helenaworthen

An American woman of the Viet Nam War generation goes to Viet Nam 40 years later to teach and learn

Cho Lon and Last Days — January 31, 2016

Cho Lon and Last Days

An on bus to Cho LonAn on bus #86

It turns out that the Ben Thanh market, which I found overwhelming, is not the real market. It is the market for tourists.

The real market is Cho Lon, which means “big market.” You go into HCMC on the 86 and get off at the Ben Thanh market stop, Then you change to the 01, which goes west about 11 K into District 3 and ends at a big bus station near Cho Lon.

Cho Lon buses

There were maybe 20 buses in this lot. Most of the buses are fairly new and air conditioned, and full.

Vy and An took us there Friday morning. We met An at the 86 bus stop at 7:30 am and rode in, and met Vy who had come on her motorbike at the Ben Thanh stop. The yellow tower in the rear, behind Vy, is the entrance to the Cho Lon Market.

Vy near Cho Lon

Cho Lon was a separate city, the city where the Hoa (Chinese) people lived. They fought on the side of the Nguyen lords against the Tay Son in the 1770s and the place was burned in retaliation. During the American War, this was a center for deserters and apparently a big trade in contraband American war materials took place here. During the 1968 Tet offensive it was a staging area for NLF and North Vietnamese fighting units. House-to-house combat took place in the area.  It is still very Chinese; you see a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese in the  market itself.

Interior of Mkt_1

The market itself is so huge that it’s impossible to give any sense of it through photographs. The goods are not tourist goods; they are commodities like cooking equipment, bolts of cloth, tools, pepper, shoes, candy, fish, vegetables, hats, baskets, flowers, crabs. If you can carry it on a motorbike, you can sell it here. You could have a life in this market; it’s a microcosm of the world. You could be a second or third generation stall-operator. Trade itself would become an art in a place like this. If you wanted to really study how a market works, this would be the place to come. Maybe this is market that people have in mind when they talk  with excitement about the Viet Nam economy transitioning into a market economy. If you could imagine that the global economy was one vast market like Cho Lon, densely woven with relationships and neighbors exchanging things, then I can see where the enthusiasm might come from. The invisible hand is not very invisible here, when you’ve got ten stalls selling pomelos one after the other.

In the center of the market is a courtyard with a small temple with topiary dragons, an altar, and some big concrete dragons spitting water into a fountain. It is in honor of the man who founded the market in 1929.

One way this market differs from the Ben Thanh market: the WC. At Ben Thanh, you pay 3,000 D and go into an air conditioned space with cubicles, toilet and toilet paper and actual classical violin music being played. At Cho Lon, the women’s room consists of a long room with doors. Presumably, behnd the doors are squat toilets (holes) but people who only want to piss don’t bother. They just squat down in the common space and piss on the floor. When I went in at first I didn’t realize what people were doing — all these women squatting? But then I got it. Afterwards, you just take a bucket of water and slosh it on the floor. You have to all slosh in the same direction, though.

Nearby is the Quan Am temple. Throughout the temple are these pediments filled with small ceramic depictions of stories and characters from history. Hundreds of tiny figures all doing things, talking to each other, walking around.

Quan Am temple

Devils on pediment

The tourists in this temple are mostly Chinese.

An then goes off to work. She’ll work 8 hours today, on top of guiding us through Cho Lon. She will be doing an internship this spring at the garment company where Vy’s father is now a supervisor. Vy will be there, too. An will work at her job at the furniture store and then work 3 days a week at her internship. These internships are part of the regular curriculum; students write a report. They have a faculty person to work on their reports with them. Vinh doesn’t know yet if she will be An or Vy’s advisor yet.

Two more days in HCMC, then up to Hanoi, a few side trips, and then home.

How will we stay in touch with Vy and An? Vy has said she will send me things she has written. An has accepted some books; we have tried to give English books to other students, but they say “It is too heavy.” Even Dang, who did all that translation. But An has accepted some books.

Monday morning: Dean Hoa comes by at 8:30 am on his motor bike to say goodbye. He hopes his English will be good enough when we come back so that he can translate in our classes. Last night, at a huge meeting, the President told the teachers that they could get time off with pay to learn English. Afterwards there was a banquet with long tables of great food. The President came by our table with Mr. Tung, Dang Ngoc Tung, the President of the VCGL, so I shook hands with him for the first and only time in this 6 months.

An came a minute later and helped load the taxi.

Dean Hoa and An help load taxi.jpg

 

Gofor it

 

Then she rode behind our taxi all the way to the airport where she met Vy and they made sure we went and got in the right line.

An and Vy at airport

…………

Star Wars at Vivo City IMAX — January 28, 2016

Star Wars at Vivo City IMAX

An, Vy, Joe STWg

 

We told An and Vy that we wanted to see Star Wars. They weren’t sure that we were serious. However, they looked up where it was playing and it turned out that it was at an IMAX theater a 10 minute walk from TDTU, at Vivo City, a fancy new enclosed shopping mall, and that there were discount tickets on sale (190,000 D, which is about $8.50). So we met An at the bus stop at 5 pm on Monday and walked just about around the corner to meet Vy, who had bought bottles of water for us and was waiting. I had no idea Vivo City was so close, but you can get to it by crossing the bottom of Le Vuong Street where they are creating new sidewalks and a driveway so that people can come to Vivo City on motorbikes. Previously, Joe and I walked to Vivo City by going all the way down to Van Linh Street and walking along a very dirty, traffick-y area where there are no sidewalks, or at least no sidewalks not filled with motorbikes and machinery repair equipment. You turn around once, here, and they’ve build a new street and started a new apartment building.

 

Of course I envisioned long lines of excited patrons. Instead, there were 8 people in the huge theater, two of them a young “foreigner” couple. The movie has been out since early December, said Vy.

Once it started I had misgivings. It was all about rockets and things blowing up and spaceships zooming around going rat-tat-tat or crashing. I thought, here I am, disapproving in my heart of the militaristic, nationalistic demonstrations that wake us up at 7 am with loud music in the soccer stadium, and now I take two young Vietnamese women to watch a movie in which nothing happens but bang-bang and chasing and shooting and crashing! Of course, as an American, I can look at expressions of Vietnamese patriotic behavior with a different eye because I am not Vietnamese. It can be right for them even if it is wrong for me. Or so I say! But then I say,”Let’s go see Star Wars!” and suddenly we’re sitting watching a crowd of desert-dwelling scavengers get mowed down by storm troopers with automatic weapons, which is supposed to be fun, while we eat popcorn? What’s going on here?

I asked Vy and An if they were OK and they said yes.

Then I got swept up in the movie. The music was the same music! It was as if I had never heard it before, yet I can remember putting an LP on the record player while Gabi and Katy played Princess Leia the Librarian. And the stars – meaning the things in the sky, not the actors – were the same, the huge basic dark screen full of little white dots, kind of low-tech for what gets done now, except that this time they were in 3-D. And there’s a knock and here come Han Solo and Chewbacca!! Where did they come from? You mean that piece of garbage is the Millennium Falcon? Of course! By then I was totally into it. They really got Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to come back and play their roles; amazing. All those people are still alive — wonderful! And that really is Luke Skywalker! I believe it! The girl holds out the light saber to him; will he take it?

It was like 40 years ago, but better.

Such an American movie, with all the rockets and things blowing up, and great symphonic music behind it all.

At the end, Joe, Vy and An were walking out during the credits and I just wanted to sit there.

They did say they enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that they really got it. Maybe you had to be there.

I am glad I saw it here, not back in the US. Back in the US, I would have felt that it was a completely incommensurable experience. I would have felt it was hopeless to try to explain. But An said she watched the trailer and understood the story, so it was at least partly commensurable.

The flow of information — January 26, 2016

The flow of information

TPP seminar

Setting up for the TPP Seminar on January 14; Kent Wong’s delegation on the right

I feel as if I am in a country that is like a box that is changing shape all the time. The walls are not at right angles to each other. Also, first something is a wall, then I walk through it and it wasn’t a wall. At first something was a rule, then it’s not a rule. A lot of the problem comes from not speaking Vietnamese, of course, but people who speak English with us also talk about rules and freedom, particularly in education. First there are a lot of rules, then there aren’t. Or there are rules here but not over there.

Of course, the rules really are changing. The 2012 Labor Code replaced the 2004 Code which replaced the 1996 Code, and the 2012 Code is still being worked on, as is the Law of Trade Unions. Ton Duc Thang “aspires” to be among the Top 100, or at least emulate them, so the curriculum is undergoing a complete revision. Over beyond Building C the new library is rising; it was a hole in the ground when we got here, and now it is a tower. Across the canal the land reclamation that I thought was going to be apartment buildings is now surrounded by a fine brick fence which will enclose a new private university.

First we thought that our presentation on teaching methods had been rejected because it talked about the necessary conditions for good teaching that do not exist at TDTU (small classes, academic freedom, etc). It was also critical of “elite” education in the US, the sky-high priced universities that are skimming off the top of the market for prestigious degrees.  To the extent that the “Top 100” program attempts to be an ASEAN version of this, we implied criticisms of it. When our presentation was rescheduled Dean Hoa told us to write a second version, just focusing on teaching, not on elite universities. Upon Vinh’s advice, I think, he then asked for a third version about the Student Research Projects. Over the weekend I worked on that while Joe finished up the minimum wage report project and sent it off. The women in the Accounting Faculty, where we have been going on Thursdays to speak English, said I should wear my ao dai so I did.

In the elevator going up to the room (A-401) this morning we agreed that we figured there was a 25% change that our presentation would be cancelled. But it wasn’t. We were first. They let us take more than the 15 minutes we were first given, and then there was a whole lot of comment afterwards and some very free and interesting discussion following the presentations of the other two lecturers, one from IT and one from math.

From rear of room

I wrote the presentation out in short sentences to put up as a Powerpoint on the screen, to make it more accessible to people for whom my English was going to be a barrier. We were asked to list our degrees on the first slide, as part of establishing our credibility as people familiar with “top” US educational practices. But from then on, it was pretty loose, in the sense of just saying what we thought was the case. During the discussion I even pointed out that they have a union and could conceivably bargain working conditions, such as class size, workload and private offices for confidential discussions with students. I’m not sure that was actually heard by anyone.

Lecturers at Jn26

Afterwards, the lecturers who had not already left grouped together for a photo.

In other words, that was a box that changed shape while I as in it. Here are some other things that look and feel like walls, or veils, and sometimes turn out to be something different.

The Moral Philosophy Curriculum

When Joe was preparing our students their Student Workplace Research Projects he realized that he had hit a bare spot. No one seemed to have any sense of what “social science research” meant. We wrote some handouts, but at the same time we decided to try to find out what prior exposure to social sciences they might have had. History? Philosophy? Psychology? Sociology? Political-economy?

We were assured that they studied all of these, all the way through high school and during the first years of college. Twelve percent of the curriculum was devoted to these. This was a requirement, a government requirement from the Ministry of Education and Training. We asked what subjects they studied. Overall, in college it’s called “moral philosophy,” which means Marxism-Leninism, Ho Chi Minh Thought, and Viet Nam history. It has different titles in high school, but it’s basically the same material from the same perspective and same methods.

We asked various colleagues and friends if they remembered studying social sciences in high school and college. Without a single exception, their response was a laugh. Sometimes a big loud laugh, sometimes just an embarrassed snort. “I slept through it!” “It was so boring!” “The teachers are old.” The classes are “school-headed,” meaning your head gets stuffed with the teacher’s words. “It was worthless.” Even the VGCL staffer sitting next to me at a dinner up in Hanoi responded with an involuntary smirk.

Joe pursued the question of “moral philosophy” so thoroughly that as a present at a going-away party for Leanna and Hollis, Vinh gave him a copy of the book, Ho Chi Minh Thought on the Military. It’s all mottos and slogans, and stuff like this:

Just after the foundation of the regular armed forces, Ho Chi Minh gave orders to engage in the first battle. Executing his instructions, the Vietnamese Brigade for Propaganda and Liberation won the battle of Phay Khat and Na Ngan, thus affirming the fair tradition of our army, “The first battle must be won.” (p 125)

The direct quotes from Uncle Ho are the best thing, even if often out of any useful context, but they are short and infrequent. Is this intentional? Would someone intentionally try to make Marxism boring?

One faculty member from another university told us that in graduate school, students writing a dissertation have to have a first chapter in which they acknowledge Marxism as the complete theory that covers everything. They show how their own work derives from Marxism. Then they can get on with their writing. This is true in every subject. Another colleague who teaches at a private foreign for-profit university says that one reason students enroll at her university is so that they can escape this requirement. I remember with amusement that I was told, at Berkeley, that I could reference Marx only once, no more, in my dissertation.

The reason this matters to me is because without a living Marxism, these kids are not going to be able to understand the capitalism which is rolling down on them like a truck. For US leftists, Marx and the whole broad tradition of Marxist scholarship, from Harry Braverman to Monthly Review, is what enables us to figure out what is going on around us. It’s the screwdriver that gets the locked door off its hinges. Many of us had to fight to get schooled in a bit a Marxism, or we learing it in the context of the various movements, not in classes, where it was mostly verboten. Here, Marxism has been turned into a glorious corpse. Actually Ho Chi Minh himself, who asked that his body be cremated and put in a simple urn, got embalmed instead and lies in state in a giant mausoleum in Hanoi.

We asked one senior colleague (at a different university and with a Western PhD) whether there is any discussion going on to develop a new curriculum to replace the Moral Philosophy curriculum that seems to have such a deadly effect. She replied that to do that, the Communist Party Central Committee – which she called the equivalent of Parliament or Congress — would have to pass a new law. New laws are popping up all the time, however. How about within the Party Central Committee – is there any discussion? What are people saying? Who is saying what?

Her answer went beyond “No, no discussion.” The question itself seemed incomprehensible. The idea of a discussion as a necessary step on the way to making an informed collective leadership decision seemed unfamiliar. I will come back to this. Also, she seemed to think it incomprehensible that an academic specialist in education, like herself, could be part of, or even aware of, such a discussion going on.

We heard about a 2009 seminar that took place in Hanoi, organized by Monthly Review, the leftist US journal of independent socialist thought. Some of their best contributors and editors were there:  John Bellamy Foster, Samir Amin, John Mage, Marta Harnecker, Michael Lebowitz, Jayati Ghosh, Bill Fletcher and Biju Mathew and others. They presented papers in English and Vietnamese and some papers were supposed to be published, but that didn’t happen. The person we heard about this from said that most of the Vietnamese academics did not agree with the Monthly Review perspective. Some of the participants from the military agreed, as did some of the civilian participants. We were told by the person who attended that there is a discussion — at least, disagreement –   within the party on “whether the emergent capitalist social relations are to be resisted and restrained, or are transitional and necessary and to be for the time encouraged, or are a necessary and inevitable part of a permanent model.”

