To the Losers Go the Spoils

Last Friday, our bosses came to James and I for help. Simply put, there was a problem at the school. As a result of not passing the foreign teacher-taught oral English classes over the last year, just under 60 graduate and doctoral students were in danger of flunking out of Shanxi Agricultural University. This is not the first time I have written about these students, nor do I expect it to be my last. The students had all failed our classes for a variety of reasons. Some had plainly never once attended class. Others had come for one or two classes before deciding to stop altogether. Others had taken a leave of absence after finding employment in another city or county. Still others never took the final exam either of their own volition or because of our mandates prohibiting students who had missed a certain percentage of classes from doing so. Regardless, school policy states that if a student fails even one class, he or she won't be able to receive a diploma.

From a Western educational perspective, this would not be so great of a problem. After all, it was the individual choices by these students that resulted in their failing grades and not a fault of the university. But from a Chinese point of view, this is a great problem indeed. After all, if of the 380 or so students who matriculate every year in graduate school, 60 are not graduating, that's over 15% who aren't getting their degree. This reflects badly on the university and serves as a warning for prospective students that they only stand an 85% chance of graduating. Like most of the cultural conflicts we Westerners come across in China, this too is a matter of “face”—in other words, a high statistic effectively discourages new students from applying, thus bringing down the school's credibility. In a country like China where ratings for high schools and colleges are weighed even more heavily than in America, every failing student can make a difference.

In truth, America sees its own shortcomings when it comes to higher education. No college likes to have a low graduation rate, in the same way that no college wants a high freshmen transfer rate. Both are indicators of a certain dissatisfaction on the part of the student body—and dissatisfaction translates to loss of prestige. Even in my high school, there had been a rumor that everyone in jeopardy of flunking out was expelled before they reached their senior year for fear that they would bring down the school's perfect 100% graduation rate. That's where supposed grade inflation may factor in to high-end Ivy League colleges and where cheating teachers flub standardized test results at Chicago public schools (see the incredibly smart Freakonomics). Still, it was nothing compared to the proposal that our bosses in Taigu schemed for me and James.

If our bosses Zhao Hong and Xiao Fan weren't the final word on the decision, they were, at least, the masterminds behind the proposition that followed. In order for all of those students not to fail, they would have a retest. That retest—in the form of a written essay in English—would come on a Sunday following two days of classes—two on Friday and two on Saturday, each for two hours. The classes were scheduled to be taught, we soon learned, by James and I, as well as a Chinese English professor—with me and James splitting Friday classes and the other teacher taking the Saturday ones. The business of administering the final exam and the grading would also fall to the Chinese English teacher. When asked about the content of those classes, our boss Zhao Hong simply smiled and laughed. Anything, she told us in Chinese. You can even scold the class for the entire two hours if you want. James and I were flatly appalled. The administration was essentially telling us that coming to four classes and taking a makeshift final exam is all that it takes to pass oral English at Shanxi Agricultural University.

It would have been easier had the Foreign Affairs Office taken a more lenient approach to disciplinary enforcement in the past. Quite the contrary, Zhao Hong was our biggest advocate last spring when it came to ­failing the scores of students who had only in the last week started coming to our classes. Now, it seemed she was telling us the opposite: that you can be a bad student and there will be no consequences to your actions, and what's more, the system will do everything in its power to help you succeed! Zhao Hong assured us that it wasn't an easy decision. With one or two failing students, it wouldn't have been a problem, but 60 was too huge a pill for the school to swallow. Under pressure from her higher-ups, she relented, despite the fact that she recognized it wasn't fair—both to us and to the dozens of students we had taught who actually deserved the grades they received. But ultimately, as is want to be the case in China, there was nothing she could do to change it. What she was asking of us, then, was to teach those make-up classes, even if we treated them as nothing more than a favor to her.

James was very resistant at first, and for good reason. It felt like all of our conventional Western wisdom was turned on its head—that those who work hard and ultimately reach the top are rewarded, and that cheaters and low-lives are punished by society. It immediately became apparent that the very act of “failing” a student may be a totally Western concept. It would seem that other departments at the school didn't have this problem—that even students who never once showed up to class were still buoyed along to subsequent grades by the Chinese education system. That might explain, at least, how we have students in our classes who have taken over ten years of English and can barely read the alphabet. Furthermore, it made English, and more specifically, our English classes, come off as meaningless—that students should not be held back or denied their degree for failing something as petty as an oral English class. With James away for the weekend in Beijing, it was up to my guilty conscience to eventually suck up my pride and agree.


