Scholarship and education

Harmony means everyone gets a passing grade

Last Friday, China Youth Daily reported that a young teacher with the College of Art at Shanghai Normal University had been punished by the school for failing a number of students who had plagiarized their term papers.

During a grading session in February, Mr. Ma noticed varying degrees of plagiarism in the papers of eight students, so he marked them zero, submitted his grades, and went on vacation. At the start of the spring semester, the administration hauled him into the office and ordered him to change the grades; when he refused, they punished him for being "subjective" - he had overlooked several other plagiarized papers.

Ma believes the main reason for his punishment is that the college is upset with him for "making trouble for the school and destroying its harmonious atmosphere." Here's an excerpt from the CYD narrative:

The second time they talked about the matter occurred in the administrator's office not long after school resumed. There, Ma said that he did not intend to cancel the scores.

"So long as there is one sentence of the students' own writing in their papers, you cannot give a zero," said the administrator, "shocking" Ma. Another line was even more "stunning": "You either pass them all, or fail them all."

During this time, he heard that the parents of the students he had failed had come to the college en masse to denounce him. He felt that the parents were exerting pressure on the college.
Several months later, on 13 June, Ma was called to the administrator's office, where he was told that he was being punished for "second-degree instructional malpractice". The punishment contained, in addition to the "subjectivity error" of the paper grades, a second item related to a sketch class from the previous fall. The punishment decision said that Ma had not completed his educational duties in that sketch class.

...the administrator said that this demonstrated that he was not intentionally going after Ma. He repeatedly stressed that if he wanted to take care of Ma, he "could have long ago - there was no need to wait until today. In addition, I could have given him an even harsher punishment." "We have been trying to rescue him all along, but this teacher..." The administrator's words trailed off.

...Ma condemned some of the things the administrator said to him for having the "tone of the Cultural Revolution." He even prepared a "record of sayings," in which he recorded some of the things the administrator had said, such as "you've got a lot of problems."

The administrator did not deny these words, but he believed that Ma's secret recordings were "disrespectful" to him. "Even if we go to court in the future, I won't be afraid of him bringing out those words as evidence. The facts are there. No one can erase them."

The administrator held in his hands Ma's "proof of guilt," the evidence, he stressed time and again, that he "did not act excessively." The materials included "records of student interviews" and "letters from parents," and he invited the reporter to look them over.

Critics noticed the presence of "unwritten rules" in this incident. Ma, who had not been a teacher very long, received a call shortly after the Spring Festival in which the administrator demanded, "As a teacher, how could you give those students zeros?"

On Saturday, The Beijing News ran a commentary by Zhi Ling, a Beijing teacher, that dug into the real reasons behind Ma's punishment:

If you ask me, the root cause of the punishment of this teacher who upheld his academic ideals was not because of a subjective "mistake" involved in not discovering the other students' plagiarism, for using "limited" academic experience to put an end to "unlimited" academic plagiarism would strain expert scholars. The true reason for Ma's punishment is actually that he poked a hole in the window-paper that looked on the unwritten rules, just like the boy in The Emperor's New Clothes who told the truth.

The administrators' behavior can corroborate this. When interviewed by the reporter, one administrator expressed his "painful effort." He worried about Ma: a young man who just had to blow up the situation, "I'm afraid this is not beneficial to his future." Reading between the lines, by upholding academic principles he stood in opposition to other people who desecrated academic principles. "One man's struggle" assaulted the integrity of a wide range of people, so it's not hard to imagine a result in which those involved were relegated to a different class of people. So it's easy to understand why the administrator maintained that his "painstaking care for the young teacher had been misunderstood."

In addition to the same old complaints about "unwritten rules," Ma's claim that the school avoided dealing with plagiarism by appealing to "harmony" touched a nerve with some critics. Here's a bit by Liu Changfeng from the Guangming Daily website:

Mediation and mixing together, a harmonious life of peace with everyone - this is not the normal way things work. As it goes in the theory of revolutionary struggle, so it goes in real life. Ma was labeled a "destroyer of harmony" because he tossed a stone into the placid lake surface; he destroyed the sham harmonious exterior. Walking lock-step with the leadership and speaking in the same voice is evidently the measure of harmony in the minds of the leaders of that college. It is obvious that this kind of harmony is not the type of harmony we pursue or desire; on the balance it is just a false harmony, a work ethic of one-hundred-percent equivocation. This kind of unprincipled, fake harmony cannot win over our hearts and minds.

