Sunday, September 2, 2012

Public Learning Patch 1.1

This morning I finally did it. I made my Chinese practice blog (中文練習) public. Only time will tell if this was a mistake. Despite the recognition that this may turn out very badly I have decided to put an idea before caution. Why? This is the only way for change to happen and, on a larger scale, I think there is a serious problem with some cultural perceptions of education that I have seen recently. Do I think my little experiment is going to change the world of education? No, of course not; but sometimes all it take is “one small step…”

Honestly, I feel like I just jumped into the deep end of a pool without ever having swam before. What made me take this leap now? An interesting series of comments made over beers and on Facebook.

I’ll start with Facebook. I’ve been posting “今天的中文” (Today’s Chinese) posts on Facebook over the course of this summer. These posts all consist of some word or phrase that I learned the previous day. In addition to listing the word and its English translation I would also use it in a sentence in order to ensure that I knew how to correctly use the word. Very often my sentences were incorrect and one of my good friends would kindly correct my grammar.

This all worked out well until one day a cynically minded FB-friend not only corrected my Chinese, but corrected the Chinese of my native-speaker friend in a rather harsh and mocking way. This ties into the other comments I received (over beer). Long story short - I was told point blank that a couple of my posts on this blog are an embarrassment and that I should take them down before they ruin my career.

I personally wasn’t offended in either situation. I know how good (or not) my Chinese is. I know that as a student and a bookworm I am still learning (I am talking about in general here, not just Chinese) and hopefully will be for the rest of my life. Why should I stop? I also know that there is a learning curve for all things and that this is a process everyone goes through – whether or not they want to admit it. Maybe my Chinese does make me look stupid. Maybe some of my posts here would be an embarrassment to someone else – but they shouldn’t be.

This idea that in public we must be perfect and that our mistakes should be private or ridiculed is, imho, a detriment to the advancement of human knowledge. People learn through their mistakes and they can learn through the mistakes of others as well. By hiding individual learning processes it forces each new person to reinvent the wheel. Blogs offer us chance to move beyond this idea. I post my thoughts and experiences here and hopefully others will join in the conversation and as a result we all learn something new. This also gives people the chance to see the journey and the struggle that others take and so they know they are not alone.

Chinese language study is a perfect example for sharing this struggle. On 2 occasions now a beginning Chinese student new to Taipei has come through the hostel where I live and commented on how good my Chinese sounds. They then followed this with a self-deprecating comment on how much they struggle with the language and don’t think they have as much talent / intelligence / whatever as I do. Yet I am sure that if either of these students read my Chinese blog they would not feel that I am any better than they are. We all struggle with this. Chinese is hard, but it can be learned. And this is exactly what I told both of these students.

I am not trying to set myself up as omniscient. I cannot be that and I will not try. There are some things I know and I would like to share that knowledge. There is a lot I don’t know and I would like others to share that knowledge with me. Maybe I am destroying future career opportunities (I would some day like to be a professor of Anthropology) but if a university doesn’t want to hire me because of a polite and academic discussion I had on a blog then that is not the kind of university I want to work for. I do not want to be forced to stunt my own intellectual growth.

Freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas is an essential aspect of human advancement.

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