Why this is relevant to labor education in Viet Nam

A more immediate concern, and this is related to the Student Research Project, is that if the VGCL is going to train a whole new generation of organizers, they will need to have a foundation in Vietnamese history. They will need to be able to go into a workplace, a village, an enterprise zone or fast food outlet and do some social science research, also known as figuring out what they’re looking at. They will need to know what questions to ask, how to discern the tensions and the direction things are moving or could move, and where the contradictions lie that can shake the whole arrangement. Dogma will paralyze them. They really need the dialectic and historical materialism and Marxist analysis to know where to start to look at things and what questions to ask.

The Ministry of Education and Training — a socialist urban legend? 

A colleague who taught in Canada, said of teaching at another, private, for-profit university “We do not have academic freedom here.” This is true of the for-profits in the US too, as Joe can attest, but the image of “real” higher education in the US is that faculty have academic freedom. Even contingents, who can be fired easily, believe that they have it and will defend it passionately.

Enforcing the rules that fence in academic freedom appears to be the job of the  Ministry of Education and Training.  We have been told that it also oversees the production of everything that gets written, published and of course taught in Viet Nam in public institutions. Some people we talked with are convinced that someone is sitting in an office somewhere, reading and marking up every sentence that gets published in the whole country, anywyere. Of course, they would read a new Moral Philosophy textbook. There are, actually, some really huge government offices. In Da Lat there are some fat white towers on a hillside that must have thousands of offices in them. In Hanoi, the same except these are old gray buildings.

Is this actually true? Or is this an urban legend of socialist countries? If a legend is sufficiently credible, it has the same level of impact as a reality, in the sense that people will self-police in the belief that they are being surveilled and that certain behaviors are risky.

We are told that MET has a presence at TDTU. Here, it is called the Department of Evaluation. Some people refer to it as “Department of Control.” Apparently the people who occupy the Department of Evaluation are not actually employed by the University. They are not academics but they have a lot to do. They are the ones who critique and edit your exams, sign off on them, grade them (or at least spot check them) and then archive the grades (but don’t tell the teachers the results).

They also supervise. This is the term used by our friend who speaks very good English who says it is the correct term. They sit at desks in the hallway, wearing purple shirts, and observe people walking along. They have stacks of blue notebooks, one for each class. After each class, the teacher or the class monitor records the attendance, which always comes out “right”, or at least not too bad, on paper. There is also a box where the teacher writes what was taught (in our case, in English) and then another where we sign our initials.

“We are under control,” one of our colleagues said.

The supervisors patrol the corridors and look through the glass windows to see what is going on. Apparently they can tell by looking if you are using the right methodology. If a girl is not wearing her ao dai on a Monday or a Thursday, or a boy is not wearing a white shirt and black pants, they will pull the kid out of class. However, in fact, girls wear all kinds of overshirts and hoodies on ao dai day, and boys bleach their hair red (and a few actually wear make-up, which is startling but attractive), and so far, I have not seen anyone pulled out of class.

Are there undercover police around? 

Some people also talk about the police. Since we have seen many relaxed young men wearing different colored uniforms, walking around in parks or guarding embassies, but no one with a gun, we asked how you could tell.  Do they wear uniforms? “They wear ordinary clothes,” we were told.

In the US, we also talk about gangsters, provocateurs, spies, etc. They are real, too. At a demonstration, the person urging violence or vandalism is likely to be an undercover cop of some sort.

A journalist for the English language press here in Viet Nam asserted, in an article on labor, that a labor activist went to jail. We emailed her and asked her for her source. The source she provided was as vague as her own article. We then asked if she knew anyone we would talk to. She wrote, “You mean labor activists?” Yes. She said she didn’t know any labor activists, only corporate lawyers. Corporate lawyers would not have a problem with labor activists going to  jail, but that doesn’t mean it happened — at least not that particular time. Maybe other times, who knows?

Discussion at the TPP SEminar on January 14

The TPP paper that I wrote and that Joe, Hollis and Leanna amended and signed onto apparently travelled far enough to prompt a seminar at TDTU on January 14. The idea was to engage the Cornell students, our students, Kent Wong’s delegation, our faculty and other persons who might have something to say in a discussion about the impact of TPP on labor and trade unions. Invitations were sent out. It was set for the day after we came back from Hanoi. Dean Hoa wanted papers; I argued that what was needed was a free discussion. What would happen with TPP was as yet up in the air, no one knew what the impact would be, let’s get some people with different perspectives in the room together and have a discussion and see if we can figure out what’s going on.

A fine seminar room with an oblong table and ranks of soft chairs and desks in Building A was reserved. Food was laid out on the terrace. The Cornell students, our TDTU students in full ao dai and white shirts, Kent’s full delegation and a few others came, including the Dean, Dr Ut from the Research Group, a University VP, a man from the VGCL who had accompanied us up in Hanoi, Vinh and Yen, from the ILO. Kent Wong, Richard Barrera from LA, Joe and I all made presentations. We took too long but that wasn’t the point. A worse mistake was that we failed to stop and make sure there was translation throughout, so our students were pretty much in the dark (later they told me they got some of it.) But that isn’t my point either.  When it was time for discussion, the US people had all talked plenty. Then we turned to the Vietnamese people to speak. Dean Hoa asked some questions about organizing, but no one spoke about TPP. Discussion simply did not happen.

Afterwards, I asked two of the Vietnamese – separately – why they didn’t say anything. They both told, me, “I was there as an observer. I was not authorized to speak.”

I was angry enough to say, “We did not invite any observers. We invited participants.”

So Dean Hoa was right to be puzzled by my insistence on discussion.

TPP Emil 1

Emil Guzman took this. Dean Hoa on my left, speaking. 

By late that afternoon, Joe and I had the flu so we missed joining Kent’s delegation when they had their last dinner together, Friday night. However, Vinh went. She said that the end of the meal, Kent called everyone together and had them each tell what they had learned on this trip. Everyone went around the circle and talked. When it came to the VGCL guy, he said he had never seen anything like this. At the end of their dinners, he said, they don’t talk; everyone just gets drunk.

Nonetheless, this morning, January 26, when we gave our report on all the teaching methods we used to generate the student reports (there are a couple of blog posts on that, back in December), there were plenty of questions and comments and the room, which had at least 100 lecturers in it, seemed full of energy, both about our topic and about the two topics that followed. To hear a math teacher and an IT teacher accuse each other of being boring or scary, and then see them defend themselves in a lively, spirited way, was exciting. People seemed happy about the whole experience.  In fact, it seemed like  a very normal interaction among teachers, talking about how they do what they do, but with even a certain stronger tone of cheery critique.

We are told that they plan to do a seminar like this every month. Teachers will share how they teach their subjects. Seems like a great idea to me!

 

 

 

Thanks for traveling with us — January 23, 2016

Thanks for traveling with us

H ferry Mek

Joe took this on one of the first of ten or twenty tiny ferries that carried us back and forth among these islands. I was very proud to have been able to ride over 35 K that first day. The vegetation on the island behind me looks like jungle, but in fact it’s full of houses linked along a cement path about 4 feet wide that also serves as a dike. 

