Humor the Guy in the Front

A Response to “The Discriminatory Nature of GPC”

In an OCA publication a few weeks back, an article was published titled The Discriminatory Nature of GPC. In it, the author writes that the GPC Writing Workshops are a “waste of time and precious resources.”

“It is a sad fact for many native, or otherwise proficient, and/or fluent English speakers here,” the author writes, “that the grading system in the Global Perspectives dual course curriculum is compromised and biased towards students with lessened proficiency […] 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.”

The author’s dissatisfaction with the GPC curriculum appears to center on some kind of notion that GPC is primarily a writing course. Were this the case, I might be able to follow some of the consequent arguments. But, if my argument is to involve any degree of objectivity, then I just cannot agree with the author on those terms, because GPC is not a writing course.

“But it’s called a ‘writing workshop.’ What are you talking about?”

To clarify my understanding of this mandatory course, I asked some professors how they perceive their role in the GPC curriculum. Professors Clay Shirky and Ezra Claverie helped me to better understand the class I sit through twice a week from the perspective of the individual teaching the class.

“Students have a range of talents and insights, some excellent, some mediocre, and our job is to help improve their work along several of those axes at the same time, includingwriting,” said Shirky.

When we wrote for GPS last year, we wrote about the ideas of thinkers, such as Kant and Rousseau. Their philosophies did not have anything to do with their writing ability. The function of MLA writing in GPS was to provide a common medium through which students can express the information they have obtained from the readings. If one paid attention to what the professors had said in draft corrections, they would know that they wanted you focus on logic and reason, and a better understanding of the texts. Very little of the essay writing process had to do with phrasing or grammar. This is not because, as the author claims, “students of lesser prowess [than mine] are given easier rubrics.” It is simply because your writing professor genuinely is not concerned with your English ability, but how well you can express yourself – an ability that carries over into any language. As Professor Shirky said, the professor’s goal is to build upon each student’s unique capacity so that they may “express their thoughts clearly in written English”. 

Likewise for GPC: there is no explicit goal of getting the students to become better writers. “Story”,“Fabula”, “narrative” and “image” are not just vocabulary words meant to be memorized and regurgitated onto a page. There is a theme to this year’s curriculum, which is that any idea or emotion can be expressed through many different forms of media. Art, movies, poetry, and music can all convey expression in a similar way that the written language does. The GPC curriculum wants its students to recognize this, but the Writing Workshop is one way to measure if a student can or cannot express themselves.

Despite what the author suggests, it is, in fact, possible for a non-native English speaker to understand the material in more depth than a native English speaker. If the author thinks otherwise and believes that American students are all being wronged just because a Chinese student receives a better grade, then the GPC course is not the one discriminating.

However, if imperfect punctuation or illogical structure cause unclear expression (a problem that native English speakers like myself fumble with all too often), that’s when learning and relearning those basics can be of help. The way Mr. Claverie sees it, “We’re out there in the wind and the rain with you, trying to teach you how to get the campfire burning before dark.” Therefore, it is not about who can use the prettiest words, or ‘build the biggest and most beautiful campfire’. If you have already mastered word choice and grammatical structure, then just play along. However, just because you can do this does not mean that your essay grasped the point. If one’s aim is to show off their own writing ability, then the non-native English speaker who is simply expressing his or her thoughts on the readings in a more succinct manner has the potential to get a better grade, and I believe that is perfectly fair. 

No one is trying to make a competition out of GPC Writing. In GPC, you are in a class with students to whom speaking and writing in English is a challenge. This becomes the writing professors task, and they are still trying to figure out the best way to do it. “The challenge for us,” says Claverie, “is knowing when to stand back and let you burn your fingers a few times, and when to step in and say, ‘Let me show you what you’re doing wrong.’” The professors have their own problems to solve.

Transnationalism; cross-culturalism; global citizenship – the school’s vision of the future looks something like this. Individuals from around the world who are putting down their flags, shifting their focus away from what puts them at odds with each other and focusing on commonalities between them and everybody else. Our generation is breeding political leaders and should be preaching cooperation and unity. Social, economic and technological progress should be a project that all countries undertake together.

“Students who are unwilling to fail in order to learn, as is the immersion process, should not have applied to an American university”. Comments such as these that are made with reference to our university thus undermine this “internationalism” that this school embodies.

It is not just because this dismisses my situation, that is, I go to a school in China where Americans are a minority and where over 50% of the student body is willingly taking all their college courses in a foreign language.

It is also not just because of the implication that my own English writing “prowess” (which I acknowledge is a luxury granted to me due to the circumstances by which I was raised) is something I should boast about. We are all in this class together and therefore we should all be allowed to pass it together too.

However, more than any of that, what concerns me the most is the line that these statements draw between Americans and non-Americans and threatens to thwart all my hopes that this institution can breed “global citizens”.