On Friday morning, I felt like I had walked into a cold, dead place. On the front door, a crude bolt-lock opened up to a room full of lethargic spirits and dull, blank stares. The classroom lent itself to the kind of place where learning goes to die—more so than my regular classroom, the lighting seemed ghostly and hollow, the arrangement of the desks felt entirely impersonal, and the drywall paneling had undergone torpor with age. Photographs of Mao paired with inspirational quotes lined each of the four walls. The teaching building directly overlooked North Yard, and all of the honking, shouting, and loud music from the street wafted its way up to my classroom even with the windows closed. I felt like I could have been entering a rehab facility for drop-outs and delinquents—it was clear that no one, myself and my boss included, had any desire to be there.

My boss was the first to address the class. Generally an incredibly mild-mannered and sweet woman, Zhao Hong never sounded more fierce. She bluntly told the class of flunkies that they were there because of school policy and not because they deserved a second chance. She herself commented on the injustice of how coming to four classes is not a substitute for an entire year's worth of English classes and talked at length about the enormous opportunity that they had wasted—the chance to take English classes with an actual American—an opportunity that other, perhaps more motivated, students would have killed for. At the end of her spiel, she took attendance—a regulation, she told me earlier, of assessing that the students are at least capable of attending any class—before gracefully exiting and handing the floor over to me.

In truth, I was much more nervous about teaching this class than usual. Based on the nature of the class, Zhao Hong originally wanted me and James to teach because we would at least have a scant degree of familiarity with the students. After all, they were students who had had Nick, Anne, Gerald, and James and I as teachers last year, so our faces would at least be recognizable to them. The unintended consequence of that, though, is that I was once again face-to-face with the dozen or so students that I had personally failed, as well as dozens more who were in a similar predicament. It was like being a judge and getting put in the slammer right alongside the criminals that you yourself were responsible for convicting. Even more, most of the students I didn't recognize were significantly older—local politicians and businesspeople who had careers and lives outside of graduate school—who were probably looking at me and wondering who this scrappy youngster was standing in front of them and why they should give a damn.

Still, I had just been listening to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech with all three of my classes of graduate students this week and was feeling confident. I started class by asking in Chinese who among them could speak English. Seeing as how my good students have a hard enough time participating, I wasn't surprised when no one raised their hands. So I asked them again. Still, nothing. So I decided to be a little cruel. It's no wonder none of you can speak English, I told them in Chinese. Perhaps you would have if you had come to class last year. It was then that I decided to teach the class in Chinese. I said that they had already wasted enough of my time for having me teach them on my day off, but that I was going to waste as little of theirs as possible by not requiring them to have to decipher my spoken English. I wrote a single statement on the blackboard. In all capital letters, it read: Writing Exercise: Give the reasons why you did not come to class last year. And while they wrote for thirty minutes, I sat reading Blink, and finished class by listening to each of them stand up and recite their alibis.

A part of me wanted to humiliate them, because I too had been humiliated. Last semester I rested on a moral high ground after having failed these students in good faith. I was confident in my decision—with the strength of the Foreign Affairs Office behind me, and in spite of the numerous efforts on the part of those students to win me over, using bribes, reasoning, and guilt at their disposal. And yet here I was, nine months later, with the only result of having put my foot down in the first place was in making more work for myself. I was like a puppet dictator, trying everything I could to assert my will and dominance, but knowing deep-down that I actually wielded no power. Students were there that I had explicitly failed once before, but regardless of what they did or did not do in class that day, the very fact that they were there meant that they would pass.

