Monday, May 08, 2006

"Perspectives on the Language Centers in Taiwan's Universities" Symposium

I know I'm supposed to be finishing up that third post on A Pail of Oysters, but I wanted to mention a couple of other things in the mean time. One is the symposium that Tunghai's FLLD held this past Saturday (May 6). Our department hosted nine invited speakers who run language centers at different universities around Taiwan. The directors were asked to address the following questions about their programs:
  1. What is the mission of your language center?
  2. What is the history/development/reasons for creation?
  3. Introduce your language center (staff, faculty, students, structure within the universities, etc.).
  4. What are the facilities (space, allotment/office space)?
  5. What is the number of faculty and staff?
  6. What is the status of teachers/kind of contracts?
  7. What are the requirements in terms of teaching load and responsibilities for teachers?
  8. What programs/classes do you offer?
  9. What are some of the pros and cons of having a language center?
  10. How are teachers in the language center evaluated?
The basic motivation behind this workshop was that Tunghai is in the process of developing its own language center and wanted to learn about the pros and cons of having one. I am not on any of the committees that are in the process of developing this center, but from what I understand as of the last time the school's president came to the FLLD to talk with us, the language center would be primarily a teaching unit, separate from the FLLD. It would be under the College of Arts, if I remember correctly. It would have its own director, who would be of the same rank as a department chair. So the purpose of the symposium was to find out what other universities' language centers have dealt with in their development, so we can learn from both their successes and their difficulties.

I'm not going to summarize each person's presentation, but I want to mention a few of the major themes that came out of the presentations. In no particular order, here they are:
  • There's an increasing attempt to reach out to honors or otherwise advanced students through special semester-long or short-term courses. The program at one school (and possibly more) is also feeling pressure from the rest of the school to offer courses and other kinds of help to graduate students and faculty who now are feeling more pressure to publish in English-language international academic journals.

  • Most of the language centers would probably be better labelled "language programs" because they are responsible for the required first-year English courses and elective language courses. There was one (if I remember correctly) language center that did not have the responsibility for the FY-English program. It operates more as a center that offers short-term courses, lectures, study groups, and other activities for extracurricular English learning. (And the staff there consists of one director, 2 staff members, and no faculty.)

  • There are more and more attempts to make use of computer-aided self-study systems so that students can learn on their own. Some programs require the computer-aided learning to be graded as part of required courses; some just provide the learning stations and hope that students will come. (One director mentioned that they had increased the number of computers in one lab from 7 to 41, but only the same 7 students were showing up...)

  • Most of the directors complained of being understaffed, particularly in terms of full-time faculty. As one director put it, the problem is not a sense that part-time teachers are not as hard-working; the problem is that because it is difficult to give part-time teachers the same level of pay and facilities as full-timers (office space, etc.), part-timers usually have to teach at more than one school and therefore cannot be around for program activities, office hours, or important program meetings. This makes it harder both for students to have more interaction with their teachers outside of the classroom and for programs to be as unified as directors would like. [This is my recollection of what was said--if it doesn't quite accurate to others who were there, please let me know!]

  • I felt a sense that teachers and administrators in the language center are not as highly respected as teachers or administrators in regular departments. The term "second-class citizens" was used more than once in characterizing the language centers' status.

  • Related to this, I noticed a concern that language center faculty will end up being evaluated in the same way as faculty in other departments (in other words, a heavy emphasis on research), despite the heavier teaching responsibilities that come with teaching English to the entire freshman class, teaching English electives to upperclass students, and running various programs to encourage students to use English outside of class and to ensure that the English proficiency of the students meets some sort of externally defined standard (the GEPT or TOEFL, for example).
Part of the problem, from my perspective, seems to be that the schools are stuck in a situation where the MOE's requirements put them at cross-purposes vis-a-vis the language centers. On the one hand they want the language centers to ensure that everybody's English meets a certain vaguely defined standard (and I do mean "everybody's"--not just undergrads, but graduate students and faculty and staff make use of the language centers in at least some schools). On the other hand, it sounded like several program directors felt hamstrung in terms of hiring because of the emphasis on hiring assistant professors and people who are going to publish. National universities don't allow the hiring of full-time lecturers, and there is quite a bit of pressure on private universities to follow suit. (I have more to say about this, but I'm going to hold off on that for a while. In the mean time, see this post on Michael Turton's blog that raises the question, how are all the universities in Taiwan going to hire PhDs to teach in their English departments/language centers?) At this point, I'm not sure to what extent language centers will be able to offer their faculty alternatives to the research/teaching/service (where "research" means publications in big-name journals) promotion/"tenure" model. This is going to become a much more pressing issue, too, as the MOE gives private universities more pressure to require lecturers to apply for promotion (more on that later, too!).

