Monday, October 15, 2012

The Accidental Student

A colleague of mine encountered a second-year student — i.e., someone who'd passed through a year's worth of our classes, all of which are taught in English, and not flunked out. Nevertheless, the student seemed to have no English comprehension. On a reading comprehension test, he was stymied by "flower" and the verb "runs."

Asked what the problem was, he asked if he could use Chinese. My friend agreed.

In Chinese, the student explained that in high school, his English teacher was a vicious tyrant, and as a kind of curse on that teacher he'd sworn never to learn English.

When his college entrance exam results came back, with the attached list of schools he could attend, the majority specifically said English was required. Somehow, my Department — which teaches every single one of its classes in English — failed to say so on the brief description sent to potential students, so he chose us as an escape from English. Oops!

The student came from a remote town in far-southern Yunnan province, so he was an outsider even to the Chinese students, who didn't help him understand. It was only two weeks into his freshman year that he realized that he was in for four years of hell.

Can you imagine being at university for two weeks before suddenly discovering that you're supposed to be taking every single one of your courses in a language you not only don't know, but actively hate?

In an American university, such a student would quickly be directed into a program better suited to his interests and abilities. Here, though, there is no such thing as failing even a single class, so the student was processed forward into the second year, despite his having understood nothing whatsoever from any of his classes.

Yet the aspiration of my Department is to be a top-100 internationally-ranked business school. That's going to be a tall order.

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