Writing as a Block for Asians

“Hannas draws on a raft of data about Asian scientific research practices, technology piracy and graduate study abroad, all intended to show that Asians are brilliant imitators but poor innovators, adept at borrowing and improving on Western science but not so skilled at making advances themselves…. he cites a Japanese Nobel laureate in medicine, Susumu Tonegawa, who said, ‘It is very clear that Japan is making money by taking and applying the fruits of science that the West creates at great expense.’|Yet Nathan Sivin, a professor of Chinese culture and the history of science at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was not impressed. ‘That’s nonsense,’ he said.” Emily Eakin reviews The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity by William C. Hannas

Writing as a Block for AsiansNY Times)

When I used to teach technical writing at the engineering school at the University of Toronto, where about a third of the students were first- or second-generation Chinese, I found the students to be very good at imitating models, but they struggled with any writing that asked them to show independent thought. But it wasn’t just the Chinese students who had that difficulty — the native English speakers also had that problem. I think it had more to do with the way the engineering school was set up.

Since it was arguably the top engineering school in Canada, the professors (many of whom were brilliant engineers, poor speakers of English and even worse teachers) used huge lecture classes to weed out those students who couldn’t grasp the material on their own. The assignments the students were given in the first few years didn’t require original thought, so the only way the students could learn was by watching the professor do equations on the board and then copying what they did. As a result, cheating (uh… I mean “answer sharing”) was rampant, which meant that students were conditioned to expect that the way to get ahead was to memorize and spit back (or churn out on demand), rather than to theorize or innovate. One challenging writing assignment in a materials science class involved writing a memo that referred to the Leidenfrost effect (where a boiling droplet of liquid rides on an insulating cushion of vapor) to explain to an imaginary employer that there is no need to worry about the tank of liquid oxygen on the roof of a building; if the liquid were to spill out, it would not freeze the roof and damage it, but the vast majority of the liquid would simply slide right off the roof and into the rain gutters, where it would liquefy harmlessly. That assignment (created by my former colleage Robert K. Irish) not only asked the students to demonstate their knowledge of a materials science phenomenon, but it asked them to explain it to a non-expert. Simply spitting back the equations would not be enough.

Shortly before I left Toronto, I proposed to Rob the idea that we could modify a level of Quake (or some other FPS game) so that players had to investigate a building looking for evidence of structural decay, and then write a report based on their findings. Of course, to keep things interesting, the building in question would be infested by zombies with blowtorches. Now that would have been a fun assignment.