The Mekong Delta is huge, full of islands that rise at most 8 feet above the water, and both densely populated like a city and intensively gardened, all sharing the same space. It is not only the vegetation, orchards, chickens and fish that are form the ecosystem; human beings are part of it too, as in the catfish toilet system. Not far away, people bury their ancestors and raise tombs in the rice paddies. So it goes all the way up and down the food chain. Once you start thinking of humans as part of the plant-animal food circle, things look different.

I will tell the story of this trip in two ways, simultaneously. One accompanies the photos, the other is our response to the message from the bike travel company. This is to show how something can be both great and awful at the same time.

Dear Ms Helena,

We are very sorry to hear that the bike’s break didn’t work and the second one was too big for you, it made you feel not comfortable. And now, we decided to refund some money for you, are you happy with that?

I am so sorry again.

XXXX

Dear Bicycle Mekong Travel (not their real name):

Thanks for contacting us. We have some suggestions.

The 3 day Mekong Delta trip is wonderful, a great route through a unique landscape, with good food and good places to stay.

Homestay dining room

This is the dining space at the homestay (which is like a B&B) where we stayed the first night.

The numerous ferry rides were beautiful.

Little Ferry

The van and driver were good and the many visits were fascinating.  Our guide Hong was pleasant, energetic and knowledgable and did her very best to handle a group of 4 riders, two young active ones and two older, slower and more hesitant ones. That meant that she had to go at a slow speed to keep us all together, and because there were so many turns, the younger ones had to stick beside her instead of riding away full speed. Because of the hard tiny seat on my bike, my butt was in real pain and she loaned me her bike pants.

HOng and Mr Six

This is Hong, our guide, and Mr. Six (meaning 6th child) who, with his wife, operates a restaurant along the path on one of the islands. The group behind them is Polish. We ate in a gazebo over behind me. We were served what by now seems like the usual array of visually stunning dishes, including a crisp fish standing up on a fin as if it was still alive. 

All the bikes had tiny hard seats, by the way, not suitable for touring for most people.  I know that the website suggests that people bring their own bike seats, but that’s not realistic in many cases.

Our suggestions follow.

First, since both my husband and I had had the flu just before the trip, we emailed you four days before to confirm the availability of support. We did not hear anything back. We checked the website and saw that the ride would be fully sagged with the A/C van and that motorcycles would be available for pick up if we decided we had had enough. Based on this, we decided not to cancel. However, that information about constant sag support on your website is not actually true. You need to make sure that the information on your website is accurate, because people like us will check it and base our expectations on it. This is really false advertising and a safety issue as well.

Monk and garments

This is where we had lunch the second day. The woman in green is the monk’s sister. She cooked the best chicken curry I have ever eaten. The coconut milk had probably in up in a tree that very morning. The man with the shaved head owns the house; he is a monk, and he has built a little temple nearby which has statues and images in it, as well as a toilet. He gives people advice at the temple. He also carries garments from a small local factory to the market, on his motorbike. The woman and her child in the back are going through the clothes to find some new things for Tet. They are probably Khmer; there is a Khmer village nearby. The bike tour company has invested in the monk’s house on condition that he serve lunch to riders from their company only. He gave me the most amazing backrub I have ever had. It made it possible for me to get back on my bike and go another 20 K. 

Incidentally, in previous bike tours that we have gone on, the vendor sends out a health/experience questionnaire in advance asking the ages, experience and condition of the riders. You did not do that, so Hong could not know that she was going to have to balance two 24-year olds with a 67-year old and a 72-year old. This is just a basic precaution, protecting both participants and vendors.

The bikes we were provided with at first were a problem in several ways. My first bike had no front brake and the gears would not shift. Only one of the bikes had racks, so people had to carry their packs and water on their backs. Joe was told that you had bikes that would fit him, and explained how tall he is. You said you had such a bike. The bike he was provided with was standard size, the same as mine. The seat could not be raised high enough and the front stem/handlebar set could not be raised at all. When we were provided with different bikes on the second day (also identical sizes for both of us), they were huge, heavy bikes with shocks, suitable for carrying at 250-pounder down a mountain or on a beach, but lousy for navigating tiny bridges or high narrow dikes facing motorbike traffic. Because of their shock system, the steering has a lot of inertia which makes it hard to get around narrow corners.  Both of use were contorted over to reach the handlebars, causing great pain in the necks and shoulders. We stopped riding on Day 3 largely because of these bikes.

Sewing machine woman

This woman is one of a set of neighbors (a hamlet?) along the dike path through a durian orchard. A durian is a fruit that has such a strong smell that you can’t take it through the airport; there are signs that say “No Durian.” The smell is either paradisical or nauseating, depending on who you are. The fruits are huge like basketballs, ellipsoid and covered with thorns. It’s hard to imagine what animal could get into them unless it was a tiger, with claws. The meat of the fruit is yellow and the substance that encases the seeds is what people either love or hate. I will decline to describe it. This woman opened one of these fruits for us and gave us some ice tea. Using the sewing machine behind her, she sews shopping bags, the kind we think of as recyclable.

We were expecting to ride the Specialized bike shown on your website, by the way.

Another suggestion: at the beginning of the ride, every rider should be provided with a paper map, at least a general map.  I have never been on a ride where this was not part of the basic orientation at the beginning of the trip.  I know there are no maps of all the tiny village roads on those islands, but some kind of general indication would help, with names of villages, for example, so that people have a general idea of how long the sections are and what direction we are headed in. The paper should have the guide’s phone number and the name and phone number of the hotel, homestay or factories so that in the worst case, you can just dump the bike and call a taxi. Lacking any kind of information about where we were going, we had to keep in eye contact with our guide and the other riders at all times, since we cannot either speak nor read Vietnamese. This was I’m sure stressful for her as well as for us. It also means that as you’re riding, you’re mainly looking ahead at the guide’s back, not around you at the scenery. Because there are so many little bridges and corners, losing her for a few minutes can mean everyone had to backtrack.

The bikes did not have odometers, and I don’t think the guide’s bike did either. This would have helped because then she would have been able to say, “It’s 5 K before the ferry,” which would enable participants to pace ourselves.

I am aware that we brought some physical problems (age, flu, size) to the experience that are not your fault. However, you should have been sure to find out about them (at least by replying to Joe’s email). Most bike tours do this as a matter of course, along with asking you for your next of kin contact information and any medical problems.

Can Tho floating mktThe Can Tho Floating Market

In the mornings starting early boats begin to gather a few miles downstream from our hotel. A boat owner will hang what he is selling from a pole on his boat. Boats are piled with fruit and vegetables and greens. Restaurants and hotels shop here. We puttered among them in our small ferry. There are many more boats than show in the picture; they are spread out all across the river. 

Finally, there was one part of the ride that was actually dangerous. Partly because I took a long time to rest after lunch and was given a wonderful back rub by the host, we did not leave our lunch on the second day until later than I’m sure Hong expected. This meant that when we got off the ferry into Can Tho, it was already dark. The van, for some reason, was not there to pick us up. Instead, we had to wander through the city to find the hotel. Traffic was heavy and we had to go down big streets, sometimes crossing through roundabouts. I don’t know how far we went like this. The hotel was not near the ferry, that’s all I can tell you!  Neither Joe nor I had ever ridden a motorbike, much less a bicycle, in Vietnam urban traffic, though we are both experienced cyclists who do not even own a car back in CA, USA. What’s more, our bikes did not  have lights. This meant that five unlit cyclists, at the end of a long day, were trying to find our way and stay together in the midst of rush hour traffic.

