solid, I knew we could weather this, though I didn't particularly want to be apart for a year or two. I looked at King's College, Durham, University College London and more in the UK (not even going to bother with links, you can Google those yourself) and very few choices in the USA, because I honestly could not afford US tuition. I also looked at York University in Canada, but couldn't have afforded to live there and pay tuition. The same is true for the universities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Queensland, which I also researched. I looked at Germany, as well, but most schools (at least the ones I looked at, including Bonn) want you to pass a German proficiency test even if you are taking a program in English. I doubt I'd have the time to learn German at that level,

My country of origin is not affordable

In fact, I only looked at two face-to-face programs in the US: Columbia (because if I'm going to commit I may as well aim high - also I wouldn't need a car in New York and it's close to family) and SUNY Albany, one of the bigger campuses of my state university system and the only one to offer an MA TESOL. State university tuition would have been "cheaper" (cheaper than Satan's own private university pricing, so that's hardly a consolation) and at the time I was thinking I could live with my grandfather. He's since moved and that is no longer an option.

This is where I throw a lot of shade on the USA.

Total tuition for the programs noted above that are based in the USA:

USC Rossier School of Education (online) - approximately $50,000. They bill it as being the same as face-to-face: you videoconference the classes and they treat you as though you are 'there'. You're not residing there, though, so I do wonder why the tuition has to be as high. They don't need to worry about space, maintenance, grounds, utilities or security during my residency because there isn't one.

Anaheim University (online): A little over $20,000, including inexplicable fees such as a "graduation fee" and a "thesis fee" (which is apparently to print and bind your thesis, but $450? Are they binding it in unicorn leather? What the hell?) I appreciate that they are trying to break down exactly what your $20,000 is paying for, and I appreciate that their tuition is more similar to what UK schools charge. But the breakdown doesn't make them look good. My 'graduation fee' is all the fucking money I pay for my fucking degree, not some $300 you tack on. No. Not Okay. Also, I have some serious side-eye for charging for an online degree what UK schools charge for a face-to-face degree. Why exactly does it have to be that high?

SUNY Albany MA TESOL without state certification (which I don't need) - face-to-face: $12,000 and change, per year, 2 year program so $24,000 total. For in-state tuition.

Columbia University - face-to-face: fuck that I'm not even going to bother, what the fuck makes them think a fucking English teacher can afford to pay that shit back, fuck you, a fucking pox on your house!

In comparison, the distance programs in the UK cost about 7,000 pounds, and face-to-face cost about 15,000 and change - for the whole program. This is for international students - don't forget that. What that translates into in US dollars is changing by the day, but suffice it to say the total tuition for an international student (did I mention international), not in-state or even a citizen, is cheaper than going to my own state university in the US which is supposed to be the affordable option.

My program at Exeter is quite a bit less than that, and I'm an international student.

English teaching isn't a particularly highly-paid profession - I could never have afforded to pay back US tuition. It's just not feasible.

It is really sad that my own country couldn't make it possible for someone whose career requires postgraduate education, and who would certainly do well in it, to actually get it.

This is a prime reason why I do not intend to return. Why should I give "back" something to society through teaching and education that society doesn't see fit to give me? I appreciate my basically okay public education through secondary school but the US tertiary and postgraduate system is completely, and utterly, fucked. I want nothing to do with it.

But thanks, UK!

To end on a high note: when I got my offer letter I walked down the street alternating between feeling like this, and like this.