At the same time, the explanation of the college leadership was a repeated emphasis on the evidence they had for punishing this teacher - the "records of student interviews" and "letters from parents." It is clear that these are the things that spurred the school's decision to punish Ma. And the "records of student interviews" and "letters from parents" are clearly the things that "brought trouble upon the school." So we can totally see that the school's decision to punish Ma was entirely dependent on the pressure exerted by the student's parents. And the opinions of the students and their parents are the evidence for the conclusion that Ma "brought trouble and destroyed harmony." So we see very clearly that the punishment came out of pressure exerted by parents rather than being purely an instructional incident. It's obvious that objectivity is hard to maintain in the handling of this decision, and bias is very likely.

Harmony is not blurring of principles or a simple submission to avoid pressure. Nor is it arrogance that encourages plagiarism and fosters copying. Harmony requires practicality, it needs truth-seeking. A "harmony" where academic integrity bows down to power and to individual interests is, I think, not one that we need.

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There are currently 8 Comments for Harmony means everyone gets a passing grade.

Comments on Harmony means everyone gets a passing grade

Schools everywhere do it. Any teacher who passes a below-average number of students in their class is going to be looked at pretty carefully. And after those school riots last year over graduation certificates... who wants the trouble?

i'd like to know how much money do the families pay in this school,you know how can be expensive tuition fees, moreover some hongbao right in the office...

Perhaps it depends on the school.

Having failed 75% of a PhD class at a leading university, everyone from the President down supported my decision. The result: the PhD candidates began to take the course requirements seriously.

The President also used this incident to demonstrate for all Chinese teachers the bold actions that may be required to shift the education paradigm and to bring true international standards to universities.

Not all universities are the same. Perhaps my university is a beacon of light and hope for education in China.

Note: That was four years ago and I remain at the same university (with increased status and higher position).

At my university, if a student fails, the teacher has to make a new test and administer it again. If the student again fails, they can take the exam next year, whether they attend the class again or not. Even if it's a different teacher with an entirely different curriculum (and it is), the student will arrive and assume the test will be the same, and receive the same credit for passing. I don't know if this is particular to my campus, which is second tier in a second-tier city. Better schools in town have rules saying a certain number must fail.

I for one would not mind a zero. Zeros are cool. HAHA, get it?

Anyway, people deserve what they get. It's up to the students to get their own acts together and pass the class. If they can't pass the class, well, try again. All this harmonizing bizniz is B.S. It's like saying, f* the students, f* the school, f* the nation!

For my majors I guess it depends on the teacher. A few of my C.S teachers gave really 'tricky' (for me at least) tests, but you can usually make it up with homework and projects. For my math professors I can't really tell. Math is math, either you can do it or you can't. With that said I suspect one can make any math test arbitrarily 'hard.' One of my non math major friends is retaking calculus III with a reputed 'hard' teacher, he claims that she 'mellowed' out due to failing half the class during the previous semester. Take that with a grain of salt.

A Harmonized Arbitration

1. In a mass production factory, the quality contoller is being punished by the board of directors for not letting the ill-quality products pass;

2. The ill-quality product has been guaranteed of buyer, who considers only of the 'produce-of-the-factory' label but not its quality; or the buyers are actually paying to process their own product in return for a label;

3. Should we not see their petition as some kind of 'consumer rights protection'?

4. To put it to the court of arbitration, I solemnly suggest:

(a) the factor's board of directors who failed its quality controller, being guilty of not disclosing its 'unwritten rules', shall withdraw its 'punishment' on the QC and beg for a pardon;
(b) all petitioners shall either take or leave their product, as they have to honor their previous contract;
(c) the products in question, being idle in this case, have no say what so ever;
(d) considering there may have buyers who care also of their product's quality, to resolve this dilemma situation, at least two types of contract have to be available in the future, before both parties enter into a processing agreement.

Dude man, I don't think it's a good idea to think school as a factory. School shouldn't be a place for churning out degrees.

Also ignore my previous hubris. A lot of my professors are "mellowed out." Come think of it many of my professors went real easy on me.

Jay, that's what I see the situation in China, maybe wrong...

According to some handy official statistics, the entry rate to higher education institutes last year (probably higher this year) is 70%, comparing to a mere 4% in 1977, the first year China reiterated her open exam policy.

Things might change in time, but the prevailing situation remains more or less so so. Yet, it's consolable to see that China's higher education 'market' is an aggregation of label-manufacturing factories, but not communes that produce only potatos.

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