I salute Hong for not trying to have us ride the Can Tho Bridge at sundown after a long day when we were tired. It is not only very long (2.75 K) it is high, very high, and has two humps. When we drove back over it in the van going north the next day I did not see any bicycles on it, only cars and motorbikes. I would have had to walk up the hump. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%E1%BA%A7n_Th%C6%A1_Bridge

I guess I can sum up here: all bikes need to be appropriate — hybrids, for example, not heavy beach bikes. They need racks and odometers, if possible. They need lights. If you can’t leave a light on a bike in the daytime, they let riders carry them in their packs. And do not tell someone that you have their size bike when you don’t.

Hong is a wonderful guide. She is competent and strong and knows how to relate to people, even they are old and cranky and a little scared. But she needs the full support of the company — good equipment, prompt and responsive sag arrangements, a truthful website, paper handouts to give to participants when the ride starts.

Don’t worry about refunding money. It was a wonderful experience. We were just lucky that no one got hurt. Spend the money on updating your website to accurately reflect what you can do.

Helena

Joe and Lt

The second day was over 40 K and so on the third day, I decided I didn’t want to ride and persuaded Joe not to either. The bikes were too uncomfortable. Instead, the van drove us ahead to a place we were told was a chocolate factory. Since I have posted my letter of complaint already, I will now exit the two-story mode and tell this part of the story in regular non-italicized text.

The man with Joe in the photo above is the chocolatier. His family has lived on this piece of land on this island for generations. He is 67, the same age as Joe. HIs father, who worked for the French as an agriculturalist, went to Malaysia in 1960 and came back with 300 cacao beans. At that time, no one was growing chocolate in the Mekong. He told his son to plant the seeds and make chocolate. So they planted the seeds. When he was 16 he was in high school and the war started. The islands were villagers by day, VC by night. His family would get in a boat and go onto the river and hide somewhere, up a canal, to get away from their house at night. You could hear the shooting all the time. When he was 18 and the CIA murdered Diem and installed Thieu, all the young Vietnamese had to join the South Viet Namese army, the ARVN. He was chosen for training and sent to the US, to Texas, to learn to fly helicopters. He was also trained to maintain jet engines. He learned his English there, over the course of 2 years. Then he came back and co-piloted helicopters, both armed and troop carriers. It was a very dangerous job. Many of his friends were killed. After two years, he was able to quit and go to Bien Hoa to train other pilots and maintain the engines. He was a Lieutenant when the war was over. The Communists put him in jail for 2 years to “change his mind” through re-education. He did not change  his mind. Afterwards, he came back to his home on this island. His cocoa trees had grown. He got a book about how to make chocolate and studied it. He figured out how to do it from that book: how to ferment the beans, dry them in the sun, grind them using different grinding stones, roast them, make the powder, etc. He showed us the implements he  used when he was first figuring out how to do it: grinding stones, a pressure pump to separate the cocao butter from the chocolate, a rusty globe spinning oven, heated by charcoal.

Each fruit is about as big as my foot.

Cocoa fruit

Today he sells to Cargill. He watches the price of chocolate in NY on the internet and calls them when the price is high; if it is low, he keeps the beans in a stack behind his house. One year he made $20,000, which he said was quite a lot for a Vietnamese farmer, which is how he describes himself.  He has seven grandchildren. None of the wants to be a chocolate farmer.

The Danish government gave him some material equipment to set up a homestay: beds, pillows, etc. When people come to do a homestay with him, he shows them how to make chocolate.

This may be the only time we have heard one single continuous story from someone who survived the war. Our opportunities to get coherent stories like this are very narrow: they have to be people who speak English enough to talk with us, preferably without a translator, but they also have to be willing to talk with us. That’s not a whole lot of people. So to be able to hear a whole story, from the planting of the seeds to the making of chocolate, was wonderful.

I spent about 2 hours lying in a hammock under this cocoa tree.

Cocoa tree.jpg

The Khmer Village

On the second afternoon, we went through a Khmer Village. Apparently a lot of Khmer people came over the border from Cambodia during the war and settled here. Our guide, Hong, says that people sometimes think she is Cambodian because of how she looks. To get to this village we turned off the path and rode down a narrower path. The village was much like the Vietnamese villages except poorer, with unfinished houses and no gardens in front. She asked “the local people” if we could have some water, and one woman showed us where to park our bikes and then gestured across the path to a house where a lot of people were sitting around. We went there and sat and were given ice tea. One older woman said that her daughter, unable to pay back a debt that she owed, had killed herself by throwing herself off the roof of the house. She broke her arms, neck and back. This happened last week. That’s why so many people were sitting around – they were family who had come from other places.

An older man told us that he had no home. His sister had a home – this one, and his father had a home – that one next door, which was given to him by the government because he had been a soldier and fought the Communists – but that he himself had no home and slept in a different place every night.

At this point one of the older women started asking for money. Hong explained and warned me not to give money because then every time they came by, someone would ask for money. But she paid for the ice tea. Then a young man stood up from the table where men were eating and gave Hong the money back, saying that the older woman was not from their family, she was just a visitor, and that they do not take money from tourists.

When we went to get our bikes, which were parked in front of a different house, a man was sitting out on the porch of the house. He had no legs.

Hanoi Conversations (3, VTUU) — January 19, 2016

Hanoi Conversations (3, VTUU)

VTUU Vietnam Trade Union University

I appear to have lost my photos of the VTUU meeting on Tuesday, Jan 12. I will take some more when we’re up in Hanoi after Feb 1

Kent opened by referring to a conference that brought together TDTU, the TUU, and ULSA at the beginning of the partnership among the Labor Universities. We were then introduced to Sister Sung, Head of Organizing and a Deputy Director, Mr. Hoa, head of the Training Department; Miss Ha, Deputy Head of the International Department; Sister Lien and Mr. Tao, Deputy Head of Scientific Research Department. Apologies to those whose names I missed or got wrong.

Dr Phan Van Ha, Principal, spoke.

The VTUU was founded in 1946. It is thus celebrating its 70th anniversary. In the beginning, it only offered training for trade union officials. Then in 1952 it added a BA for students. So today it has two tasks: one, to train trade union officials, and two, to train students in the work of trade unionism. It is under the VGCL but also the MET, the Ministry of Education and Training. Every year they get a plan from the VGCL and and other one from MET for students to prepare them to take their role on society. At present they have a total of 12,000 students, including both trade union officials and BA students. Every year 12,000 – 16,000 people apply but they only take 2,000. About 1,800 students stay in the dorms; that’s all the room there is. The dorms are for non-residents, students from outside Hanoi. The other 200 have to rent a room somewhere. They have another facility under construction about 30 K away.

There are about 300 teachers. They still lack trainers and teachers. They have 9 departments. Trade Unions, Banking, Accounting, Law, HR, Business Administration, Social Work, Sociology and Industrial Relations. Their Law program trains on the Labor law, Labor Code and IR. Law has the highest enrollment, over 1,000.

The IR Department opened last year. It came out of the 2007 Committee on Industrial Relations. A lot of students registered to study this field. Training to meet the requirements of a market economy is very different. There is a high need for people to understand IR. They use materials from the ILO and other countries, collective bargaining and social dialog, but also grassroots organizing, collective bargaining skills, CBA’s, mutual benefit arrangements, harmonious industrial relations at the workplace.

They have relationships with other universities in Russia, China, Belorussse and Ukraine (these may be specific Research Institutes). They have an exchange of teachers: Two years here, two years there. In the future, they’re looking to enroll foreign language students. They would like to have the kind of cooperation agreement that is at TDTU. They have sent people to Germany, Italy and Thailand. They teach students from Laos and Cambodia, through the Laotian and Cambodian unions, like the VGCL.