For my second class, I had them write on a slightly more benign topic: What makes a good student? At lunch, Alexandra talked me down from my original writing prompt: Writing Exercise #2: Why do you think you deserve to pass this class? I was clutching my chopsticks over a bowl of noodle soup, still visibly upset and shaking with anger. I told her that I was genuinely curious in their answers—in the face of every moral and ethical query, how could they possibly believe that they had the right to pass oral English? No matter the excuse, the heart of the matter was the simple fact that they had not come to class. Sensing how worked up I was getting, she reminded me not to take it personally. Irresponsible students make headaches for teachers across all disciplines—this was not a problem unique to us as English teachers. She encouraged me to give them my “nothing” as anything approaching my “all” would have been far more than they deserved.

That afternoon, I was decidedly more hands-off. No more was the gnawing emotional vexation boring its way under my skin, and no longer did I sit, fuming, at the front of the class as I tried to appear blithe and indifferent as I read my book. Instead, I was a pale drone of myself—stern, robotic, and emotionless. For that hour of my life, it felt odd to abandon everything that I've ever learned about teaching. I made no attempt whatsoever to pretend that I was enjoying myself or give them the slightest satisfaction. There was no excitement about the English language or praising them for good work. I was past the point of empathy. I was irate. These students were slackers and good-for-nothings, and there was nothing that they could possibly learn in two days that would make up for a year's worth of careful lesson planning and dedicated teaching.

The reasons they give for missing class last year were largely predictable. Most were a combination of having to do a research project or an experiment in another city, working a full-time job, taking care of aging parents, newborn children, or a sick wife, being sick themselves, or just being so bad at English that they felt simply being in class was a waste of their time. All of them spoke at some length about how sorry they were, their obligation to their own education, and how thankful they were for these make-up classes to improve their oral English. Similar, were their stock responses for the characteristics of a “good student”: a person who tries their best, helps others, is respectful of their teachers, is hard-working, does their homework, goes to class, is responsible, has a “burning desire to learn,” and “does everything possible to achieve their goals.” Most, if not all, were probably educational propaganda slogans drilled into their heads when they were young. Few, if any, seemed to pick up on the overt irony of the question being aimed as a direct attack at their own ineptitude as graduate students.

It came as a shock to me then that, all things considered, their English levels were actually better than I expected. Most enunciated their words clearly and their accents were comprehensible enough that I didn't struggle with what they were trying to say. No more was this true than for the girl sitting in the front row. Whereas all of the other students sat as close to the back wall as possible, she sat alone, dead center in the front of the classroom. She wore glasses, thigh-high rhinestone boots, and a brown sweatshirt. A thick coif of her hair swooped seductively over her right eye. When I asked her for the reasons why she missed class, she said that she had been traveling and meeting friends in other cities. After college, it was hard to keep in touch with old classmates and there was nothing going on in Taigu anyway. She told me that class was boring and that she thought she could get away with not going. Still, she wrote, it wasn't fair to James, to her other classmates, to the school, or to me. She lamented the lost time and the wasted opportunity, and when I looked hard at her, I almost thought I could see her cry.

In that exact moment, I wanted to take everything back—the anger and frustration, the slow change to sadness, the feelings of abandonment and rejection. Hearing her story, it almost made me want to forgive her right then and there. I had so internalized her narrative that I was left only with a feeling of guilt. The truth was that this was just an honest girl who made an honest mistake. And whereas few students took responsibility for their actions in their essays, she plainly did, and actually seemed to feel badly about it. There was no fabrication or rationalization. She understood that what she did was wrong and was repenting, so who was I to punish her further? I thanked her for reading and after she sat down, I fought my way through the next fourteen essays with a resolve so strong that, by the time I dismissed class, I felt like my body would crumble beneath me.

On the way back home, one of the female students approached me after class. I had intentionally left the classroom a little later to avoid bumping into anyone, but apparently she had been wise to my aversion. She was unimaginably cheery, serving as a perfect counterpoint to my dejected moodiness. Tripping over English phrases and switching intermittently into Chinese, she begun asking me some of those basic questions reserved for first-time encounters. But it was clear, at least to me, that I had no intention of making polite conversation. Rather, I wanted to lock myself in my room and never have to think about these failing students again. Finally, she stammered out, I hope that we can still be friends. I thought for a moment, letting a deep breath rise slowly in my chest and exit through my lips. I turned to her and asked in Chinese, Who was your foreign teacher last year? She paused for a minute. Actually, she told me, I can't quite remember.