The author also suggests that NYU Shanghai is an “American university” and therefore all internationals and Chinese, who enrolled, must have known what they were getting into. Concerning this particular claim, Clay Shirky had this to say:

“Those of us from the United States did not come here to clone an American institution, like some Disneyland of education. We came here to build a hybrid — if we simply dump an ersatz Washington Square in Pudong, we will have failed. What makes us unique is the international participation by faculty, students, and staff.” 

NYU Shanghai is an American institution. But thinking that NYU Shanghai should be defined by the word “American” is missing the point in why we are all here: to take that first step towards global cooperation. The GPS and GPC courses are intended to provide us with this. The desire for global cooperation is also why drawing any form of dividing line between students based on who did or did not choose to come to an “American” school is damaging.

All of the above said, there is a way to frame the author’s criticism of GPC in a way that does not undermine its fundamental principle – that is, to focus the criticism on the fact that GPS or GPC is mandatory. Students come into the course with extremely different levels of writing, so any standard used to grade them is bound to leave some students feeling shorthanded. This is a problem that both Shirky and Claverie, as well as many other GPS and GPC professors, are forced to acknowledge: “If GPC ‘comes up short,’” argues Claverie, “it does so the way that any required course, in any subject, necessarily does: it can’t be 100% what each individual student needs, and it certainly won’t be what each student wants.” Claverie states that this is an inevitability. The best that the faculty and students alike can do about it is make use of office hours, and push through to the end together.

“There is an argument to be made,” Shirky concedes, “that GPC and GPS sections should be segregated by skill.” Many frustrated students might prefer this argument. Why does there need to be a standardized rubric? Can we not devise a system where each student’s unique writing ability is catered to properly? We can. But then, we would be left with the problem that we’ve been trying to avoid, which is that we will have one classroom full of Americans, one full of internationals, and one full of Chinese.

The author would like us to pay attention to the argument that NYU Shanghai’s non-native English speakers should have known what they were getting into. But from where I’m standing, what they are ‘getting into’ and what I am are one and the same. We accepting an opportunity to try something new, with the hopes that we will emerge as pioneers of progress.

In doing so, we are also accepting many risks that could potentially cut this whole experiment short and force us all to graduate from somewhere else. If the worst we have to deal with is a mandatory two-year course that is a little rough around the edges, then that is fine by me.

Show your support to your classmates, and humor the guy at the front.


This article was written by Michael Margaritoff. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo credit: Kadallah Burrowes

2 thoughts on “Humor the Guy in the Front

  1. I think this article is very well written, but I question if the statement “GPC is not a writing course” is true. While this may be what the professors have been saying, if you check the “Our Curriculum” tab on our school website GPC and GPS are referred to as “writing in the disciplines.”
    The full description of our required writing component reads, “WRITING: NYU Shanghai students will attain a high level of sophistication in their writing and will be able to communicate effectively in a wide range of contexts. Students will develop proficiency in rhetorical and analytical modes of writing (comparison/contrast, exposition, cause/effect, description, analysis, argumentation, and definition). These skills will be fostered not through a separate writing course (e.g., the typical freshman composition course) but rather through a “writing in the disciplines” approach that integrates writing instruction into required core courses. In addition, this intensive and integrative approach to writing is not relegated only to the outset of a student’s college career but extends across the entire first two years (four semesters).
    Required Courses: NYU Shanghai students will participate in writing workshops offered in conjunction with the two-semester survey courses Global Perspectives on Society and Global Perspectives on Culture (see No. 1 above) and taught by experts in expository writing. Students in these workshops will develop fundamental writing skills through frequent assignments in which they will reflect on the materials that they study in the survey courses. Since students normally will take Global Perspectives on Society in the first year and Global Perspectives on Culture in the second year, they will have four consecutive semesters of writing instruction. Students’ readiness to participate in the regular writing workshop sequence will be assessed during orientation, and their developing proficiency will be tested throughout their undergraduate career.”
    This is to say, at least to me, that while GPC is not ONLY a writing class, it is in part a writing class. What do you think?

  2. “‘There is an argument to be made,” Shirky concedes, ‘that GPC and GPS sections should be segregated by skill.’ Many frustrated students might prefer this argument. Why does there need to be a standardized rubric? Can we not devise a system where each student’s unique writing ability is catered to properly? We can. But then, we would be left with the problem that we’ve been trying to avoid, which is that we will have one classroom full of Americans, one full of internationals, and one full of Chinese.”

    Possible misrepresentation of/biased statement on the ability/proficiency of Chinese, Americans, and internationals.
    (There are Europeans who write better than Americans who write better than Chinese who write better than other Americans who write better than other Europeans who write better than other Europeans who write better than other Americans who write better than other Chinese etc. etc.)
    Also, should English literature education come at the stake of sacrificing “social capital”, since, as Tyler so eloquently detailed, part of GPC is to learn how to write (better?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *