It has become increasingly common in recent years for universities to contract out their international recruitment efforts to private companies. These companies also often provide a pre-college set of courses designed to get them ready for undergraduate or graduate studies. These “pathway” or “accelerator” programs have come under scrutiny from Inside Higher Ed, the Associated Press, and others over tuition-sharing arrangements.
The University of Kansas’s partnership with Shorelight was one of that company’s first two ever. It began its “accelerator” program in the fall of 2014, and curriculum was decided upon jointly between the company and the university. I taught two of these courses as a masters student. These teaching roles come with considerably more responsibility than a graduate assistant generally has: we teach every class, we assign grades, and so on.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and at first I found it very exciting. I think college students at all levels would benefit from being given more responsibility. Most people thrive when given responsibility, and even the failures are usually instructive. Here was a program that was really doing it. I may not have ever taught before, but I had been an editor for five years before coming to grad school, I thought, of course I could help these students with their writing.
I have since come to believe that the reasons for this system have less to do with injecting a little disruptive energy into a moribund academy and more to do with deflecting accountability for the program’s shortcomings. An accelerator program offers to help the university acquire (part of) another year’s worth of pre-college tuition from lucrative international students. Participating academic departments receive a handful of graduate appointments to hand out. Searchlight takes a 50 percent cut as long as students are in the program, which drops to 10 percent when they enter normal classes. Thus there is an incentive, from the university’s perspective, to run students through it, regardless of their level of preparedness. The CEO of Shorelight says 90 percent of their students at KU proceed from their first to their second year, but that is sort of begging the question.
My first course was An Introduction to American Studies, which used films to introduce students to key concepts in the field. It was my first semester teaching and, by a stroke of luck, only five students had signed up for my class. All of them were Chinese. To get a sense of the average student that comprises the boom of Chinese matriculation at American universities, you have to understand a few things. For the most part these are not the entitled children of some high-level party functionary. Those kids are at Oxford or Yale. These are the children of the new Chinese middle class. They come from families that, ten or fifteen years ago, would not have been able to send their children to a university at all. But today, like any family would, they are spending their newfound disposable income on their children.
* * *
While I had some flexibility to add or skip certain movies, the curriculum, down to the lecture slides, had been written for me. In the course of the semester, we would take the enormous, world-shaping corpus of American film and feed it through the leftist salami slicer: race, class, sexuality, gender, ability (notably not religion). One film would be assigned to each identity category: Salt of the Earth for Latinos, Karate Kid for Asians, Some Like it Hot for alternative sexualities, and so on.
It occurred to me very early on that this is not the best way to introduce students to film, but that of course is not the point. The course fulfills a core requirement to teach students how to “respect human diversity and expand cultural understanding and global awareness.” We aren’t here to study anything so jejeune as movies. Movies are merely the tortilla chip meant to bear the warm gooey dollop of cultural leftist queso. They’re the delivery vehicle.
Our textbook was by Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, it’s called America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. I saved it because it’s good for a laugh. Here are some selections:
“The United States was founded on and still adheres to the dominant ideology of white patriarchal capitalism.”
“Over the years, Americans have come to understand that the Constitution is a living document, one that can be changed to encompass a wider meaning of equality.”
“capitalism as an ideology can be defined as the belief that success and worth are measured by one’s material wealth.”
“Socialism, an economic and ideological system mediating capitalism and communism, seeks to structure a society’s economic system around governmental regulation of industries and the equitable sharing of wealth for certain basic necessities, while still maintaining democratic values and a free market for most consumer goods. Since the United States was founded under capitalism, American culture has largely demonized socialism as evil and unnatural, even though many US government programs can be considered socialist in both intent and practice.”
The latter is social democracy, not socialism. But so as not to get bogged down in definitions, the important thing is to notice that in one case (socialism), the authors are trying to explain the concept in a sympathetic and maximal way, and in the other (capitalism), they are not.