They used to recruit workers to teach them to become union leaders, but now they only teach people who are already officials. This is because sometimes their students didn’t become officials, they would go do another job and it was felt to be a waste of money. TUU sends information about trainings to the District, Provincial and grassroots unions, and if they have people who are interested, they send them.

Questions are about how the curriculum has changed to adapt to new circumstances; what a bottom-up curriculum looks like; what the impact of TPP will be. “There will be competition in trade union activities. Workers will have the right to choose their union leaders. We are members of the ILO. When the union is effective, it will attract workers.”

Emil asks about the term “harmonious.” The Principal responds that the contradiction between corporations and workers always exist. “Some corporations only care abut profit. But if a corporation only cares about profit, it will not be stable, and that will be bad for profit. Harmony is necessary. If harmony dies, the enterprise will also not exist and the workers will lose their jobs.”

They ask questions about who pays union representatives and say they are interested in our materials. There is a brief conversation about language; “We speak Russian,” says the Principal with a smile. I ask if they are familiar with Vygotsky and get a smile from the Training Director.

Hanoi Conversations (3, ILO) — January 18, 2016

Hanoi Conversations (3, ILO)

ILO meeting 1

Nguyen Thi Hai Yen, Director Chang-Hee Lee, Philip Hazelton, and two women whose names I did not get

After the meeting with the VGCL, we met with people from the ILO, but in the VGCL offices since some kind of construction was going on at the ILO office. Present were Nguyen Thi Hai Yen, the Project Coordinator for the Vietnam Industrial Relations Project, whom we had a long talk with last time we were in Hanoi, Philip Hazelton, IR Director who made many connections for us and gave us a long conversation last time and their Director, Chang-Hee Lee, a Korean, was there. He comes with a very positive reputation and we were eager to meet him in person.

Kent asked them to open with their priorities and their current projects. Director Lee responded. This is a summary from my handwritten notes:

The IR project, which went from 2002-2012, was about major law reform. For the future, the four years from 2012-2016 will focus on implementation of the new Labor Code and Trade Union Law. The reform included 20 different decrees, of which the ILO working with both the union and employers, supported 15.

Sixteen of the new laws involve new ways of operating and concern the relevance of the VGCL in the context of a market economy. In this transition, the VGCL will experiment with different ways of organizing and engaging in collective bargaining. Up until now it has been a social and political organization under the Communist Party. It is a large structure, big and slow to reform, with 9 million members in provincial federations and 20 industrial sectors. But workers are requiring it to perform a more representational role.

The ILO has been working in 5 different industrial zones – in the South, Central and North – to implement four pilot programs focusing on different ways of organizing and doing representation. They have also started a multi-employer collective bargaining pilot. These are difficult but exciting. They are in hotels, in an electronics company in Haiphong, in a Japanese electronics company in Dong Ngai.

The process undertaken with these reflects the practice of social dialog and is not fully bottom-up. It may be hard to scale up. There has been considerable interference by employers.

The ILO has also supported the National Wage Council, supported Business Associations in three provinces, and given workshops on Conventions #87, #98 and #105.

One member of the delegation asked about “autonomous, independent unions.”

Philip responded that it will be two years (2018) before the structure is set up to allow the possibility of registering new unions. After 2018, independent unions will be allowed. In 2032 they will be allowed to federate at the national level. The ILO won’t be able to work with independent unions until registration is possible. Even this is a short schedule. However, some new organizing may take place before registration is possible. The pending competition with the VGCL causes concern. Right now there is an 8 month period before the reform law goes into effect, so this bridge period is quite complex. The goal is to have labor that is strong, not fragmented; democratic not bureaucratic.

Viet Nam’s entry into TPP may be delayed if reform is not available.

In 2008, there were 1020 wildcat strikes. Right now, collective disputes usually turn into wildcats. A committee of government, VGCL, MOLISA comes in and gets a result. But this is a very sensitive area.

Three potential types of organizing might take place:

  1. The VGCL reforms quickly and develops a range of unions and representational processes;
  2. Some international unions and others outside Viet Nam present themselves and offer alternatives;
  3. Some employers may set up private unions which will block the organizing of new unions.

Overall, the social dialog mediation system has not done well. Referrals are not being made to the appropriate people to ask them to come and mediate disputes. This is partly because the Union isn’t taking cases and doesn’t bring cases to mediation. But the Union also has more challenges than just representing workers.

The Director summarized: there are lots of individual contracts out there, very few collective contracts, and a lack of understanding of how collective bargaining is different from social dialog.

We asked where the distinction between “rights” and “interests” came from. The reason for asking is that under the current law it is legal to strike over “rights,” although the process to get a permit to strike is too cumbersome to be practical. This is what encourages wildcats, which are strikes without a permit and no official union leadership. The problem is that since “rights” are what is in the law, and since 70% of the agreements (not really CBA’s, since there are so few of those) between union and employers just copy the law into the agreement, there is no steady platform for the union to strike for “interests” the  conditions of workers significantly higher than “rights”. Things that are defined as “interests” are the concerns that significantly improve the conditions of workers above the legal minimum and also increase the power of the union as a collective representative.

The Director responded that before 2000, the distinction was between legal and illegal and that the terms “rights” and “interests” were an attempt to create a different set of alternatives.

Then we went to the Vietnam Women’s Academy (formerly the Central Women’s Training School), run by the Vietnam Women’s Union. Leanna and Hollis have been working there for the past two weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

Hanoi Conversations (2, VGCL) — January 17, 2016

Hanoi Conversations (2, VGCL)

Article in Lao Dong about this: http://laodong.com.vn/cong-doan/pho-chu-tich-tong-ldldvn-nguyen-thi-thu-hong-tiep-doan-can-bo-cd-my-414628.bld

VGCL Meeting 2_1

Kent Wong’s delegation of US labor leaders and labor educators arrived in Hanoi Sunday January 10. We met them in the lobby of the Rang Dong Hotel (Trade Union Hotel) and went to dinner at a place called Wild Rice, very elegant and full of what appeared to be groups of foreigners.

The people who came with Kent made an impressive bunch. What made it impressive was the number of significant leaders, the diversity of unions they represented, and the important political positions some of them held. I am not confident that the Vietnamese who hosted us at the meetings over the next week understood what putting this group together meant in terms of political capital. There were two leaders of Central Labor Councils from Southern California, Los Angeles and Imperial County CLC’s (Richard Barrera) and Orange County CLC (Julio Perez). Orange County is “Cam” or “Little Saigon,” the biggest community of overseas Vietnamese, who exert considerable influence in Vietnam. There were two Viet-Khieu, Vietnamese-speaking US citizens, both coming to Vietnam for the first time. One was An Le who co-edited the Organizing on Separate Shores book with Kent. The current president of huge UFCW Local 770, Rick Icaza, came with his wife Adele and two staffers, one being John Grant and the other Nam Le, the other Viet-Khieu. Emil Guzman, a retired SEIU organizer, came, so there was someone from the CTW group. Then there were two university-based labor educators, Howard Kling who was filming the whole thing and Gene Carroll from Cornell’s Workers Institute. Kent’s wife Jae, who works with NGO’s in LA, came.

Different personalities, different geographical homes, but all of these people would either have known each other for years or else be one contact away from everyone else, which is also an indication of shared political outlooks, evident in the conversation at meals which sounded a lot like catching up with old friends.

