Thursday, May 20, 2010

The HELL of Chinese universities

I just binned the 'film appreciation' class I was supposed to have been running for the next two months at one of the capital's largest universities.

A class like that, you see, really needs to be held in a lecture theatre, with decent sound and projection equipment (and effective blackout curtains) and a nice big screen - and some space for the teacher to move around.

A DVD player is pretty necessary too; Chinese media player programs tend to be terribly glitchy and unreliable, and don't have very good picture quality (when they work at all: there was a big splurge of expenditure on computing facilities in Chinese universities in the late '90s and early '00s, but very little has been spent since, so most computers on campuses are now 8 or 10 years old, and encrufted to hell [Chinese IT assistants invariably seem to be utterly clueless about maintenance, and actually add to the needless clutter rather than regularly sweeping out cruft] - they simply don't have the processing capacity to run modern media programs).

Classrooms have only fairly tiny projection screens, which don't give a real movie experience. This screen is usually covering the board, so the teacher is not able to write anything about the movie he's about to show. And indeed, there isn't really anywhere for him to stand without getting in the way of the projector. And, as I just mentioned, trying to play DVDs with a Chinese media program on a Chinese computer is slow, fiddly and just not very dependable. Ah yes, and running a projector in a confined space can produce furnace-like conditions.

So, using a classroom for a movie class is utterly unsuitable. This should be self-evident to anyone with half a brain. But, of course, it was not evident to the organisers of this course, and I had to try to explain it to them. They promised to try and find me a lecture theatre from Week 2. I'm not sure if they did make any effort to do so or not, but I knew they wouldn't succeed. There are surely some dozens of lecture theatres on this campus (I know there are two in the building adjacent to the one we were using); and on a Monday evening, I doubt if any of them are in use. But, oh no, they're not "available" - with the insanely convoluted and inefficient bureaucracy that prevails in Chinese universities, you probably have to fill out applications in triplicate a month in advance, and money has to change hands (both 'official' fees and bribes to janitors - yes, university departments have to 'pay' to use facilities on their own campuses).

So, no lecture theatre for you, Mr Froog. Try and see how you get on with the classroom. Hm, I knew that was going to get ugly. In Week 1, I tried to use the ancient PC in the classroom, but - to everyone's "surprise" but mine - it kept crashing. I did eventually manage to show a handful of short clips, but the flow of the class was hopelessly disrupted. And the students couldn't really see anything because - get this - the lighting control was broken, so we couldn't switch the lights off. (Chinese classrooms and lecture theatres never have decent blackout curtains, but that shouldn't have been too much of a problem, since this was an evening class, and it was going to be dark outside within half an hour of us starting. But not being able to switch the lights off?! That was a new and unexpected vexation.)

In Week 2, at least the light switches had been fixed. And the organisers had thought that bringing in a laptop computer would be an adequate 'fix' for the other problems. (Much faster than the crufty old PC, at least; but still using a crappy Chinese media program.) Of course, they hadn't bothered to check if this would work earlier in the day; they were only just starting to faff around with the set-up when I arrived, 15 minutes before the class. And guess what - it didn't work: for some reason, they couldn't connect it to the projector. They brought in a second laptop, but they couldn't get that to work either (well, there was a feed from it, but the projector was displaying the test card upside down; and the useless IT guy had no idea what was wrong - I rather suspect he had just plugged in the connectors the wrong way round). Would I like to try using the PC again? NO. Eventually, they brought in a second projector, and we were able to get going with that, only about 20 minutes or so late - although I still had to wrangle with the awful media program, which refused to play one or two of my disks altogether, took ages to start up each time, and froze completely on a couple of occasions. And the sound control seemed not to work. Or the brightness either (the projector got steadily brighter as the class wore on, and again the IT guy was powerless to do anything about it; the final film I showed was barely viewable at all, a white-out). Ggrrrrr.

Even worse, this second projector had to be placed on a chair blocking the central aisle, leaving me completely trapped in the narrow space at the front of the room (the aisles at the edges of the room were less than a foot wide, and cluttered with students' bags). The projector (two projectors) and the enormous, dysfunctional computer console were throwing out a huge amount of heat. It was a particularly claustrophobic little classroom, with a very low ceiling. And the air-conditioning seemed not to be working (I'm always suspicious of systems with ceiling-mounted vents rather than wall-mounted ones; they don't seem to produce any circulation of the air). A lot of air-conditioners in China, I've been discovering, seem to have an 'inner' thermostat setting which overrides - and effectively renders completely redundant - your attempts to set the temperature via the remote control. Now, setting thermostats to 22⁰C is all very laudable and planet-saving and so on; but in China humidity tends to be more of a problem than the temperature per se, so you need to be able to set a lower temperature on occasion, just to get the fans working to dispel some of the clamminess in the air. This thermostat kept resetting itself to 25⁰C!! With all the heat from the equipment, the temperature at the front of the classroom where I found myself confined was frequently getting up towards 30⁰C.

Hell, indeed.

The organisers, of course, thought I was being unreasonably cranky, and were dismayed that I decided to cancel the course "just because the facilities were inadequate". Ah, China.


JES said...

So sorry to hear this didn't work out. If you'd been able to work out an online curriculum, I'd have happily enrolled I think.

The upside -- not that you're seeking one, or will see it here yourself -- is that this whole scenario seems imbued with a certain entertainment spirit, in a Tati-vs.-modern-times way. If you could replace Tati with a considerably bemused-frustrated-bordering-on-enraged British ex-pat.

Froog said...

I knew I should never have accepted another job on campus. I haven't taught in a university (other than occasional one-off promotional lectures) for four or five years now, and my spiritual health is so much better for it. The level of incompetence - and lack of concern about the incompetence - in the Chinese university system is just staggering.

Accepting evening teaching gigs is always a mistake, too. Having to miss regular eating times (and getting home completely knackered at 10pm) would be apt to make anyone CRANKY.