Top 100, Elite and Good

TDTU has set itself a goal of offering a new curriculum, taught in English and emulating the top one hundred universities in the world. It will be an undergraduate degree. Students will come from all over Southeast Asia. It will use texts assigned in the Top 100 universities. This initiative comes from the President, Dr Le Vinh Danh, who is an economist. The most recent version of the goal that we have heard is to have TDT listed in the top 50 ASEAN universities by 2036. The list they are using for their Top 100 is  the British QS list.

Pres with flowers

President Le Vinh Danh, greeted with flowers at a graduation ceremony

A lot of our work this semester has been related to choosing texts and creating syllabi for this Top 100 curriculum. Dean Hoa looks to see what is being used at in these places. He tries to order those books. When they come, we look at them and discuss them. The academic workshop that Joe and I did for the George Borjas Labor Economics book was an example of such a discussion. The idea is that the English-speaking labor faculty (us)  will prepare power points that follow the book and that will help the Vietnamese speaking faculty actually teach the course next semester. Joe made a list of the universities in the US that are both Top 100 universities and have a labor program. He gave it to Dean Hoa who has used it.

Although we brought about 50 books from the US, many of them like Troublemaker’s Handbook are for union education and don’t show up on the top 100 syllabi. They are sitting in a small bookcase in the office. Hollis and Leanna did use Maurice Better’s Collective Bargaining for a class they wrote up. It gets used at Illinois. I used it.

Getting books is hard for several reasons. First, the order has to be made by the library, which uses a limited list of vendors. The library told Dean Hoa that a book by Harry Katz from Cornell was “off the market.” Then I found it on Amazon and just ordered it. However, that was over a month ago, and it hasn’t shown up. (Correction: It showed up on Dec 25th). Things don’t always make it through the mail. Joe has never received a whole shipment of his books, for example.

Another problem is that labor books are not like engineering or biology books. Microbiology is microbiology, up to a point. With labor books, you can’t tell from the title what the book will be like. Dean Hoa ordered a book called Mediation and it was about neighbor disputes and marriages. Hollis and Leanna wrote a syllabus for a class called Negotiation but they had to use a book that deals with people negotiating to buy a car – all individual, nothing about collective bargaining. This same thing happened with the book Joe had to use in his class that was called Social Persuasion. It was supposed to be about organizing but it is about marketing. In practice, you could ignore the book, but you’re not supposed to. The slides are supposed to “follow the book strictly,” according to Dean Hoa. Joe actually summarized every chapter in Social Persuasion and presented slides on them, which distorted the class and was confusing to students. He then prepared an entire parallel set of lessons that were actually about organizing and Vinh had to translate them. So his classes always had two parts, the real part and the official part.

  With labor books (and of course, every other discipline, but not as clearly) in addition to the confusing titles, there’s perspective. It’s not just the language, it’s the culture and the politics. A book like the Northouse Leadership that I used for my class takes a management perspective. Leaders are employers, but nowhere does it mention that the “followers” of employers are not really followers. They are employees who have to obey their bosses and can get fired.  This has to be countered with explicit re-framing to represent a labor perspective. I prepared the powerpoints for the first chapter of a book called Cross Cultural Management that, not surprisingly, had no mention of labor or unions in the index and was all management lore. This is for a class in the new curriculum that VInh will teach; it’s up to her to flip the perspective for a labor class.

So our introduction to the Top 100 project has been about trying to find English texts used at places like Cornell and then – once the money has been spent and the books show up – trying to figure out how to prepare a course based on them despite degrees of inappropriateness ranging from a little to a lot.

You might say, why worry about a labor perspective in a book? Can’t you just tell students that the book is a management book but this is a labor course, so pay attention and keep your critical thinking running? One reason is that in Vietnam there is already a lot of fuzziness about who is labor and who is management, and whether they overlap or not. This is a culture in which the president of the union can be the HR manager, remember,  conflict is resolved through social dialog and the goal is harmony, not progress through class struggle. So a book that takes a management perspective will not automatically be viewed critically. Another reason is that critical thinking itself is not encouraged. Between Confucius and the Catholic church, this is an educational culture that does a lot of memorizing and regurgitation.