Meeting at the VGCL 8 am Monday Jan 11

 

VGCL meeting 1

Center: VP Nguyen Thi Thu Hong. To her left, Lan, translator and our general helper throughout; on her left, the Director of Organizing.

Summarizing what was said by the Vice President who met us and chaired the meeting, VP Nguyen Thi Thu Hong:

The VGCL is 86 years old, founded in 1929. Every five years we hold a Congress; this will be our 11th congress. The hope is to build a bridge (ladder?) for low-wage workers. Along with TPP, we have signed a lot of bilateral agreements. Right now the GDP has been rising at a rate of 6.8% for the last 8 years, when our target was 6.4%.

The VGCL has 5-year plan strategy covering 2013-2018. There are four areas of action. First area of action: Organizing and recruiting, to reach 10 M members. Now we have 8 or 9 million members, 4.9 M of which work in enterprises (Industrial zone enterprises?) We want to organize in 120,000 enterprises. Second, training for trade union leaders about union activity for our members. Third, increase in the number of CBAs. Fourth, training in skills for workers, to work with more productivity.

We also must participate in amending the trade union law and the Labor Code. The VGCL is a member of the National Wage Council. We have proposed a wage increase of 12.4% as of January 1, 2016. We are also interested in the meals provided by the companies, especially where there has been food poisoning. The Trade Union will sue employers who feed poisoned food to workers.

We have two universities: TUU and TDTU. We hope that you do training at TDTU and develop training manuals for improvement of training for universities and share models of assignments for workers.

Kent responded by saying that trade unionists in the US have the same four points, organizing, training for trade union leaders, collective bargaining agreements and increasing skills. This makes sense because our economies are becoming more integrated, with production in Viet Nam for US export. The President of the VGCL attended the AFL CIO convention and was welcomed by President Richard Trumka.

Questions: Rick Icaza asked what the official position of the VGCL on TPP was. Gene asked about climate change, with an intro about the last 40 years and what it meant to be here; John from the UFCW asked if, looking backward, would they have done doi moi differently.

Response: Officially our position is that our trade union in general is in support of TPP but we are also clear that joining TPP provides opportunities and challenges. We support the negotiation of TPP and international integration into global trends. However, there will be competition in terms of quality of products and reduction of cost. The agreement also provides for the creation of workers organizations at the enterprise level. They must have a permit from MOLISA according to requirements of Viet Nam. We need to improve our role in representing and attracting workers to our union. The law also has to be revised to accommodate the agreement. Our view is that we have to take advantage of the opportunity created by the agreement.

She responds to the climate change question with an “action plan for the green south,” and the OSH law of 2014, effective 2015, from the National Assembly, a law on natural resources and the environment.

Regarding doi moi: We have had 13 -15 years of liberalization to take Viet Nam from a centralized to a socialist market economy under a policy of developing state, non-state and FDI enterprises. We saw some areas where there is no need for the state to control specific economic groups important to the economy of the country. The view is to continue socialist oriented market economy and continue to improve work quality and social subsidies to people. Most important need is for the different sector to develop but not interfere with harmonizing the interests of both sides. The trade union participates in the Government on this matter.

Joe asked about informal sector and described our student projects and what they uncovered. The person who responded to this was from the Organizing Department:

Our main target is the formal sector. Of our 9 M members, only a small % are in semi-formal work, like taxi drivers, moto drivers. We do not have enough people to approach non-permanent workers. We have 9 M members in 120,000 workplaces and only 7000 FT union officials. In the context of TPP we have to revise the Trade Union Statute to recruit them into the union. Most difficult is how to get the workers to volunteer and organizing a union. Vietnamese do not have the habit of organizing for themselves. They rely on the upper level to send down the direction. It takes time to change these workers to be aware of organizing by themselves. Even in the formal sector, not all workers want to join the union. It is even more difficult to approach workers in the informal economy. In this area we want to learn experience of other countries. This group is important and expanding.

Joe: Union officials in the US are often surprised at how workers can organize when given some support and resources. The challenge is great but not so different from the formal sector. Offers to share student reports.

Rick asks about trafficking, workers going to work in other countries.

Mr. Quang responds: VN wants to send workers overseas because they will get training. The law specifies conditions under which this takes place: pre-departure training, language, worker centers, Ministry of Labor, job protections. The new law on social insurance from Jan 1, 2016 covers workers working abroad.

Vice President Nguyen asks what is the biggest challenge for organizing in the US? Answer, from Gene, fear, plus the union avoidance industry. John from UFCW describes how a private equity fund bought a 160-store grocery chain, sold the property, laid off all the workers and did not have to be responsible for workers losses. Also foreign companies set up US companies as shells so that foreign companies do not bear responsibilities for crimes they commit.

The head of the International Department, I believe a Ms. Tang, asked directly how many members are in unions in the US and how many unions we have, but her questions did not get answered and she had to leave.

Photos, followed by van ride to a lavish lunch in a buffet place on the second floor of building overlooking the Opera plaza.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ladoda Bags — January 15, 2016

Ladoda Bags

Ladoda fac floor

Kent Wong’s delegation made a visit to a Vietnamese factory on Tuesday afternoon.

We drove out in a van to a town perhaps 45 minutes outside Hanoi  toward Haiphong, but still with the Hanoi address. This company is 24 years old, founded in 1992. It is a joint stock company; its capital is all Vietnamese. The workers are shareholders. I couldn’t tell if they were all shareholders.

The village where the factory is located might be one of the traditional leather villages. The Old Quarter of Hanoi, organized by crafts gathered on certain streets, is also the market for traditional craft villages, and this would have been one of the leather villages. This goes back to the 15th century. So here in this village, 60% of the workers work for this factory.

I am sick right now, with cough, fever and aches and pains, so I’m not writing a lot. I’ll just put up some pictures. I think I caught this from one of the US delegation who came down with all the same symptoms about a day ahead of us. None of us got flu shots this year, since we left in August, and so we have no resistance. Joe has it, too. Leanna has it up in Hanoi (we’re back in HCMC now) and she was in the room at the Women’s Union University when we were there.

Dinh Quang Bao Chair of MB

This is Mr. Dinh Quang Bao, Chairman of the Management Board.

I asked Mr. Bao  if they have  a CBA and he said yes; I asked if I could have a copy of it, and they made me one. This is the first Vietnamese CBA that we’ve seen. The woman below is the head of the local union, and that’s the CBA.

Dinh thanh Ha, LU Pres

Ms. Dinh Thanh Ha, Operations Manager and Chief Accountant, also Local Union President, holding a copy of their CBA which she then gave to me.

Below is the weekly schedule of meetings. The flowers were just stored there for the time being.

Weekly meeting schedule

From my notes on the Chairman’s presentation:

The Ladoga bags are a top brand in Viet Nam. There are two other factories that produce this brand. They have 370 outlets and do ISO 2008 standards. Outside Viet Nam they ship to Hungary, Germany, Poland, the US. Thirty percent of their output goes to the US. They also make the bags for the Party Congress.

At the factory, they have the Trade Union organization, the  Youth Organization, the Party Organization (even though the factory if private), the Women’s Organization, and an organization to set up activities like sports and athletic events. They do emulation eery moth and classify workers on their performance. 80% get an A, 50% get a high level and a bonus, and about 25 workers are recognized as top workers. If someone is an “emulation soldier,” they get a bonus. The Vice President of the Leather Shoe Association of VN is (either on the board of Ladoga or else holds some other position) as does the President of the Leather Shoe Association here.