Here is another selection:
Ideological struggle is therefore an ongoing political process that surrounds us constantly, bombarding individuals at every moment with messages about how the world could and should function. …
While institutionalized discrimination and other oppressive measures overtly attempt to impose certain ideologies upon a society there are still more subtle means of doing so that often do not even feel or look like social control. Winning over the “hearts and minds” of a society with what are called ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). … ISAs include various non-violent social formations such as schools, the family, the church, and the media institutions—including film and television—that shape and represent our culture in certain ways. … Even the structure of the family itself is an ISA, in which sons and daughters are taught ideological concepts by their parents. In the United States, families have traditionally been idealized as patriarchal, with the father as the leader.
What is being taught here is a particular way of looking at the world. It isn’t one that I share, but I do not object to it being taught to undergraduate students, even as something they will necessarily need to understand to function in a twenty-first century university. I concede that it probably is necessary for that reason. I do not object to having been taught it myself, in fact I’m glad I was. But it was taught to me in a forthright way that did not obscure its own ideological origins. You might even say that today they teach—I taught—Marcuse but pretend it’s Rand McNally, and that this might even be evidence of a certain worldview’s own hegemony, at least in the liberal arts world. You might even say we are part of an ISA.
White patriarchal capitalism is the organizing concept of the book, which proceeds through a history of various identities in film and how they have been oppressed by it. There has always been something a little dogmatic about intersectionality, and there is something downright Athanasian about this particular triune formulation (“and yet they are not three oppressions; but one oppression”).
The cheap joke to make about all this is that Chinese kids don’t really need to come all the way here for communist instruction. But the irony is that if what they were learning here was consonant with the prevailing ideology in China, the term baizuo would never have been coined. According to Wikipedia, baizuo entered wide use in 2016. It translates to “white Left,” referring to liberals in the West who are seen as weak and feckless because of, basically, cultural leftism. It is also sometimes applied to Chinese people who, educated in the West, return home with a lot of ideas about human rights and diversity.
For the most part, especially for students in STEM whose exposure to it is limited, it doesn’t really matter that the university’s dominant ideology is dissonant with the one being officially propounded in China. Many will only take a handful of liberal arts courses. It doesn’t really matter, except to the person tasked with teaching them what amounts to cultural competency in a 21st-century university, which in this case was me.
The term may have gained currency through the Internet, but it reflects what China analyst Bruno Maçães has called the underlying social conservatism of Chinese society. There is still a strong cultural memory of the last time an attempt was made to upend the ISAs. While it may be hard to access any real history about the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution in China today, everybody understands that it isn’t something they would like to go back to. By contrast, the American university is typified by woke neoliberalism; it has doubled down on cultural politics while saddling students with more and more debt. You hear a lot of rhubarb about the “neoliberal university.” Well, here it is: a corporate-approved curriculum in wokeness studies.
While I dutifully went over the readings every week to make sure they were picking up on concepts like “hegemonic negotiation,” I admit that I found myself in the position of the atheist preacher. Some of them were probably astute enough to notice what feels very much like a lack of faith. For their part, if any of my students had contempt for the baizuo ideology I was serving as the mouthpiece of, they were kind enough not show it. Nevertheless, it was clear that they had not been subjected to the enwokening one might receive at, say, an American public school. For example, when we began the unit on race, I asked them to define the concept. They thought about it for a minute, then said, “it’s in your genes.” Everyone agreed that it was something hereditary. This, I gathered, was the sort of thing I was supposed to correct. I explained why that isn’t how we understand the term anymore.
This whole time the word baizuo stuck in my mind as so totally apt for what I was doing. I did not believe that they saw me in this way, but I did wonder what they thought about the strange man before them who seemed to be gritting his teeth as he explained why gender-bending in film is so transgressive. “These are your baizuo lessons,” I could say, and we would have an understanding. They would know why they have to know this stuff for the next four years. When in school, do as the baizuo do. One day the desire to bridge the gap between the disbelieving and the uncomprehending prevailed over my fear that this bit of knowing context we might be able to share would shatter the veneer of seriousness I had tried to maintain up to that point. After class I asked if they had ever heard the term before. None of them had. I didn’t try to explain it myself, but I told them to look it up.
On the last day of class, I bade my five students farewell. All of them did fairly well. On the way out, the one female student in the class stopped and told me that she had looked up baizuo, and that she understood it. I did not ask her to elaborate. I suppose the eternal torment of a teacher is to wonder how deep a student’s understanding really goes.
