Nankai: Where Academic Professionalism is Just a Thing

Nankai University is a little like the Dodge City of academics, which is to say things change without warning, no one sticks to guidelines or propriety with much eagerness, there’s a devil-may-care attitude towards what you do, and at any given moment a lethal gunfight might erupt. All right, so the last one isn’t exactly spot-on, but I’ve definitely seen more heated discussions here than anywhere else. Trying to sum up my experience here would quite literally take an entire book. What I want to discuss today is the meeting we had yesterday.

In China, before you can write your master’s thesis you have to present a proposal to a panel of professors. This is a rule. Sort of. It’s a rule unless the people responsible don’t feel like making it a rule, in which case it’s more of an important guideline. Or not important, not so much, more like a. . .thing. Yes. Let’s just call it a thing. The deadline for our proposal was supposed to be last March. Scott, believing that to be an actual deadline, went ahead and booked his tickets back to Canada for May. Predictably the department decided to postpone the foreign students’ proposal meeting for May, meaning Scott couldn’t go, something which made his advisor quite angry. (It’s a source of limitless amusement/frustration to me that people at all levels in China get angry when you do something that inconveniences them, despite the fact that they themselves haven’t stuck to their own schedule.) We had to wait until he got back. I went ahead and wrote up my proposal and put it in my advisor’s box in late August, after I got back from Taiwan. I called and told him I’d be doing it, and to expect it. Two months later, well after Scott had gotten back, we still hadn’t heard anything. Scott called his advisor, who was surprised he had been back since August. “I thought you weren’t getting back until late September,” he said. I texted my advisor, who told me they hadn’t agreed on a date for our proposal, and also that he hadn’t yet received mine. Er. . .what? He insisted I’d put it in the wrong box, which is impossible given that I was so nervous at the time I obsessed about the name on the box, making completely sure I got it right.  I’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes because of my having to do everything in a foreign language, but at the very least I recognize my professor’s name. So for those keeping score: one advisor who totally forgot when one of his students was coming back, and another who not only lost a proposal, but didn’t figure it was important enough to contact his student at any point to ask what happened. Sigh.

As of November we still had no idea what was going on. Yet our classmates had all assured us, multiple times, that it was a very important part of the process. Scott and I had long-since grown accustomed to being forgotten (as have all students in China), so we just shrugged and went about our business. Then, last week, our advisors finally figured out a time to meet, which was yesterday. Hooray.

If you’ve never done any kind of academics in China, you really have to see a meeting like this to believe it. First of all, my advisor was thirty minutes late, and left after about forty-five more minutes. When I was presenting, he was deep in conversation with the professor to his right, ignoring me completely. The other professors alternately listened or read other things unrelated to what we were doing. When I had finished, numerous comments followed, all of which were focused on the supposed narrowness of my topic. “You know,” said one of the professors, in a stern ‘obviously you’ve never heard of this’ tone, “This paper is 30,000 characters. That’s Chinese characters, not English letters.” Every sarcastic bone in my body (which is most of them) was crying out to express something like, “No! Really?! In Chinese?! I never knew that!!!” My particular topic deals with the Biblical imagery in a play by the poet Hai Zi. Now in the States, you could get a book out of that. Here, it would be a short two page article. All the professors suggested I expand my research to include. . .Hai Zi’s entire epic (over 500 pages, just for the record), as well as the roots of his religious thought, dates and times of his experiences with the Bible, an analysis of how he read other writers who commented on the Bible, and other helpfully narrow suggestions. Basically what I was being told was: “Write about Hai Zi’s entire religious experience.” In 30 pages. Or 40. Whatever. My advisor looked somewhat put out and said, “You’ve altered this entirely since the last time we talked!” The last time we talked was in June, and after that I quickly decided, as a western scholar who’s used to analysis so in-depth that dealing with a single image can occupy an entire chapter of a book, that my topic was too broad. So I narrowed it down, and gave my advisor several copies of the same proposal, which of course he had four months to read, and obviously never did. Sadly, that’s just par for the course here. In my experience, most professors don’t read anything until the actual proposal meeting, and in the meantime are typically so busy (with what? I don’t know. Scott and I have theories stretching from clandestine business dealings to international espionage.) that you’re lucky when you can track them down.

Another professor was quite angry that I had said Hai Zi had the most in-depth Biblical knowledge of any Chinese writer. “He didn’t!” she protested vehemently. “Many other writers understood these things much better than him!” Fair enough, but that’s also something you could have dealt with through a simple critique, not a ten minute tirade.

But at least I faired better than our Korean classmate. The three remaining professors (mine had left already) spent probably ten minutes talking about how bad her Chinese was. Here that’s not rude or unprofessional. It’s a little like discussing someone’s choice in clothes, or their hairstyle. “It’s interesting,” noted one professor, as though he was merely pointing out an odd weather pattern, “that even though Koreans are much closer to China, usually their Chinese is terrible. Like Piao Zhishan’s here. Her Chinese really isn’t good at all, but our American students speak much better, even though they’re from farther away.” Scott and I both squirmed in our seats.

When the dust cleared, Scott and I had both actually gotten some decent suggestions. The proposal I had submitted certainly had holes in it which were rightly noted and criticized, and I look forward to fixing those. How my professors expect me to expand my research so broadly in two months is beyond me, but I’ll do the best I can. Ultimately, the interesting thing about a critique like this at Nankai is that its weakness is also its strength. On no level would it have been considered professional in the West. We didn’t even know the location of the meeting until thirty minutes beforehand. Most of the professors didn’t, either. And then of course it had been delayed so long it’s worth asking why we bothered to do it at all. There was an overall sense of “Oh, all right, let’s get these guys out of the way” about the affair. But the thing is, this Wild West-style academics at times can be interesting. Professors here pretty much just share off-the-cuff comments, and sometimes their passions overwhelm their professionalism, which personally I find refreshing, especially when the topic at hand is the legacy of Marxism in China.

But at the very least, could they listen when I speak?

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2 Responses to Nankai: Where Academic Professionalism is Just a Thing

  1. Inga says:

    Hi Rob! This is Inga. Paul pointed me to your blog, so I read your story about the proposals just now. It’s just so much like our Orange English school where I work, and people are actually spending their own money to run that place, so.. The fact that the meeting actually happened, and your advisor stayed for a whole 45 minutes, and there were even some comments at the end as to the content of what you said means those professors are probably caring motivated people :-) We don’t get to interact that much with any of the managers at Orange, so it’s very much the same Dodge City sh** you described, and its their own money at stake there. So what to expect of people at a non-profit place like Nanda :P

    • Rob says:

      Good points, all. I’ve never been entirely sure how to respond to our professors. My classmates all assure me Nankai is one of the most interactive, responsive programs in China, so presumably even something like our research proposal meeting is uniquely professional. I’m probably expecting something the culture just isn’t wired to give, so does that mean I should smile and be thankful, or get frustrated? Tricky stuff.

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