Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

The End of the University As We Know It?

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 28, 2009

Today’s New York Times features an op-ed from Dr. Mark Taylor, the chairman of the Religion department at Columbia University. Dr. Taylor raises the fascinating point that,

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

I call this fascinating not because of its novelty. It’s something we all know and maybe even laugh about over beers. The importance of Dr. Taylor’s remark is his willingness to raise the point in public. We work in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes around that is only viable because we have managed to convince others that being a graduate student isn’t ‘real’ work.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

Dr. Taylor sees the problem as the highly specialized diversification of “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems.” He suggests a number of solutions, some of which I think are intriguing, but it is his number 2 suggestion that makes me feel all too familiar

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

But hasn’t this been going on for years? These departments used to be called interdisciplinary and had to draw on faculty from all over the university to teach their courses. You know…all those departments like Women’s Studies, Asian Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies. In fact, if you go back far enough, this was the case for TESOL, Business, and even Education. If you go back even further than that, you could even say that Psychology was interdisciplinary. The only ‘real’ departments are what we now call the Humanities and Sciences (and a few other things). Almost everything else that we study in universities was invented as knowledge in another department sometime in the last century. And once these other departments became consolidated enough, they started teaching their own classes, granting their own PhDs, and setting this as the standard for whom they would hire as faculty.

Fair enough, Dr. Taylor calls for a transformation of the traditional dissertation, and expansion of the,

5. …range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

But my guess is that he’s not calling for universities to be turned into giant vocational schools. It sure sounds like it, but I doubt it. My guess is he sees this as a call to ‘take back the university’ for the thinking departments from the business and policy studies that are increasingly dominating our university landscape. Dr. Taylor calls for an integration of these policy and business-based programs with the more reflective traditional disciplines of the university community.

…political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

The point of his story seems not to be that job training is the wrong task for the university, but that applied fields need more input from those working closer to human needs. It’s not that different from the discourse that’s been evolving for decades in business education. You might even say that what Dr. Taylor’s trying to do is extend the existing discourse into applied fields where academic considerations have traditionally been downplayed by preparation for the workforce.

But my problem with all this is that the idea of theme-based studies has been tried and it’s failed. Calls for theme-based studies inevitably fail. You can reform degree requirements as much as you want and they still end up being discussions of the topics you can write a paper on or do an assignment for. If it becomes much else, then it’s a trade school.

And in fact, I have no disagreement that the current university system creates more research-trained students than it can consume itself. Other than that, the university works really well. All the “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems” decried by Dr. Taylor is really made up of highly valuable skills. The example he gives, specifically chosen for its verbal impression of irrelevance, is how

A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

My response is equally as stereotypical. While this sounds totally removed from anything practical, I am certain this student has analytic skills that are extremely deep and valued by the community outside the university. As I pointed out in this post, even the US military can find a use for “irrelevant” academic Anthropologists.

The problem isn’t the usefulness of these techniques, nor even the employablity of these skills outside the university. The problem is that no one trained in these skills really wants to apply them to anything but academic problems. I have personal experience with this. Before teaching English, I worked for a marketing research firm in Canada. While all this was long ago, I retain one especially vivid memory. My supervisor, who holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and I were hunched over a table examining cross tabs of a survey of attitudes toward Canadian hi-tech companies. I remember her commenting on the wide fluctuation in perceptions of excellence we had obtained across the spectrum of surveyed companies. Her response to this? “Isn’t this interesting!” No, it isn’t and it wasn’t then, even though it was really one of the more interesting problems our firm worked on. And I suspect even my boss thought so, since she now works in academia.

The core methods that Dr. Taylor wants used in departments that study water or life evolved in particular fields of Anthropology or Geography or Engineering. As they have moved outside their discipline of origin into interdisciplinary fields, they have changed to serve the purpose of these new fields.  But this hasn’t been for the better. The theoretical concepts and methods borrowed from other disciplines have been twisted so badly they are barely recognizable. In the fields I know best, Education and TESOL, I would go so far as to say that, as academic disciplines, they are better defined as collections of poorly applied methods and theories developed in other more rigorous fields.

It may be that Dr. Taylor is trying to be pragmatic.

In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible.

If it true that the current financial crises will devastate the Arts & Humanities, Dr. Taylor may be suggesting a way out of this – some jobs in watered-down departments may be better than nothing at all. Although I doubt he thinks these departments will be watered-down.

Are we really under attack? Arts & Humanities aren’t going anywhere. They are far too important in the machine that creates students for business and policy studies. Besides, this is hardly the real problem. While it’s true that specialization of departments comes with a cost, the biggest problem is that we keep producing all those PhDs whose expectation is they will do research at a university in their field of study. The jobs may be hard to get, but they’re just too good to pass up. And for students with any chance to get one, it’s easy to forget about looking for a job analyzing attitudes toward hi-tech companies. There’s nothing wrong with the knowledge they acquired during their study. What’s wrong is that almost all of them expect to do work on those interesting problems they studied as graduate students and not stare at cross tabs for marketing agencies.

Maybe Dr. Taylor wants us all doing the kind of problems that appear would benefit people’s lives instead of making money for shareholders. But we’ve tried all that. There are faculties of Education everywhere and it’s hard for me to see what they do at the graduate level other than mangle up perfectly good theories of Sociology and Psychology.

As a graduate student, my landlord once asked me what I was studying. When I replied that it was Sociology, he responded, “Not many jobs in that.” I like to think he was wrong, but only because I didn’t have my mind set on working in a Canadian university or college.

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European Association of Taiwan Studies

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 25, 2009


Last year, I posted about speaking at the European Association of Taiwan Studies conference in Prague
I didn’t make this year’s conference, which was in Madrid, but last year’s conference was fantastic. Next year is scheduled for Germany.

EATS is the foremost international organization dealing with the academic study of Taiwan. I highly recommend it was a way of keeping in touch with scholarly opinions about Taiwan.

You can find their newly launched website here.

Knowledge Rules

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 22, 2009

I’d like to thank Kerim at Savage Minds and Keywords for pointing me to the excellent blog – Knowledge Rules.

Knowledge Rules is a group blog drawing from a team of very experienced researchers and experts from the knowledge industry. The blog states ts purpose,

…is to generate an informed discussion about the metrics involved in different forms of evaluations: editors, the academic book market, faculty hiring committees, tenure commissions, funding agencies or international rankings of universities all involve evaluative criteria and meteorological scales that often remain implicit.

Conferences Presentations and the Classroom Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 17, 2009

Last week, I gave a presentation in my department about how to present papers at TESOL conferences. The goal of the presentation was to help teachers with little research experience to understand the best way to approach conference presentation. This post is based on my talk.

The Problem

The majority of foreign teachers involved in English teaching in Taiwan, and probably even all of Asia, see themselves as classroom teachers. The bulk of these teachers have master’s degrees and many of those with doctorates began their careers in English teaching with this master’s degree and only got their doctorate later. Some large number of them have degrees either in Education or an MA in the Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESOL), a degree that was created largely to feed the demand for such teaching positions.

Many of these degrees are not research degrees and did not require a dissertation or research paper for their completion. Holders of such degrees often describe to me a perceived professional role like that of the MFA or MBA – as a skilled practitioner. It is not uncommon to be told by holders of these degrees that they are ‘qualified’ to teach English, in contrast to people like myself, who hold degrees outside TESOL or Education.

As I mentioned in this post, the role for teachers with this background is shrinking. Increasingly, MA TESOL positions are being converted to staff positions or pushed downstream into countries that lack the economy to offer competitive salaries. Increasingly, the better TESOL jobs are being replaced with research faculty. MA holders who are not willing or able to upgrade their academic qualifications are still being forced to conduct scholarly research. Universities in Taiwan have always had faculty evaluation systems, but recently, these evaluations have taken on a much more serious tone. The school where I teach is an example of this. Newly-introduced faculty evaluations tie job security, in part, to research output, regardless of one’s department. The result of this is that faculty who have always seen themselves fundamentally as classroom teachers are now being forced to enter the world of academic publishing and presentation.

The TESOL Conference in Taiwan

A typical TESOL conference in Taiwan is terrible. In fact, I have been to all the major conferences in north-east Asia and they are all terrible. This does not mean that TESOL conferences in general are bad. TESOL, which is the American English teaching organization, holds an annual convention that is quite good. Outside of TESOL, there are also many high quality conferences in Asia for other academic subject area. It’s just that the quality of TESOL conferences here is abysmal.

And in fact, the push for faculty to be involved in research has significantly lowered the already low standard of research at these conferences. Increasingly research at conferences is plagued by bad design, improperly used statistics, confusion about the conclusions, conclusions that are not properly linked to previous research, and – ironically for language teachers – presentation that is so poor it’s hard to understand.

The cause of this is pressure on unprepared faculty and students to present their work in public. Often such presenters are unprepared graduate students or researchers who have picked a topic that they are not technically prepared to handle. This may because of their lack of background or because they are not experienced enough to know their topic is just too difficult to manage.

Fortunately, the solution to this is straight forward. Classroom teachers should stick to talking about what they know about, and that is, how to teach in the classroom.

Talking about What You Know

I view many of the teachers I work with as extremely talented and motivated educators. I think they have a lot to share with each other and with instructors at other institutions. I am equally as certain there are instructors at other institutions with knowledge and experience in the classroom that we would find important.