Again, this summary of the symposium is based on my impressions/memories of the meeting. I'd appreciate the corrections of anyone else who was there. (Like Kris Vicca, who in a careless moment admitted that he's read this blog before!) I have thought about whether or not I should mention who said what, but have opted not to at this point, though if the directors want their names attached to particular comments or opinions, I'll be happy to comply with their requests. And the paragraph above is based almost entirely on my own slightly muddled view of things. I'll try to develop these ideas in more depth at some point in the future.


Clyde Warden said...

In my experience, and I've seen up close about five of these over the past ten years, the center solves ONE problem only, and that is the required Freshman English classes (the recreation of a center at CYUT is an example--five years before the first center was closed).

This keeps these teachers out of the the regular FL or AFL department, so that strategies and standards can be made more specific for the department--I've never seen more chaos than that caused by too many Freshman English teachers having input on the core department issues, such as tenure, and requirements. For this, I am a supporter.

Each school has a dream that the English center will then go on to do great things, but it never happens. This is not the fault of the directors, some of whom I've worked with and admire (K.V. at FCU has really done a great job), but simply because of the lack of fit with student motivation and school resources. A private school is not in a position to set "high" requirements for English, as it will simply drive away customers. Yet without standards (and I mean requirements) students simply won't show up.

On the administration side, the university would like to pay the lowest rates for non-tenured "native" speakers and then expect them to offer services like proofreading, and high level English consulting, and of course happily participate in school events, and maybe even do a little singing and dancing on the side.

This falls right into the stereotype that these foreigners are happy to have a job and that this type of work is not very skilled. 'They are native speakers after all!'

I don't know a good solution, and to be honest my research all points to a major decline in the importance of English in Taiwan. One step is to give the center a professional base, with good funding, and let them hire the best people the can (with real contracts, not this temp. stuff). That will at least make what is taught of the highest quality. But anything more, is just expecting too much in a consumer market that lacks demand for such a product.

Jonathan Benda said...

Thanks for your input, Clyde. What you said about student motivation and university administration is sobering. And, unfortunately, it doesn't contradict the general feeling that I came away from symposium with. I would add that some current and upcoming changes in MOE requirements for promotion at private universities won't make things any better for language center teachers.

Scott Sommers said...

As I have said elsewhere, I disagree completely with Clyde concerning the place of English in Taiwan society. On the other hand, I have to agree completely with him concerning the mess created by the creation of language centers. Language centers are set up as though they are academic departments, but are then expected to fulfill the commercial needs of the school. At MCU, we are pressed in to working on Internet-based teaching and testing materials that will function in effect as advertising materials for the school. We are expected to do this in our spare time basically for free while teaching the heaviest teaching load of any faculty members.

All this is done is as a command policy. We are told what the strategic policy will be and given a time table to achieve it. We have never once been asked what we think we can do. It's as if the school hires experts in a subject and then ignores them completely. I once said to a Taiwanese professor that if a commercial business without massive government support was run in this way, it would go bankrupt. He added, "They would go bankrupt tomorrow!"

While I have benefited enormously from the existence of language centers, like Clyde, I doubt they will ever be able to live up to their potential. I know of no language center that has worked the way it was envisioned. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the damage done by the 'language center solution' isn't, in the end, one of the problems that damages Taiwan educational competitiveness irreparably.

Jonathan Benda said...

There are some uncomfortable similarities between what you're describing, Scott, and what I think we'll be soon experiencing. But I think one advantage (I hope!!!) about having a language center is that it would have its own budget line, separate from that of the FLLD. And another might be that there will (hopefully!!!!) be less pressure on faculty in the language center to publish in order to be promoted. (Though I am not very sanguine about this particular point.)

Scott Sommers said...

Ha, ha,’re kidding, right? Actually, our budget at MCU ELC is independent of the DAE and we do most, but not, of our own administrative work. Now, it's true that the weird history of MCU creates its own academic problems, but the amazing thing is that even in national universities, when they set up compulsory English programs, the reports I hear all sound the same. I don't mean to sound glum, but I believe it's impossible to set up a proper language center in the context of a Taiwan university. There are just too many pre-modern organizational features that interfere with running such a center competitively.

On the other hand, and I mean this sincerely, if there's a school in Taiwan that can do this properly, it is Tunghai.