Almost two years ago, I, like many of my fellow students here at NYU Shanghai, examined my college options. I could have taken the money offered by any of the other high ranking institutions, accepted offers of honors programs with similar co-op programs, listened to my parents, engaged in dialogue with schools I refused, even to consider, or could have gone to NYU New York. I chose, again like many of my fellow English speaking friends, to attend NYU Shanghai because I was told I would receive a top caliber, American education alongside top caliber students. At the time, the only catch delivered to me in candidate weekend was that I would have to move to China. It seemed all well and good, I would pack a few suitcases, and suit up for battle; I never imagined the quality of my American education would be compromised at the hands of this American institution. It is a sad fact for many native, or otherwise proficient, and/or fluent English speakers here, at NYU Shanghai, that the grading system in the Global Perspectives dual course curriculum is compromised and biased towards students with lessened proficiency.
In the hallway I hear mutterings, I constantly listen to the sound of disgruntled students saying that they would rather not attend their writing class. I do not believe in missing classes often, or necessarily at all. Rather, I believe in attendance. I believe that showing up tardy is disrespectful and a habit of international disgrace. Systematic tardiness and absence should not be excused; however, I find myself neither able to enjoy this year’s writing class nor wanting to attend. Sitting in a class that teaches me how to write a thesis statement, or how to put periods in a run-on sentence, or that does not allow me the creative freedom to construct essays beyond the basic skill level does not help me academically. I do not pay to be treated as though I cannot speak English, and neither do any other students here. We are all capable. Nobody came here to learn basic grammar.
In fact, I have been learning English in an in-depth environment since I was an infant. Not only am I fluent in my mother tongue, I have mastered a second language through immersion like many of the other international students here. We all understand the pain of confusion, and failing grades because we did not understand the reading, or the prompt. However, what those failing marks signified for us, was a need to do better, to study more, to practice, and to put in higher amounts of effort. They were signs that we needed to take it upon ourselves to learn outside of the classroom, as well as inside of it.
As a community, it is equally disrespectful to force students to sit in a class and be restricted academically to a level that does not aid them in succeeding, and in learning, as it is for a student to not show up for class at all. In both cases, precious resources and time are being wasted. It is not only disrespectful to students whose capacities are beyond this skill level because they were born in an English speaking country, it is also disrespectful to those students who have, by their own hard work, mastered English as a second, third, or even fourth language. In fact, many students whose English is nonnative are beyond proficient and do not need to be graded as though their English level retards their ability to compete in a class full of native speakers. Although I personally abhor laziness, I hate more wasting my time, and this is precisely how I feel about my writing curriculum here at NYU Shanghai. Almost four weeks into my second year I have learned specifically “how to paraphrase,” and “where to put a comma,” the difference between “it’s” and “its”, “than” and “then”. I argue that if a student does not understand these differences, it is his or her job to learn these grammatical rules on his or her own, rather than to waste the precious time of other students, and essentially the money paid for instruction. It is easy to forget that this University provides us with a service, and that as paying customers, we are entitled to change if we dislike, in mass, the existing procedures in place.
Furthermore, although I understand that our graduating class has distinct needs, in that the minority is made up of fluent English speakers, the way to push students to bilingual proficiency in both reading, and writing is not through low academic standards. A writing Professor, who shall not be named, openly admitted to his class that native English speakers will be graded for their grammar in his workshop, while non-native English students will not be. In private, he later admitted to a concerned student that if he were to grade differently, those students whose English is not as strong would fail his class across the board. Discriminatory grading practices, such as these, which favor students who cannot cope with a class that demands a higher skill set should be removed and not tolerated by the administration. Not only this, but those students for whom success is questionable, should also be removed from said workshop and placed into a lower level English workshop that offers a more intensive focus on the language. My experience as a paying customer of this institution is that my education is hampered by these students, the worth of my grades devalued by what is seen as their equitable grades, and my ability to get the grade that I deserve, in a writing workshop in which students of lesser prowess are given easier rubrics, has greatly been diminished.
This schism only plays out in the writing class structure. An example of disparity in the way the writing workshop is taught for the collective, and the Chinese classes are taught for internationals can be found in Intermediate Chinese. My class has students on their second year of Chinese, and students who have been taking Chinese for years, as well as students who have been through immersion programs. This structure is much like the structure of the GPC classes. Despite this, however, my Chinese teacher does not assume that after going through Elementary One and Two, that I cannot write to the same level as the students who have gone through Chinese immersion training. Our grading rubrics are equal, and I am expected to perform to their level. Resulting from this practice, though my grades are lower, I am learning more quickly than I would in a class with a teacher who cushions me for my lessened experience in the language. I am okay with this because I specifically understand, after prior immersion experiences, that to fail is not wrong. Failure is a part of education, learning, and life.
It is not shameful to need help in English. I do not wish to go to a university where the motto will become “speak English, or leave”, and I do not wish for students of any race, creed, ethnic background, or skill level to feel discriminated against. The backbone of the American institution is a commitment to excellence, and a commitment to education. This desire to be equitable, and to treat all students as though they are at the same capacity, nevertheless, is destroying the academic integrity of this particular curriculum. We need to acknowledge, to save the rigor of our classes, that some students are more fluent than others. There is nothing wrong, or unnatural about this. What is wrong is to say that all students are equal by class name, and expected volume of work, but not in required skill set. To grade us differently, in the same classes is discrimination.
The essay of a student whose command over the English language is not proficient does not deserve an equitable grade to a student who passes in higher caliber work; this is a fact. Students without even the desire to achieve proficiency through hard work, students who are unwilling to fail in order to learn, as is the immersion process, should not have applied to an American university with English as the primary language of instruction. Students who lack all around proficiency in English would fail their classes at any other American university. This process of failure, one that I have experienced personally, thereby increases the need for hard work and studying. What I have seen here, however, on multiple occasions are students who choose to print out Chinese versions of GPS, or GPC readings and paste them over the English. The administration allows this to continue by fostering an educational environment that does not expect academic equality, and does not stress the importance of hard work rather than failure. By giving students an easy way out we are ensuring that they will never learn. We are neither giving the man his fish, nor teaching him how to fish. Instead, we are serving the man his fish on a silver platter, gutted, cooked and seasoned. Without the hands that feed this man, however, he will eventually starve.
Students will only do what they are expected to do, what they are required to do. If we expect little of them, we will receive little return. This is to say that any class which does not hold all of its students, whether they are native or not, to a high proficiency level in speaking and writing is a class that has failed its students across the board. If we hold any demographic of students to low academic standards, then we are telling them that their best does not matter, and will not be of value to this institution. Likewise, if we are to hold students to different rubrics, in the same classes, we are saying that no matter how hard one tries, they will never be able to achieve the same level of English as a native speaker. Furthermore, we are punishing students who have achieved fluency through their own hard work, or students who have been born into English speaking countries, or families. I will say again, this is discrimination. That we neither expect our nonnative speakers to achieve fluency here, nor do we hold hold them to higher standards is both contemptuous, and erroneous as an academic practice. This logic must be eradicated, not supported from administration.
Going further still, if we hold any demographic of students, in particular, to lessened academic, and grammatical standards we are saying that those students, whether native or nonnative, who can communicate highly complex ideas, and arguments, deserve to be judged more harshly than students whose english level is not up to par. We acknowledge that their representation of ideas must reflect a more nuanced skillset, and for this ability to portray highly complex argumentation in English, they shall be awarded with comparatively lower grades than students whose English writing abilities do not deserve superior notes. In this way, we as a community are guilty of treating non-native speakers as though they are mentally handicapped. They are not. These students are top caliber, every single one of them, and they should be receiving top caliber educations, not educations that refuse to acknowledge that despite difficulties, they are capable of rising to the challenge of academic rigor in any language, of becoming fluent in both English and Chinese.
I challenge the GPC instructors to grade for grammar, quality, and proficiency in English across the board and with truly equitable rubrics. I challenge this university to stop creating an academic environment in which proficiency is punished in some and not expected of others. I challenge this institution to do better, and to change, rather than to turn a blind eye and to allow students to take the easy way out. We cannot be responsible, here at an American college, for the creation of a system which punishes students speaking out for their own academic best interests; I should not have felt the need to publish this criticism anonymously out of fear for my grade, and for my position of academic honor here. Should these discriminatory practices in class construction and grading continue nobody will benefit. We cannot build our academic home on a foundation laid over sand.
I likewise challenge the students of this university to be vigilant, to refuse to accept low standards and classes that are not academically rigorous. I challenge students to do the work that they are capable of, regardless of how difficult that may be, and to put forth their best efforts. I challenge our students not to tolerate teachers who believe that because they are not native, they are not capable. Not being a native english, or a fluent speaker does not mean you are mentally handicapped, it just means that you’ll have to work a little harder. In the end you, and nobody else chose this fully aware of this fact; it’s time to step up to the requirements, or leave.
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Photo Credit: Richard Lewei Huang
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