Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Foreign Element

In a recent set of course feedback, I was surprised to read that a couple ES2007S students, presumably Singaporeans, were dismayed by the presence of so many "foreign" students in the class. That opinion was presented via several directly stated assertions, that I will summarize as follows: 1) "Foreign" students don't take their studies as seriously as "local" students, and thus they might make group work perilous because they could become hindrances to a "local" achieving a good mark on an assigned task; 2) "foreign" students participate more than "local" students, in that way occupying classroom social space and currying favor with the teacher.

Being a "foreigner" myself, I tend to cringe whenever I read allegations based on generalizations, especially those which focus more on oddly perceived group characteristics rather than on the traits of individuals. In fact, when I reflect on the past term, I recall the term as quite special; it was a semester that indeed gave me and others in my three tutorial groups an opportunity to work not only with Singaporeans but also with nationals from India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, mainland China, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as far off Sweden, Norway (transplanted from Bosnia), Germany, the Czech Republic and France. It never occurred to me that this was a bad thing. I generally view the sharing of ideas with others from different countries and cultures a good thing, especially when one considers that "intercultural communication" is a key topic in this particular course, one for which a blog post is even required.

 However, I will admit that several non-local students who were visiting NUS on a one-semester "exchange" did demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice some of their work for the apparent opportunities available to "do the tourist thing" and travel in the region. That was clearly the minority though, and  even a few of those who traveled a lot were able to make major contributions to the course in the way of classroom participation and overall coursework.

The allegation that stung me the most though was that some of these students could gain my favor, simply because they were "foreigners." For me, such a perception could be based on the fact that a number of the non-locals were quite vocal, forward in their demeanor and confident in interacting not just with their classmates but with me as well. It is true that some local students are shy about speaking up in class, and more so when it comes to talking one on one before and after class with an instructor. Whatever void students like that might leave in the social environment is quickly filled by the outgoing, assertive students. And from my experience in ES2007S, there are outgoing, assertive students studying at NUS from all sorts of countries, including Singapore, who are happy to interact with their sensei!

Last term, were some of these outgoing personalities who happened NOT to be from Singapore eager to engage me before, during and after class? Indeed. I didn't need to approach them and say "hello" when they made a concerted effort to do exactly that with me.

Of course, it is a stereotype that "Westerners" are more outgoing than Asians. Was this universally true of the European students in ES2007S? No. There were some very quiet European students.

Was it universally true of the Indians, who generally are quite vocal? No. There were some rather reserved Indians as well. But some members of these two groups were certainly outgoing (and -- again -- others were as well). Could the fact that a few of the "non-locals" interacted with me easily and frequently have given someone the wrong impression that they were gaining my favor? Well, I suppose....

Here I need to emphatically state it was "the wrong impression" though because, after 30+ years of classroom interactions, I am not swayed simply by talk. There must be substance there as well.

I also pride myself in being both a suitable, balanced judge of character and demeanor and an impartial evaluator of the quality of work assigned in a course. Objectivity -- as much as is humanly possible -- is required in any educational setting to ensure that every student has equal opportunity to achieve his or her best. Being objective is also essential for a teacher who wants to accurately assess a student's skills so as to provide the most effective feedback for growth. These are  principles that I live and breathe.

In fact, in my opinion, I'm a generally friendly, open-minded guy who is willing to listen and talk to any student, and any person for that matter, no matter where he or she comes from. But I can also be a harsh critic, a demanding coach, one who can separate his personal likes and preferences from the job scope, to honestly address the learning tasks at hand and assess student needs, progress and accomplishments.

What do you think? I'm particularly interested in the views of students who have taken ES2007S within the last year, or even better, in the last semester.