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Interactions with Faculties
Being able to approach professors was identified as very important. This was confirmed by previous research on international students’ cross-cultural adjustment. Zimmermann (1996), for instance, argued that international students’ academic success depends to a great extent on their interaction with their native instructors. However, intercultural communication is usually inherently problematic and thereby dysfunctional. Four problems were identified by my respondents as factors handicapping their effective interactions with American faculty. They were language insufficiency, lack of initiative and autonomy, verbal passiveness, and indirect mode of communication.
Interview transcriptions reveal that Chinese students’ language insufficiency handicaps their effective communication with their advisors. Just as a public administration student stated:
I felt very stressed talking to my advisor. On one hand, due to limited command of English,
I had no idea what topics are appropriate to talk about, how to make some jokes or show a sense of humor like American students do, or how to talk informally yet appropriately; on the other hand, I have difficulty understanding my advisor’s jokes or off-topic conversations. I was worried about that my slow responses might make him think that I lacked talent. However, the more I wanted to speak fluently and act smartly, the more awkward and nervous I looked as I talked to him. As a result of overstress, I could not even speak English the way I normally could. (Participant 11)
Due to the language insufficiency, four of my respondents thought that they tend to converse less and even avoid the interaction with their advisors. As a result of insufficient interaction, it is difficult for them to establish a good rapport with their advisors.
Several of my respondents also indicated that their actual academic capability has been crippled by their English proficiency. Due to language deficiency, they failed to produce high-quality research papers, which made their advisors doubt their research abilities. An educational psychology student recalled:
The limited command of English negatively affects my academic performance. The first semester, my advisor even suggested that I quit the doctoral program. He said that he did not see any potential from my papers. He also mentioned that I lack the English language skills necessary to function effectively in the doctoral program. I could not fall asleep at night for a week after he talked to me. I was so stressed, anxious, and frustrated. Everybody knows what it means when your advisor perceives you as incapable of writing a research paper. What he said was just like claiming me to be an academic loser. On the other hand, I felt helpless, powerless, and constrained in the situation. All of my talents and marvelous research ideas were crippled by my poor English. My advisor could not fully understand what I wanted to express, let alone appreciate. In his eyes, I am a student without research talent. I cannot fully describe how hard it was to get through that semester. (Participant 16)
Taken together, lack of language proficiency leads to students’ concerns about whether or not their advisors understand them and whether or not their communication is appropriate in the context. In addition, they want their advisors to acknowledge their actual academic capabilities, but they believe it to be crippled by their language deficiency.
Teacher’s Guidance Versus Self-Directedness
Transcriptions reveal that Chinese students’ lack of initiative and autonomy makes it difficult for them to effectively communicate with their advisors. Participants said that a large portion of the challenge that university education in the United States poses for them was the need to develop considerable self-management and selfdiscipline. They argued that for most Chinese students who are accustomed to being given strict direction and rigorous discipline in their studies, university education in America definitely presents problems. Just as a sociology student stated:
I feel everything was specified very clearly in China, and rigorous discipline was usually available. However, on American campus it was not very clear what one exactly needed to do or how to proceed step by step to achieve the academic goals. And when I conversed with my advisor about “what my academic future would be” or “how long will I take to complete this doctoral program,” the common response is “it is up to you”, or “it depends on you.” Facing such unclear answers, I felt overwhelmed and stressed because there were so many choices for me which just made me feel lost. Especially the first semester, I wandered around aimlessly without any goal or direction. (Participant 2)
In the American educational system, blind discipline is devalued, and self- directedness is encouraged. Emphasis on individual autonomy accordingly trivializes the relationship between mentors and students (Liberman 1994; Jin and
Cortazzi 1991). Just as Liberman (1994) observed, “American students are reluctant to be directed by their professors” (p. 180). Or like Weber (1946) who commented, “No young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct” (p. 149). However, this academic culture and mentor-student relationship is certainly not what Chinese students expect. Jin and Cortazzi’s study (1991) indicated that students coming from China usually have very high expectations of their advisors (instructors).
They seek guidance from their teachers, who are expected to be moral leaders and social leaders, experts who know everything in their specific area and who can plan for and instruct students. The crucial relationship is that between teacher and student, which is seen in paternalistic terms. The teacher should tell students what is what and how to proceed. The teacher should be sensitive to any student problems and should be helpful in social and everyday issues arising out of daily living. Like a parent, the teacher should care for students academically and socially. (p. 86)
When these Chinese students, well trained in traditional communication styles and teacher-student interaction patterns, come to the United States, they bring this heritage with them onto the American campus, and communication problems occur. Just as a political science student described:
I am not sure what is wrong between my advisor and me. Probably because I was too “Chinese” a Chinese student in an American educational setting, I was accustomed to rely on advisors determining research topics and professional futures, which apparently contradicted with what my advisor thought. Last semester, I needed to determine my dissertation topic and was not sure what to do. So, I kept making appointments with my advisor with the hope to discuss with him. I think this is quite normal and reasonable in China. However, suddenly one day I got his e-mail saying he felt very uncomfortable with my frequent appointments. I was so confused that I could not help ask him why. He told me that a doctoral student is supposed to take initiative in research topic instead of relying on an advisor. Later on, although I had chosen the research topic largely on my own, I was still struggling with how to interact with my advisor. I am still not sure what is appropriate and proper in American communication style and what is not. (Participant 3)
Regarding the independence learning and self-directedness valued in American academic culture, most of my respondents indicated that they are either not trained to learn on their own or do not feel comfortable doing so. In the Chinese system for years, most of my respondents were more or less accustomed to the “authoritarian instruction” of Chinese professors and had a hard time adjusting to the style of lectures by American professors and independent learning style. Just as a bioengineering student claimed:
According to my own observation, students in American universities are expected to study on their own to develop their ability to study independently. Following this educational philosophy, for a majority of American professors, there is no need to include in a lecture everything students are supposed to learn. Or, in some cases, the teacher talks something in class, but you cannot find it in textbook. And you do not know which book to read and where to find the book. The professor does not explain too much to you, and he does not tell you how to study. Most of us Chinese, however, were more or less accustomed to relying on the very detailed lecture style of Chinese professors. As a result, we felt exceptional pressure in adjusting to the independent learning style. (Participant 17)
Acknowledging their lack of initiative and autonomy during their interactions with their advisors, many of participants still expressed a desire for more faculty guidance in the process of socialization into their future profession but were not sure how to initiate a career-related topic or how to approach their advisors. An educational psychology student commented:
As foreign students, we know a little about this country and our future profession. Also, we are prone to misunderstanding and social isolation from Americans. We hope we can get much guidance from faculties regarding the institution and profession. However, we do not know how to initiate a topic or what is the best way to approach an advisor. (Participant 16)
Thus, for Chinese students in this study, enrolling in American universities means not only the nonexistence of their accustomed mentor-student relationship but also unprecedented challenges they have to encounter. That is, to organize their academic work independently and determine their own academic or career future by themselves. Such challenges accordingly bring a sense of being overwhelmed, because they were trained to totally rely on external guidance and discipline for almost 20 years before coming to the United States.
A computer science student summarized their feelings while providing a comparison. He said:
There is a popular comparison to describe the difference between Chinese educational system and its American counterpart. That is, students walk on the earth when studying in China, while they fly in the sky in America. It is true that we get much more freedom once we are enrolled in American system, just as we can enjoy more freedom when flying than walking. However, the psychological trade-off of the academic autonomy and freedom is the constant insecurity and enormous pressure. Most of us Chinese feel overwhelming stress all the time, because everybody knows that it is okay you stop or fall on the ground when you are walking, but you can never afford to stop or fall while flying in the sky. (Participant 15)
Silent Learner Versus Active Learner
Eleven of the Chinese students believe that their habitual silence or culturally verbal passivity, exemplified by a lack of class participation, an avoidance of raising questions, and an avoidance of interaction with faculty, handicapped them in relating to their professors.
Chinese students find it difficult and challenging to adjust to the classroom discussion required in American academia. They are stressed because, on one hand, they are unprepared for the interactive nature of classroom communication and have problems interacting in an American academic setting and, on the other hand, they come from a more hierarchical society and are sensitive to professors’ evaluations of them. Chinese students’ sense of self-esteem faces a great challenge after they come to the United States. A female finance student stated:
As a typical Chinese student, I do not talk too much in class. However, I found my low-profile personality and humble attitude, which is so valued in Chinese classroom, has been taken by American professors as a lack of talent and an inability in many cases. This makes me feel frustrated, depressed, and stressed. (Participant 5)
Chinese students’ silence in the classroom and reluctance to participate in class discussions conflict with American teachers’ expectations. In China, as the dispenser of knowledge, the teacher controls the classroom and does not expect student participation or interaction. Educated under the Chinese educational system for many years, students are used to keeping silent and are reluctant to express their opinions publicly. However, the extreme silence that most Chinese students regard as normal classroom behavior is “weird” to American instructional approaches that emphasize the development of students’ individual expression, since the typical role of the American teacher is to facilitate rather than to dispense knowledge. Therefore, miscommunication certainly occurs when the conflicting communicative norms clash in the classroom. Such miscommunication heightens the level of stress among most Chinese students, especially when they realize their status as “isolated” or “marginalized” during class discussions. They are afraid that their role as “outsiders” will leave a bad impression on the instructor. As an MBA student claimed:
Probably because I got used to the teacher-centered schema, I really would like to keep silent and do not want to participate in the discussion. However, I feel stressed, since I know my silence probably will hurt my final grade which is decided by our American instructors who usually expect students to open their mouths in class. (Participant 1)
A sociology student agreed:
In China, the student’s role is to absorb knowledge, and the expected stance is passivity. Chinese teachers will praise us for our silence in classrooms. American instructors, in contrast, take silence and passivity as lack of initiative or lack of passion to learn. They value self-expression and self-confidence so much that students who don’t participate in the discussions are not welcomed. Observing this makes me feel nervous and anxious all the time in the classroom, because I am bad at speaking up, but it seems that I have to push myself to do so just to make a good impression. (Participant 2)
Miscommunication occurs as well when it comes to raising questions. On one hand, American professors rely heavily upon students’ questions as an instructional medium. It was thought that by asking questions, students can better understand the subject matter. On the other hand, Chinese students are accustomed to following the Chinese practice of attempting to think about problems on their own instead of asking professors in the classroom. Typical Chinese students’ perceptions on “raising questions” are quoted below. A chemistry student mentioned:
What is important for Chinese students in classroom is that the learners master the content, through diligence and patience, without questioning or challenging what is presented by teachers. Indeed, in China, questioning by students is quite often seen to be disruptive to the instruction process and not respectful of the teacher. (Participant 18)
A physics student stated:
Chinese students usually work out a problem by themselves. If we still could not figure out how to solve it even though we tried hard, we would choose to ask other Chinese students instead of approaching professors with problems by taking advantage of office hours. This is because we do not want to suggest that the instructor had not been very clear. (Participant 13)
Inhibited by their habitual thinking, Chinese students are usually reluctant to raise questions in class, which is far beyond the expectation of American instructors. In most cases, American professors regard Chinese students’ passivity as lacking motivation to learn or lacking ability to think independently. On the other hand, Chinese students can’t help feeling stressed, when seeing their behavior is out of place in the classroom or conflicts with the teachers’ expectation. As a public administration student disclosed:
You can imagine how stressed I am, when various professors asked me the same question, “how come you keep extremely silent in the seminar and never raise questions? Are you not very interested with my topic or does my class bore you?” Facing this question for millions of times, I realized the instructors regard me as an “outsider.” This negative impression would definitely hurt my GPA. (Participant 11)
To sum up, habitual silence or verbal passiveness is the manifestation of Chinese students’ education socialization in Chinese culture, which emphasizes the authority or social harmony. Trained in this type of education socialization, Chinese students experienced considerable stress when it comes to oral presentation, discussion participation, or even raise questions.