What kind of knowledge and experience am I talking about? For example, at last year’s conference sponsored by the MCU Department of Applied English, my colleague Judy Lewis spoke about her experience implementing the Common European Framework of Reference. That’s right; all Judy spoke about was her experience using the CEFR in her syllabus. But it was great. I was there with another facuty member and we felt it was a meaningful and interesting discussion. A more recent example comes from last Saturday and National Chengchi University’s College English Conference at which my colleague Joe Lavallee and I spoke. Following our paper in the same panel was a presentation by NCCU’s Cheryl Sheridan. Her presentation, entitled Scores and Comments: Expanding the Feedback Arsenal talked about different kinds of feedback you can provide for writing classes. While the design was not strong, the concepts she discussed were innovative and exciting. She is clearly an experienced classroom teacher and was able to convey very powerfully the importance of this work for student language proficiency.

One of the problems I have encountered with this message is the interpretation of ‘research’. This message has repeatedly been meet by comments such as, “What you’re talking about isn’t research” or “Research is numbers and statistics.” In all honesty, I am deeply confused by such remarks. In conference presentations, researchers often find it necessary to provide information about student response in the form of statistics to indicate student feeling or the effect size. Sometimes these reports are quite sophisticated. They don’t need to be and, for much of this kind of work, should not be. Sophisticated statistical analysis is certainly not a requirement for presentation at a TESOL conference.

My Advice

I have said earlier that my solution is straight forward. My advice is equally straight. Talk about what you know about. What is it that do in class that you’ve thought a lot about? For me personally, it’s the way I manage group presentations. For colleagues I have spoken with, it’s how they deal with plagiarism. For others, it’s the way they teach writing or incorporate elements such as literature or film into their lessons. But whatever you do, if the strongest, most well-throught out aspect of your lessons are how you incorporate music into the class, don’t go straying off into some arcane topic, like learner motivation or teacher professionalization.

Sometimes it’s not enough just to talk about method. Sometimes you need a record of student response. Don’t make it complex. All you’re doing is asking the students what they thought about the lessons. You’re doing it in a rigourous and reproducible way, but really, all it is a record of their thoughts.

Final Comments

I don’t think I’m saying anything more than common sense. After all, who should be speaking at TESOL conferences? Graduate students? Teachers of academic subjects? Textbook writers? Who is better suited to speak about TESOL than experienced classroom teachers? I want to say this more powerfully. Classroom teachers should be speaking at TESOL conferences. In fact, speaking at TESOL conferences is the proper place for language teachers. It should be their space, and if it’s not, that’s because it’s a bad conference.
 

Alternative Models of Higher Education

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 11, 2009

A recent post from Global Higher Education addresses an issue that I’ve found troubling for a long time. The post, entitled Global higher education: what alternative models for emerging higher education systems?, was written by guest writers Moshidi Sirat and Ooi Poh Ling. It’s main point is the way in which post-colonial states have,

…adopted the [higher education] systems of their respective colonizers who also provided the major part of the funding mechanism, teaching staff, and ideologies on higher education at one time in history.

Despite independence and in some cases huge economic development,

…fundamental models practiced in Asian countries remain biased towards European/American model. This factor has contributed to the peripheral status of Asian higher education institutions and with the rapid globalisation, the so-called central higher education institutions in Europe/America would remain dominant, more striking in the context of higher education internationalization.

I recommend reading the entire post, which closes by bringing attention to the forthcoming conference Second Global Higher Education Forum.

As much as I agree with the authours’ points, I am also troubled by the idea of localized education. In Taiwan, it’s true that higher education is modeled after the USA. A more salient aspect of education has been the institutional forms imposed during the 40 years of military government under the KMT. Many members of the former military government remain in government following their democratic election. As a result, the institutional forms they established during their totalitarian rule are still very much a part of education.

For example, much of professional and technical life in Taiwan is regulated through government examinations supervised by massive bureaucratic bodies. Educational decisions remain tied to centralized examination results. While government rhetoric links these to the imperial examinations of China’s past, their use has been primarily to enforce Mandarin language usage and the political indoctrination of ethnic Taiwanese following the retrocession of Taiwan to the Republic of China in 1945. Under democratic governance, these exams have become extremely unpopular, but remain a key part of education and professional life because no workable alternative can be envisioned.

Attempts to shed Taiwan universities of some of the problems inherent in this system have taken the form of adopting Western educational practices (also here).This is not because there are no local models available, but because these methods fail to meet the needs of Taiwan as its industries are increasingly globalized. Another important example is language education. Localized language teaching systems are increasingly being replaced by methods developed by Western social scientists to teach primarily European languages. This is not necessarily because Western methods are seen as ‘better’ but because locally-derived methods are unpopular and ineffective.