* * *
The next semester was a welcome change in subject matter, from woke media studies to local history. Kansas history, to be exact, and I’ve never been happier to look at a map of crop geography or crack open a 19th century diary in my life. I didn’t have to pretend the material wasn’t “stuffed with lies,” to borrow a phrase from Solzhenitsyn. And the only assigned book was a novel.
Unlike the previous semester, I had nearly 20 students in two separate classes, and they hailed from a much wider variety of countries. A rough estimate of the national breakdown would be maybe 40-50 percent Chinese, 30 percent other Asian nationalities, and 10-20 percent everyone else. I had no point of comparison the previous semester, but it quickly became obvious to me that the Chinese students lagged significantly behind the others in writing, reading and verbal skills.
My intuition was confirmed when the first grades came in. It was not a small difference, one that I’m exaggerating now to be contrarian, or to make a point. The difference between the Chinese students and all the others on quizzes and tests was substantial, 20-30 points; the difference between passing and failing. It would probably shock the reader to see some of these “essays.” Here is one from a final exam, in its entirety:
“Novel portrays a meritocratic world. Because novel need to show hope and goal of topic to people. When people see the novel they make imagine about topic.”
People who write like this are being admitted to college.
We will get into the problem of dishonesty on the part of the students later. If we matched the student’s essay above to his application essays, I would bet a new car that they would read as if they were written by different people. I would bet, further, that the university could find enough discrepancies like this to sue for breach of contract.
Even if there has been no dishonesty at any level of the admissions process, that’s almost worse—what benefit is a student who writes at this level going to get out of a college course? At the end of the day, whether or not students are cheating in the admissions process, Shorelight is responsible, because they are the ones who recruit them and shepherd them through it. It is the job of the “accelerator” program to get students who are close to preparedness over the final hurdle, but I think it’s fair to say this student has several more hurdles to go before they get to the final one.
It is hard to look at this student and say Shorelight’s, and for that matter KU’s, impact on their life has been positive. They may spend $50,000 before realizing that their language skills really aren’t up to snuff.
* * *
I am old enough to remember when the stereotype about Chinese people was that they were too capable, and too efficient; that they would crowd us all out. That’s been the stereotype since the transcontinental railroad. To see performance that cut so starkly against not just stereotypes but even my previous semester of teaching shocked me, and it made me wonder what the other variable must be. East Asians are not, on the whole, stupid. In fact they score higher than any other race on IQ tests, as racists are fond of reminding us. So what accounts for their low performance compared to everyone else?
For the first class assignment students had to write a few lines about a food indigenous to the state. One Chinese student’s response contained these two lines:
According to the latest research, corn contains glutathione, a hang-cancer factor. The domestic and foreign bitter nutritionists give high evaluation to maize, believing that: the glutathione contained in maize has the function of anti-cancer, it can combine with various carcinogenic substances in human body, can make these substances lose their carcinogenicity.
Five seconds of Googling revealed that the text was taken from some Chinese wholesaler website. I handed back the papers next class and asked this student if they could define “carcinogenicity” for me. They could not. I suppose I had a vague awareness that cheating might be a bigger problem among Chinese students than other ones, but I was not prepared for how prevalent it was.
Half of one of the sections failed their midterm exam. By the end of the semester I was finding any excuse I possibly could to give people points. I allowed them to take one 8.5×12 cheat sheet into the final with them. Two students repaid this by copying down Amazon reviews of the novel they were supposed to have read. I’m not kidding.
The culture of normalized cheating in Chinese academic life has rotted it to the very core. It is done on a huge scale, and in ingenious ways. In one story from 2013, hundreds of students rioted when proctors tried to stop them from cheating on an exam. According to a study cited in the New York Times in 2011, 90 percent of Chinese applicants to American universities submit false letters of recommendation, and 50 percent fake their transcripts. Jiang Xueqin, who helps lead Peking University High School, wrote in an astute op-ed from November 2011 that, “American college recruiters in China feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of cheating, lying, and fraud,” and that was one of the reasons why they had to shift from subjective admissions criteria like essays and letters of recommendation, to test scores.