Indirectness Versus Directness
Most of my respondents indicated that they were inclined to be indirect in order to preserve harmony in interactions with their professors or advisors. Following traditional Chinese communicative rules, they tend to use vague language, rich in hints, and indirect requests when communicating with their professors. They never demand, refuse, or criticize their professors in a straightforward manner. They found, however, that in some cases, their indirectness hindered their relationship with American advisors or supervisors. Just as a biochemistry student commented:
I found sometimes, our habitual indirectness might leave advisors the impression that we are incapable of being well organized or getting to the point. (Participant 9)
An organizational behavior student concurred this by offering her own experience:
At the beginning of this semester, my advisor assigned me a project which needed some advanced statistics skills. To tell the truth, I did not know how to do it, but I dared not to tell him at that moment but just asked him several small questions. You know, in Chinese culture, everything the professors assigned us is reasonable, and we are not supposed to refuse. I tried my best to work on it, but I failed to figure it out. I did not make any progress in 2 months. One day, he asked me how far I went with this project. I had no choice but tell him that I am not good at statistics and I probably need to take some courses first in order to finish the project. He was so mad and said: “why do not you tell me earlier and now we waste a lot of time. I am serious. Next time, tell me if you have any problems with the job and don’t beating around the bush.” (Participant 19)
Another engineering student had similar experience:
I have been highly stressed lately because I am worried I am going to lose my current RA position. My boss sent me an e-mail several days ago saying he was very disappointed with my job progress and he is considering taking my assistantship away and giving it to a more capable student. I dared not to tell him that I am not very sure what he wanted me to do from the very beginning when he assigned this job. I pretended to know what he meant when, actually, I did not. I had thought to just figure it out myself rather than ask my professor, my boss, for assistance. I tried hard indeed but eventually screwed everything up. It is stressful to think that he will fire me. (Participant 17)
Due to Chinese students’ indirectness, miscommunication frequently happens during the work interaction between Chinese TA or RA and their American supervisors (advisors). The typical scenario is just as an accounting student summarized:
On one hand, professors assign us projects and never give detailed instructions. On the other hand, most Chinese students rarely ask for clarification with the faculty in spite of encountering many problems in their TA or RA jobs. (Participant 6)
When asked the reason for Chinese students’ unwillingness to present problems to their advisors, most of respondents attribute to the Chinese culture which values those workers with fewer problems as more intelligent and hardworking. Chinese students’ willingness to demonstrate their effort and devotion to work, however, has exactly the opposite effect on their supervisors.
The indirect communication style also influences the degree of Chinese students’ acceptance of open and direct criticism. Most of them perceived explicit criticism to be associated with low capability, insufficient effort, or failure. Clashes occur especially when Chinese students are unable to complete their task as neat as expected by American supervisors due to their lack of preliminary knowledge of working procedures. On one hand, American faculty are unaware of the very serious obstacles encountered by Chinese students who strive to efficiently perform and therefore perceive the inefficiency as lack of cooperation or lack of work ethic. On the other hand, Chinese students think they are already trying their best to work, while their supervisors seem far from satisfied. Due to this failure to communicate, professors get upset or even sometimes express their criticism directly. Such criticism consequently makes Chinese students feel difficult to accept. A mechanical engineering student complained:
To avoid bothering my boss, I tried my best to complete my job relying on myself. I never told her how many problems I met and how tough this job is. However, she still is very picky and always criticizes me as inefficient and ineffective and totally ignores the effort that I devoted to this job. Her inconsideration and overdemanding make me highly stressful. (Participant 8)
Since “culture is largely responsible for the construction of our individual social realities and for our individual repertoires of communicative behaviors and meanings” (Porter and Samovar 1994, p. 348), Chinese students’ indirect mode of communication frequently clashes with American faculties’ directive mode, and miscommunication occurs when Chinese students do not conform to pragmatic and linguistic expectations as defined by majority group norms.