Rethinking Academia

Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Academic Life | No Comments

17:59 (UTC±00:00 +DST), 19 MAY 2014 | CHN BEIJING

Classroom 800

Academia is a weird industry to be in. On the one hand, in particular here in China, you’re admired as a university professor. (My end I more than know that from the undocumented perks and extra clout that got me!) On the other hand, we’re in the same industry as the feared Mad Scientists and all-academese scholars. They can take you forever to explain what in the end would merely turn out to be a mighty simple concept.

Being part of Chinese academia as a non-Chinese citizen is odder still. The Chinese government is never hesitant to declare you a “Foreign Expert”, yet that licence alone won’t get you free upgrades to Business Class. You get to live in an apartment where all city calls are on them; yet it comes and goes with the job. You are given cool invitations to all kinds of fancy functions, yet they try to keep the microphone away from you, fearing you might “meddle with the internal matters of China” (unless you’re very active or have solid local connections). Your “expert ID” begets you status, yet to advance your career, you must head overseas. (Strange: Isn’t China supposed to be the place where everyone should be right now?)

Locals live in a scarier-still environment. It is said lecturers hardly lecture as the publish-or-perish bug has jaws of reinforced steel in China. Lecturers escape lessons and desert their fellow students just because of the random academic summit happening probably next door. There are horror stories of ghostwritten papers, sub-par PowerPoints, and the all-too-usual suspect: the Feared Teacher Posture. This is the absolute worst thing to do to students, yet it is precisely this position that has upgraded the academic statuses of many a lecturer. It involves:—

  • positioning your eyes on your laptop all the time;
  • forever maintaining close to zero inches between you and the mic, and speaking into it at a volume of your choosing (the noise level has every potential to be Eyjafjallajökull to those poor kids; without a proper cover or shield, if you happen to explode consonants, it’s worse torture);
  • fixating your hands on ideally the scroll mouse

and maintaining that position for the whole length of the lesson.

As a former BEc student, I totally hated that. I thought this was such a bad way to earn money! (How the heck can you be paid to bore people?)

Point number two is the most visible audible. Walk into a typical Chinese university during school hours and you’ll just hear the teacher talking (at amplified volumes). And talking. And talking. This kind of “academic karaoke” as I call it will just simply ruin the kids as they snooze — while the lecturer stands to lose from a class where there is just no real learning to speak of. (OK, except for the three ladies at the front of classroom, madly taking notes down…)

Now if that was scary enough — you just haven’t seen academia yet. We have scarier still variants of professional academia. Such as…

  • the jargonese PhD: he makes the dead-easy super-complex;
  • the fighting public intellectual: these love freedom of speech provided it is always in their favour; you can just about forget a civilised, academic debate with these;
  • the dissident doctors: they mix and match their political preferences, take aim at the authorities, and end up on the S-list of the government, ultimately getting locked up (certainly here in China);
  • supposedly chronically busy folks who can’t give a bull shiitake about even meeting students they’re supervising;
  • finally, socially disconnected academics who neither tweet or even go to networking events.

These were the very issues that I was super concerned with when I did my PhD (2009-2012). As a result, most of you have been hearing about my freak train jaunts rather than any decent academic research on social media, simply because I didn’t like being pigeonholed as a potential Mad Professor Up In Some Ivory Tower. (Amongst all fellow academics at the Communication University of China that I’m connected on LinkedIn, as an example, I’m one of the more active ones.)

With thousands of hours of classroom experience as a teacher, and having done everything from 1st grade to all PhD lectures, I have to say, academia must get ready for a major upgrade. I envision myself:

  • getting all students to use my first name and only that;
  • designing and writing everything academia-related by myself;
  • getting excited handing the class to students and guiding, not commanding, the talk (I ask for rooms with microphones specifically to help students combat stage fright);
  • making all learning accessible and blogging about my academic career as much as possible;
  • involving myself in as few political / religious debates whilst tolerating all rational views;
  • spending time at the libraries to get info and to keep myself updated;
  • getting involved inside the larger university community, in the wider community at large, and in academia worldwide as well;
  • remaining approachable even if I have multiple titles;
  • publishing a lot to keep discussions going

and much more. And I’d like to make academia much more approachable to all. In particular, academia at large stands to benefit if we all use social media properly. We can use Twitter and Facebook to inform and educate (although a few cute cat tweets are OK at times). We are all here to serve society at large. We might as well as do it with more passion and making the rest of us understand us more, so we can be assured of mutual support.

It’s time to rethink and redo academia. We don’t need an earthquake in academia, of course, but we do need to narrow the gap we have today between us and everyone else. I want academia to be a big plus. I want to see it as a very visible force for good, and for the good, the common good as well.

Academia ain’t broke. We can improve it. And in doing so, I’d like to take the lead, if I may, by integrating and realising as much of the above as is possible — right here, right now… (sorry, Fatboy Slim)…

It’s late — these are just some of my ideas. I’m sure this is not the end. We can always improve even more.