Colorado College Bulletin

203 Armstrong Hall
New Insights from a Sabbatical-Refreshed President

Kathryn Mohrman in China (click to see more photos from her trip)At Sichuan University, I was reminded that teaching is a noble and difficult enterprise. I had forgotten how long it takes to grade a set of papers, how much care it requires to prepare for a good class session, and what a big responsibility we have to our students. Those of you who are full-time teachers know all this instinctively; since I have been out of the classroom for more than a year, however, I came to these renewed understandings with a bit of a shock. I appreciate even more than before how hard my colleagues work every day.

This was my first experience teaching international students. Perhaps the difference between American and international students is not so great with calculus or supply and demand curves, but I taught a course in American studies. The readings I assigned were all written by Americans for Americans, and the authors assume an amazing amount of cultural background that Chinese students cannot be expected to know. Much of each class period was spent deciphering assumptions or explaining terminology. What is a WASP? How did people in the mainstream view hippies in the 1960s? Who were the Black Panthers?

For me the hardest part was determining the proper standard for grading papers. My students were writing in their second language, but how good should the English of graduate students be? I was also aware that my students had few sources of information beyond the readings I provided from books I brought with me. In addition, I know that academic traditions are different in China -- creativity, innovation, and fresh ideas are not valued in the same way that they are in the U.S. For example, the prevailing ethos among many students is to master the material presented and then repeat it back. I had a long talk with my students about American views on plagiarism and proper attribution for ideas taken from others. Despite these warnings, several papers were basically a string of quotations with very few of the students' thoughts at all. In one case, whole paragraphs of a studentís paper sounded more like a professor from the University of Michigan than a student from Sichuan University.

My observations of higher education institutions in China make me very glad to be at Colorado College. The quality of education is so good here. We are very lucky to be on a campus where teaching is central, where learning is valued, and where people are committed to an intense, personal style of education.

Chinese families and students want a college education desperately but realize that places are restricted to those who do very well on the entrance examination; the pressure on high school students is intense. Apparently high school grades are irrelevant for college admission. The exam is everything.

Thereís also the issue of cost. By piecing together information for a variety of sources, I determined that a year of college in China costs more than the average annual income of an urban worker (and rural workers make much less). If a family is not wealthy, they must save and sacrifice to send a child to college. Historically China provided a free education to all those who were admitted, but like many other countries, the system has changed in the last decade. Universities today are scrambling to develop alternatives. When I was given a campus tour, my guide pointed with pride at the donors' names on several of the new buildings. "We learned that from you Americans," he said with a smile.

My sabbatical experiences have reinforced my commitment to our campaign and the enhancements it makes possible. It has been very gratifying to learn of large gifts from the Packard and Coors foundations as well as the numerous donations from alumni, trustees, and friends of the college. There is no question in my mind that we will exceed our $83 million target. Kudos to the hardworking colleagues in the development office and elsewhere for achieving what looked so daunting several years ago. It will be wonderful to be part of the home stretch with all the satisfactions that will come, I am sure, in the final months of the campaign.

Once again, thank you to everyone who made this sabbatical possible -- trustees, colleagues, and especially Dick Storey and Tim Fuller, the acting co-presidents. One goal of a sabbatical abroad is gaining new perspectives on one's work, and that certainly has been true for me.

To see e-mail dispatches and photos of President Mohrmanís five-month sabbatical in China, check out "Postcards from China".  

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