But these test scores are not necessarily any more reliable. In 2015, 15 Chinese students were indicted for crimes related to a scheme to use fake test-takers on the SAT and TOEFL, the latter being the English competency exam. The 2011 New York Times article mentions several instances at Kansas State in which the Chinese students who showed up for classes on the first day of the semester were not the same people who took their TOEFL.
This culture of normalized dishonesty has an impact on people who would otherwise not cheat and drives them to do so. As one Business Insider article from 2015 noted, it has a “negative impact on Chinese students who don’t want to cheat, but may feel that there’s no other way to get into an American college.” It does not end with matriculation either. In 2015, a study was conducted that showed 8,000 Chinese students expelled from U.S. university, mostly for low marks and cheating.
I have seen reasons given in print for why cheating is so endemic among Chinese students, even patriotic ones: by pumping up one’s grades, the averages look higher and the whole country looks more competitive. It seems to me that this is extremely short-sighted thinking, and that a country that normalizes dishonesty in this way is setting up big problems for itself in the long run. I wonder now if the economic slowdown in China lots of smart people insist is coming will involve stories about people whose degrees aren’t working as advertised. But because nobody wants to disadvantage themselves in the short-run by not cheating, there is an enormous incentive to take part. This is why norms about honesty arose in the first place, and why they must be enforced.
I made it clear at the beginning of the semester that they should not cheat, and that if they did, I would catch them. I told them that I had worked as an editor in the past and I would catch them if they tried. I told them my job back then was to improve people’s writing, and in this class my job is to help you improve yours, which I can’t do if the writing is not your own.
Having given them the warning, it felt sort of like an insult when they went on to cheat anyway. It was nothing personal, and this was essentially normal in Chinese academic life today. But this culture is an individualistic one that comes with norms about authorship and attribution. And at least to some extent I saw it as my job to drag them, by hook or by crook, into Western academic norms, which—one would hope—they could not go four years without adopting.
If it is true and cheating on applications and TOEFL is widespread, then it’s not really that surprising that some students are matriculating with language skills way below what they ought to have. It’s easy to cheat on a standardized test, but it’s hard to cheat in conversation. What worries me about “accelerator” programs is that they put people like myself—not a PhD, not even a doctoral candidate—in the position of weeding out people who probably shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place.
If this is, indeed, what is happening, and I believe it is, then it’s really hard to blame a student who may have cheated in the past but now finds him or herself in over their head in a strange country with a significant amount of sunk cost in money and time. Which is why, in the more than a dozen instances of plagiarism I caught that semester, I didn’t report any of them for academic misconduct.
We spent the second half of the semester reading a novel. Several weeks before the final, I received an email that contained the following lines. He said he had started reading the book two weeks before, but:
the words and sentences are too difficult to remember and even understand. It is hard to know that some two connected sentences are unrelated in meaning. I am sorry that I already tried hard to read it, but I still don’t understand the author’s mean. I hope the exam on Thursday won’t have much effect on the total grades.
What would you tell this student? This one never cheated, and they ended up getting a decent grade. I feel bad for him, and I feel like I have ill-served him somehow. Far from being insulting, a sense of genuine concern for them must prompt one to ask, what is he doing here? Every one of these students would be better served spending another year learning English for much less cost in their home countries. At the end of the day, I came up with excuses to pass everyone except those who cheated on the final exam or the final paper, most of whom already had failing or near-failing grades before that point. I don’t know if that was the correct way to handle the situation, but it feels defensible given the circumstances. On the one hand, I don’t see the students as entirely at fault. On the other, passing someone who does not have a minimum level of English competence and cheats all the time feels like passing the buck in a way that makes me more complicit than I would like to be.
It’s ironic, given the current debates about Chinese trade, that one of the few sectors where the balance is in our favor is higher education, an enterprise that could not be more antithetical to our protectionist president.
There are probably strategic motives behind a certain amount of Chinese enrollment in American universities; the genuine espionage issues at American universities are evidence enough of that. But the vast majority of Chinese students are here for the same reasons the rest of us dopes are: that we decided, against all evidence, that higher education was a product that was worth buying at the absurdly inflated price at which it is now sold. We value it not because of skills we may learn, but because a degree will give us access to a certain tier of jobs. We buy the product, despite its defects, and the expectation that if you want to work in the ruling class, you have to talk like them. And what could be more baizuo than that?
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