About half of the students at my college are Taiwanese Aborigines. Many of them are able to apply to the school directly, rather than going through the national examination system. This effectively a form of affirmative action, one which I fully endorse. In fact, it is one of the reasons I wanted to come here to teach. However, it is important to recognize that as bright and talented as many of these students are, they often don’t have the same level of training as those students who come in via the examination system. Those students may have gone to some of the best schools in Taiwan, had tutoring in English, etc. while many of the Aborigine students may have gone to rural schools where they did not have access to such training. This wouldn’t be a problem if the school did the right thing and offered some of these students remedial training to bring them up to the level of the rest of the class. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any programs in place to offer such remedial classes.
This semester we just learned of some funds that would be made available for just this purpose. Not nearly as much as is needed, but something nonetheless. Now the discussion is starting about how to best spend these funds. I made the argument that these funds should not be spent on English lessons, as someone had suggested, but on Chinese lessons. A funny argument to be made by someone who can’t tell the difference between his wife and a fish, but based on my experience grading papers last semester I think it is the right one to make.
The Taiwanese school system is focused on the national examinations, and as such essay writing gets short shrift. Research writing seems not to be taught at all. This isn’t much different from the situation in America, where most high school students still don’t know how to write a research paper, but many of the best American universities deal with this through courses known as “Freshman English.” Such courses are not just literature courses, but teach basic writing skills for the humanities. At my university, however, the equivalent “Freshman Chinese” seems to be focused on learning classical Chinese. I don’t disagree that student’s should be familiar with the classics, but it doesn’t help them much when it comes time to write a research paper.
Because it is so hard, some teachers have abandoned assigning papers in their classes, relying on written and oral exams instead. I’m sympathetic. I’m doing this as well in my lower level classes. If it is hard work for native speakers, it is a Herculean task for me! But what does that say about the quality of education our students are getting? In all likelihood they might graduate college still not knowing how to properly write a research paper in Chinese! [Note: The better students understand they need these skills and take classes where they are taught, but this is not true of everyone.]
It is also connected with plagiarism, a big problem everywhere. While some students are simply lazy, I think a lot of students cheat because they don’t know how to properly use citations. Incorporating someone else’s speech into your own while keeping your own voice isn’t an easy task. Just ask the Pope! Students need to be taught these skills so that they can properly quote and cite secondary sources in an appropriate manner.
Unfortunately, remedial writing classes would require small classes and more teachers than we have. Nor can we reasonably rely on our graduate students to teach these skills. So the small amount of money we have been given will probably not be enough to turn things around. What is required is for the university and the Ministry of Education to take its commitment to teaching these students seriously.
UPDATE: More from Jonathan Benda.