I mention this because, based on what happened yesterday, this may not be true in the new curriculum

The discussions in the office about this and other things related to the Top 100 project have been energetic, mostly focusing on whether a book can be used or not. We have not been talking about the overall purpose of the project. Overall, I have been looking at it skeptically and anxiously. It seems to me to have swept the whole place up into a whirl, overtaking other projects such as, for example, the cooperation agreement among the three labor universities.

I am also always deeply skeptical about these lists like a Top 100 list or a Top 10 or whatever. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” said Thoreau. This Top 100 project is requiring a lot of new clothes.

The worst case scenario would be that this project is basically a marketing strategy, something dreamed up to fund TDT since it is “autonomous,” meaning that while it has great freedom it also has to raise much of its own funding.


I am actually a Top 100 product

Unfortunately, my CV fits right in with the Top 100 project.

I really did graduate from Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, and I really did teach at Illinois for 11 years. Joe graduated from Iowa and has a PhD and taught at Illinois, so he looks good too. Speaking as a certified Top 100 example, my opinion is that TDTU would be better off focusing on what was good for Vietnamese students and Vietnam, and stop worrying about what they do at Cornell and Illinois. If trying to emulate a class at Illinois means copying the textbook onto power points and going chapter by chapter in a foreign language (English), then that’s not a good project.

Also, I have been up close in a lot of places that show up on these lists, and a lot of places that will never show up on any list. The top 100 may have a lot of resources (and football teams) but some of the best teaching I have ever seen is in community colleges.

The plot thickens, however.

The presentations on Wednesday Dec 23

Last Saturday just as we were getting on the train in Hanoi to ride down to HCMC when we got an email from Dean Hoa asking us to write two 2-page papers explaining teaching in Top 100 universities. We were supposed to make a list of the Top 100 institutions we had either graduated from or worked at on the first slide. We said OK, we can do this. He needed them by Tuesday. So we got started and by Monday had a draft. Then he said the deadline was 3 pm Tuesday so we wrapped it up and emailed it to him.

Dean Hoa looked at our papers and asked, several times, if we could focus more on teaching techniques – what do you do in the classroom in a Top 100 university? We resisted. Although we did describe many teaching techniques, we focused on the teaching environment – class size, office space, teacher load, and academic freedom, etc. We also wanted to push the presentation toward matching the teaching technique with the purpose of the class: For whom, by whom and for what purpose? Given how much we have seen about how teachers get monitored and –well, the right word is controlled, we did not want to create a checklist that would have been just another way to control young lecturers.

These papers were to be presented at a meeting of all the lecturers on Wednesday morning. The whole Board of Directors was supposed to be present. Our papers would be submitted to the conference organizer and they would decide if we would present. Ultimately, over the course of the next few months, every Faculty would present two papers.

We did a powerpoint and divided up the one 4-page paper into two and went to the meeting on Wednesday morning. It was in the big room in A Building where Philip Hazelton from the ILO spoke back in August. As usual, the foreigners – me and Joe, Leanna and Hollis – were ushered to the front rows. Each of us got an interpreter, me a young woman named Clover who was very good.

Then came four presentations, one after another, each 15 minutes long and fully set out with power points. One from micro economics, one from biology, one from math and one from engineering. All hard sciences (or at least aspirationally hard, if you include economics) using basically one textbook. Sometimes the same book was available in English and Vietnamese.

The presentations all focused on the challenges of teaching in English. I got a different sense of the Top 100 project after hearing these presentations.


Four presentations

The math teacher was from the Faculty of Mathematics and Probability. He had taught in Australia for 4 years, said that English language is the only way a student can get access to talk to the whole world and be part of creating new knowledge and information. When you translate an English academic word into Vietnamese, you can’t get close to the meaning. But students are shocked when they find themselves in an all-English class. It’s hard for a teacher to ask a question and hard for a student to ask one, too. One problem is that it’s hard to form a full sentence in a language that is not your native tongue. It is also hard to write an essay. There is a cultural problem: in Vietnam, students come to class and expect the teacher to talk all the time. When they talk, in order to show the teacher that they know, they will try to re-phrase something in Vietnamese but then they will lose the meaning.

The macroeconomics teacher was from the Business Administration Faculty. His course is required for all TDTU undergrads. He said that in the past, tests were all multiple choice. Now you will have to give homework, give problems that have a connection to reality (like the price of coffee), do sudden quizzes, have students work in groups, and write different kinds of tests. He explained the importance of the class monitor, who will help control the class. He said that it will be important to know the names of all the students, ask students to prepare the material before class, let students have discussions and show their opinions. Students will discuss in groups, choose a leader, the leader will come to the board and present. Do not make students ashamed of a wrong answer, he said. If students fall asleep, make a joke. Encourage self-study. An example of English vocabulary: “Total revenue, total cost.” In the first year of this class, the teacher should use simple words.

A young woman from the Faculty of Applied Sciences, who teaches Technical Biology, a lab course, had an English molecular biology textbook that got translated into Vietnamese, which she has used. She took syllabi from two Australian universities and combined them. She showed a power point with the triangle displaying the % of what people hear is remembered (10%) versus how much of what they do (90%). This was actually theory, and although she didn’t expand on it, it shaped what she does in class. She does a lot of e-learning, gives students work and tests to do at home, and presented the virtual lab that is part of the e-learning.

A man who I am told is the Dean of Civil Engineering Faculty says he will speak generally. He divides things up into challenges, requirements and solutions. The challenges are mostly around English. His solutions are that teachers must be flexible, students must self-study and attend classes. There should be a lot of field trips, to real factories and other places. They should invite more professors from top 100 universities, but the problem is salary.

These four presentations were interspersed with comments from the Assistant to the President, an attractive dynamic woman of a certain age who is also a Vice President. She exhorted the lecturers to upgrade themselves, learn English and get Phds. She warned them that the University was recruiting in Taiwan and that they could be replaced. Vinh translated this for Joe this way and he is convinced this is what he heard.

There were questions. One was, “Should our power points be in English or Vietnamese?” Another was, “How many students will be in a class?” The AP/VP responded that the lowest would be 38, the highest 78. “In other countries,” someone asked, “the class has two parts, the lecture and the tutorial. How about having a tutor if the class is so big? AP: “I will ask the President.” For space to meet, she suggested the lobbies and terraces, which are certainly used for meeting space. Someone else asked about making sure that there is wifi in every room.

There was only time for a few questions but my sense was that there was a real desire to discuss things in the room.

There will be a problem, the AP/VP acknowledged, with students who cannot handle the English and will not be able to graduate. One lecturer said that he speaks in English but writes in Vietnamese, and when he asks if the students understand, a high number say yes.

Joe and I were asked to comment but since we had been expecting to make a 15-minute presentation, I didn’t want to re-structure it to fit into a comment. So I said no. Leanna commented, and gave a very well expressed complimentary statement about her faith that the faculty of TDTU would do a great job, TDTU would become one of the Top 100 and Vietnam had a proud future. This was very appropriate and appreciated, but it’s not the kind of thing that comes naturally to me.

I was thinking that what I had just seen was, on the one hand, a lot like a good professional development day at a community college, of which I have been to many and run some. Serious people trying to do a good job despite hurdles that have been set up outside of their control. People who love teaching, too. It was also nothing like what would happen at a Top 100 university – and this was good. When did you last see tenured professors getting together talking about facing challenges collectively?

But the main thing on my mind was that listening to four presentations boom-boom-boom was like listening to the student presentations in class. A cascade of data. Now what? Time to get out Kolb’s learning cycle and see what categories to drop this data into. How were they different? How were they the same? What was missing? I would have loved to hear the faculty consider these questions. The most urgent question, quite rightly, is how to deal with teaching in English if your own English pronunciation (especially) is not great and your students’ English is even worse? Making a list of ideas that these faculty had just for that would be a good idea.

But what about our presentation?

We had been asked to write about teaching at Top 100 universities, so Joe and I took this literally. Of course, most of the difference is resources, combined with having incredibly well-prepared students. But that aside, what is teaching like at Top 100 universities? I thought about my professors at Harvard ages ago, Wallace Stegner et al at Stanford, the faculty at UCB in the Environmental Design School and in the School of Education only 18 years ago. Joe thought about Grinnell, where there was a top-quality focus on teaching, and Iowa and Illinois. So we have a lot of experience to think about, plus our many years in the real teaching colleges, community colleges, and my dissertation which was actually on teaching in the community colleges and based on that huge NCRVE survey done by Norton Grubb and the rest of us. (I gave my copy of that book to Vinh.)

