Chinese Graduate Work vs. Graduate Work in China

What’s it like doing graduate work in a foreign language? I get asked that frequently, because most people can’t imagine using a foreign language to do higher degree work. But a better question is: what’s it like doing graduate work with the Chinese? After all, if you used Chinese to do graduate work, but the people in charge all came from, say, Canada or Hong Kong, the only major difference in content and focus would be the language used to communicate those things. Yes, that still means you’d be doing all of your coursework in one of the hardest languages on the planet, but what I’ve learned, and deeply, is that the language itself is really only half the battle. If that. After all, you could speak fluent, idiomatic French and still look like a moron for the first year you spent studying in Paris. (I’d still love to try it, though.)

Take, for example, my meeting today with my advisor, Dr. Luo Zhenya. I went in to discuss my thesis topic with him because I’m supposed to present it to a board of other professors soon. (Note: I still have no idea when, because one of the wonderful things about China is that no one ever tells anyone anything.) I had prepared an outline of what I wanted to do, and was expecting to have to explain in detail how I had arrived at the conclusions I had. The problem is that Dr. Luo had something to go to shortly after our meeting, which has been true all semester. The average Chinese professor not only has about 18 students to advise (which is ludicrous, and guarantees almost no face-time with students), but also teaches multiple classes, and does lots of other things besides. Listening to thesis defenses, for example. I don’t know precisely how this would work in the U.S., but here, because the Literature department has so many students, professors spend literally weeks listening to and conducting thesis defenses. So when I tried to pin Dr. Luo down for a time to meet, there weren’t too many options. Today was it, in fact.

He walked in, sat down, and I handed him my outline. I made it two sentences into my explanation before he cut me off and pointed out that I should phrase my title differently. Fair enough. I corrected it. I was going through some of my ideas, and he cut me off again. I always get flustered around Dr. Luo, so my explanations weren’t all that cogent. Not that it would have mattered, really, because when you meet with a Chinese professor there isn’t any give-and-take. The professor looks at what you did, then tells you how to fix it. Dr. Luo even commented in a few places that “your thinking here is correct” or “this isn’t right,” which of course got my western hackles right up because where I come from, any statement about literature or philosophy that contains words like “right” or “correct” had better be accompanied by an explanation drawn from the text itself. Here, though, the expertise of the professor is assumed, and it is the student’s job to listen and take note. (It’s possible I even offended him when I said I agreed with him, because I’m the student and he’s the professor. Of course I agree with him!) As a result, I fumbled through a lot of my outline, and Dr. Luo “corrected” me. If you’ve never prepared an argument about a piece of literature before, you have no idea how annoying correction can be, especially when it’s presented, not with the textual and critical foundation in place, but solely on the basis of reputation. I was in and out in about twenty minutes, feeling like a chastened middle-school student rather than a graduate student, which is how it usually feels after meeting with a Chinese professor.

Not that the critique was groundless, of course. Dr. Luo had some very important suggestions for the composition of my argument, including the combination of two sections into one for the purpose of keeping the overall point more cohesive, and there were other things I disagreed with (like the assumption that in order to use the oeuvre of one writer to comment on another it is necessary to prove the two writers have a direct link rather than an indirect, ideological one), but to bring this back to the original point: the difficulty is less with the language than with the system. I’m trained in the Western mindset, which says that even professors need to be able to explain why they think the way they do, and part of the teaching process is to make the student think, not tell the student why he or she is wrong. In reality, of course, Dr. Luo was acting out of a spirit of responsibility. I know he values me as a student, which is WHY he critiqued what I did. But where I would have loved a good hour or so to discuss, even debate, some of the points, I had to settle for a twenty-minute lecture. Now we’ll see what he thinks of my rewrite.

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