Taiwan is a special case in Asia, but this does point to some of the problems in identifying workable educational systems. I look forward to hearing more about work on alternative models.

Academic Freedom and the Future of Schools

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 6, 2009

While I have made the point that the KMT government in Taiwan has a special relationship with academic censorship, in fact, the firing of professors is a growing issue worldwide. Dr. Denis Rancourt, a tenured full professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Ottawa, was dismissed on Tuesday. You can find a profile of Dr. Rancourt here, but this is a Google cached file and the original has been removed.


It seems that Dr. Rancourt and the U of O have been involved in a dispute for some time. The university argues that Dr. Rancourt arbitrarily awards high grades to students without regard to any pedagogical standard. The source of all true facts, Wikipedia, has an entry describing the history of the problem.  In this interview Dr. Rancourt defends his position.


I have been aware of this situation for some time. In an editorial which I can no longer find, I read that the dispute was raised as an example of the insanely distorted perceptions held about academic work. The writer stated that there is no other occupation where workers can interpret their own working conditions without reference to employer’s needs. The point of this is that even if one believes in academic freedom, Dr. Rancourt is being justly dismissed.


I interpret the issue somewhat differently. The problem appears to be misrepresented. The issue is not whether Dr. Rancourt’s grades were insanely high. I have never attended the U of O, and am not familiar with grading there. My guess is they have their share of professors who hand out As as encouragement to students to take small classes they want to continue teaching. High grades are not the issue. The issue is distribution of grades. The whole point of grading is to choose winners and losers. If grades are uniform, judgment can’t be made.

Dr. Rancourt is not advocating an arbitrary standard or even a lower standard. He is advocating an entirely different understanding of schooling in the education process. For most of us, no matter how liberal we are, the idea that the role of schools is to sort out winners and losers is deeply ingrained. Even among students this concept is deeply ingrained. It is in fact what most students hope to achieve from their schooling. Certainly there really is little doubt what educators are supposed to be doing in this system, and the idea that we are not key elements in the sorting process is quite shocking.


All of us liberal educators are still delighted that Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America. The euphoria is that neoliberalism has come to an end. The implication really is that all those non-liberal education things that we don’t like are neoliberal ideas connected to Bush Administration officials and their policies. And my implication about Taiwan is that the non-liberal things I don’t like are connected to the KMT.


But what if there are other forces at work here? Social thinkers, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber theorized forces that are beyond the discretion of governments policy makers. ‘Globalization’ is supposed to be one of these, but in fact, it is generally considered as a part of a larger force such as ‘modernization‘ or capitalism.


The Obama Adminstration is no friend of professional educators. Despite his relatively liberal stance on national security and health care, huge education reforms are still headed in a different direction than liberal thinkers of the past would have been comfortable with. The regulatory world established during neoliberalism is pretty much still the one that controls the world. The real issue is not how this global the future will be, but how Obama will be able to fit his liberal visions in to the reality of continued ‘modernization’.

I hope to write more about this in the future.

Centralized Deregulation–University Evaluations in Taiwan

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 5, 2009


I’m reposting this description of Taiwan university reforms. Knowledge of these reforms is central to any understanding of the current education system here.

I’d like to thank Clyde Warden and Q Book for making available this webcast of an interview with Dr. Robert Reynolds.

Robert is the chair of National Chi Nan University Department of Foreign Languages. The webcast addresses his experience with the recent ROC Ministry of Education (MOE) evaluation of his department.

For those outside of Taiwan’s university system, this offers an excellent introduction to recent changes effecting Taiwan post-secondary education. Readers of blogs written by Taiwan university faculty, such as Michael Turton and Talking Taiwanese, will have seen many discussions referring to these MOE evaluations. To-date, none of us gave taken the time to provide a full description of what this means for teachers and their students. At one hour plus, the broadcast is quite long and very detailed, but it offers all the information you’ll need to understand the problems and issues of what’s going on.

National Chengchi University’s College English Conference

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 2, 2009


Dr. Simon Smith at National Cheng Chi University asked me to remind readers about their forthcoming conference which will be held on Saturday, 11th April 2009. Registration is still open and can be done on-line at

http://flc.nccu.edu.tw/Conference/3rd/.

Please note the conference program can also be viewed there.

The conference is being organized in collaboration with the Language Teaching and Research Center, National Chiao-tung University, and features ESL writing scholar Professor Paul Kei Matsuda, of Arizona State, as keynote speaker.

You will also be able to hear me and my colleague Joe Lavallee speak about the use of the Common European Framework in Taiwan college English programs.