Here are some short cuts from our paper:

David Larabbee from Michigan State explained in 1997 that there are three ways to define the purpose of an education system in the US. These three approaches compete. First is “democratic equality” which means preparing citizens for active participation in society. Second is “social efficiency” which means training workers and takes the employer’s point of view. Third is “social mobility” which means education for individual social mobility and the maintenance of a ruling class. This creates an education market in which individuals compete to buy and institutions compete to sell education.

Fans of Larabbee will note that I’ve changed his language a bit, but never mind.

In the last 20 years in the US, the third purpose has become dominant. Each purpose has sub-categories: credentialism, where the degree, worthless or respected, is all that matters; membership, belonging to a peer group and the networks of influence that spring from it, and finally, actual learning and knowledge.

We also say:

Teaching techniques that are effective and empowering for teachers and students could be shared and adapted. Others, that reproduce the ideology of US elitism, whether through assigned course content, framing, perspective or actual teaching practices, should be approached critically and contextualized.  

We then go on to talk about academic freedom, general education requirements, critical thinking, and on down into teaching methods and class size. Copies of this are available of course if you want it.

And we talk about the downside of elite education:

  1. The peer group and membership values of elite education can be obtained for the purpose of maintaining class position or upward individual mobility without much actual learning taking place.

2. Since Top 100 education is only accessible to a few students, and they are disproportionally wealthy, this often creates a situation where students (and their parents) can look down on their much less wealthy and powerful teachers.

3. There is a potential for various forms of corruption when the social mobility value of an elite degree becomes very high. This can range from grade inflation, where many students get high grades and no one fails, to actual selling of places.

So it’s probably not entirely surprising that our paper was not “chosen” to be presented. Our paper was directed at this event as we had understood the Top 100 project through our work with choosing textbooks. Once I saw the teachers seriously trying to figure out how to teach in spite of the hurdles they face, I wanted to tone down the criticism in our papers, to at least leave the possibility open that they would find a way to become a world-class university and still do good teaching that is appropriate for Vietnam. However, our descriptions and criticisms of elite education are still true. They just don’t apply to what will probably happen here – unless TDTU really DOES become a Top 100 university! I hope it does not. Instead, I hope it becomes a place where real developments in teaching content across languages are invented.

When we got back to the office Vinh said that she viewed the challenge of the Top 100 project as an opportunity for all the lecturers, herself included, to learn things and “improve ourselves.”  She seemed happy about it. She has an enormous amount of energy. Sometimes these Vietnamese people work so hard it’s scary. That was my first impression, way back when I first met her and Dean Hoa on Skype.  As I mentioned above, I gave her my copy of Norton’s book, Honored but Invisible, about teaching in community colleges, that has two chapters based on my dissertation.

However, my  bet is that  a reason that the presentations were from math, molecular biology, engineering etc was because that opened the fewest doors to political issues. Also, I’ll bet that the other presenters had more than three days’ warning that this event would take place.

Vietnamese roots

This picture is of a bonsai at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, showing what roots look like if you like roots. The Vietnamese like roots. The Temple of Literature was founded in about 1,000 AD and it was actually a university. The diplomas and key declarations of the scholars who came to join it are all carved in stone placed in rows on the backs of turtles:

turtles R

And here’s what they look like:

Stele text


These people are serious about education. If memorization doesn’t work, they’ll try something else.

And in case you forget, around the corner (in Hanoi) is the Citadel, and here is a small building you might overlook if you didn’t know it was made of bombproof steel plates, had a deep bunker underneath it, and was the military headquarters during the American war.  You can just barely see a meeting room inside with a table. There is a name plate for General Giap and another for Le Duan.







Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Top 100, Elite and Good

  1. Very good!

    Your comment on where the best teaching happens is right. The best teaching happens often not at top 100 universities which are mostly focused upon research, PhD production, and money making. The best teaching, especially to those who need to be taught (as opposed to those so privileged in their lives that they will get a good education at this point no matter what happens to them after the age of 18, which are most of those enrolled in top 100 universities anyway), is in community colleges, liberal arts colleges and some comprehensive (MA) universities.


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