They employ about 400 people. Workers come from 25 provinces. Housing is supplied, free. They have trained between 3,000 – 4,000 workers. In 24 years, they have never had to discipline a worker. The company pays 50% of a wedding. Unskilled workers make 4.5 M per month. Women retire at 55, men at 60. If you take early retirement, you get 1 month’s salary for each year of work. The company pays 22% for social benefits and workers pay 11%.

Walking through the factory floor I saw people working hard and steadily, but not hurrying. A young girl doing gluing had a mask, but the smell from the glue spread out across the floor. It wasn’t dusty. Some of the motions required for shoving and pulling a large canvas bag through the sewing machine take a lot of muscle, though, and doing them over and over again all day long would hurt. The workers seemed young, not as young as our students but certainly in their 20s, and physically strong, especially the young men.

The sewing machines are mostly Unicorn, a South Korean company.

Felix Greene in HCMC — January 8, 2016

Felix Greene in HCMC

WR 2

Last summer Joe and I were going though things in the barn attic in Vermont and found this small wooden box in the old file cabinet. When we opened it, we saw  glass slides, a booklet, a stapled pack of typed pages and a reel-to-reel audio tape. The slides were photos taken by Felix Greene in Vietnam in 1965-66. The box was one of many that were distributed to people in the US who would then hold a meeting in their living rooms or churches or schools to teach friends and neighbors about who the North Vietnamese really were and what life under the American bombardment was like.

On the cover of the box of slides, in my father’s handwriting, was the note, “Slide #50 is missing because it was taken by the FBI and the ONI as evidence.”  That slide had a picture of Felix Greene and Ho Chi Minh. ONI stands for Office of Naval Intelligence; my dad was in the Navy in the Pacific in WWII and retired as a Lieutenant Commander.

In the photo above, that’s Ho Chi Minh in the background.

We also have a copy of my father’s FBI file. I remember Mom telling me about that visit. “I fed them cucumber sandwiches,” she said. A neighbor, someone who lived across the road in Lake Dunmore, Vermont, had turned them in after they had shown the slides one night.

It was Joe’s idea to donate the box to the War Remnants Museum. I was doubtful that they’d have room for them; surely everyone is bringing evidence of their anti-war activity and trying to get the Museum to accept it. But they accepted it. Someone had already brought them a copy of Felix Green’s book, Vietnam! Vietnam! – a 1966 edition, very banged up and well-read. WR 3

The meeting and conversation went on for a good hour, with signing of donation papers etc. The young man is Tran Huu Duy, Staff Member of the Propaganda and Foreign Relations Division, an interpreter and translator and a graduate of a training program for interpreters. The young woman is Binh Ngoc Hang, Deputy Head of the Research and Collections Department. Her degree is in history.

There is a point at which you don’t want to talk any more about things like this. You take it up to a point and then the two experiences, the US and the Vietnamese, diverge. The donation of an anti-war artifact does not entitle the donor to expand the conversation indefinitely. It’s not the job of the Museum to accept the whole load of the donor’s personal feelings, in addition to the artifact. So don’t go on and on; no speeches. Besides, they’re a different generation. They are the grandchildren of the people Joe would have been told to kill if he hadn’t been declared “pathological passive-aggressive” or whatever by his draft board. The Assistant Director said, “We forgive, but we do not forget.”This is no the first time I’ve heard this. It ends the conversation.

There is a sort of guilt-redemption industry. You can read about it. There was a tour for the children of US soldiers downed in the war and there was an article about it in the NY Times. It’s a good idea and probably helps. But it’s an industry.

Here are some ways my way of being in the world is different from the way the Vietnamese are in the world.  I do not like parades that look like military exercises, even it it’s young people running across the soccer field carrying a huge silk version of the Vietnamese flag. I don’t like displays of military drills with or without guns. They can like it — that’s fine. I am alarmed by nationalism. It’s the difference between being a Vietnamese and coming from a small country that has been invaded over and over again and has to defend itself, versus being American and coming from a big country bursting with weapons that has a history of invading other countries, to say nothing of just bombing them without bothering to invade them. I can sit beside Vinh and watch students performing military drills and feel heartsick, while she feels proud.

WR 5

I also get worried about the way people talk about “ethnic minorities” here.I don’t understand it. Nobody here seems to believe me when I say how many people are in prison in the US, how many Blacks have been killed by police.

And then there’s the TPP labor side agreement. This morning we met with a woman who works facilitating a lot of relationships among NGO’s (non-profits, they call them here) in HCMC, and she said that people she knew were really excited about it. This also worries me. To say nothing of our colleague in the Business Administration Program who said, “If the Americans had won, we would all be rich. South Vietnam would be like South Korea and the North  would be like North Korea.” This guy is an economist teaching from Samuelson and Mankiw, who said that Walmart’s low prices had “saved” Americans billions of dollars.

Although I love Vietnam, including the people, the food, the coastline, everything (except traffic jams), and especially our students, I need to go back to the US and work on the Bernie Sanders campaign.

War Rem outside_1

 

The Global Financial Crisis and TDTU Classroom Teaching Methods — January 7, 2016

The Global Financial Crisis and TDTU Classroom Teaching Methods

giving blood

Students line up to give blood at registration: campus life outside the classroom

The TOP 100 aspiration is not just about TDTU.

“In November 2013, the Communist Party issued a Resolution on Fundamental and Comprehensive Education Reform that aims to develop education in Viet Nam to become an advanced education system that meets regional and international standards by 2030 with curriculum renovation for the period after 2015 as one specific objective set out to be achieved for general education.”

http://www.un.org.vn/en/unesco-agencypresscenter1-100/3317-teaching-and-learning-achieving-quality-for-all.html

This Resolution includes higher education.

An “opinionated analysis” in a paper from the Ash Institute (part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/find-innovative-solutions/all-topics/education says, “It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the challenges confronting Vietnam in higher education. We believe without urgent and fundamental reform to the higher education system,Vietnam will fail to achieve its enormous potential…. It does not bode well for the future that Vietnamese universities lag far behind even their undistinguished Southeast Asian neighbors” (Vallely and Wilkenson 2008). They list number of patents and number of published papers by Vietnamese universities.  Patents for Vietnam: 0, compared with Republic of Korea, 102,633. Papers in peer-reviewed journals: Vietnam, 96; Seoul National University, 5060.

Vallely and Wilkenson view this as a crisis and recommend a “change in governance.” They suggest the establishment of a new university with new forms of governance “in the DNA.” I do not think that change they had in mind is faculty governance, but never mind. In 2015 a new university did appear in HCMC, the Harvard Fulbright University.

This background, provided for me by a member of the XMCA (Mind, Culture and Activity) discussion list, helps me understand what is motivating the changes at TDTU. This is not something taking place here in isolation. It is part of a national effort to upgrade higher education.

I also note that the paper is from November 2008. That was a big year in both in the US and globally, with the financial crisis (http://www.economist.com/news/schoolsbrief/21584534-effects-financial-crisis-are-still-being-felt-five-years-article). In Vietnam, it was a year that climaxed the rising wave of wildcat strikes following inflation(https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/07/viet-j31.html). One response to the strikes was the attention paid by the ILO to training employers and the union in social dialog; we just showed one of the ILO films this morning, in a class with the Cornell students.

Cornell st and ILO video

Cornell students plus Nghia and Giang watching ILO video

So  a variety of outside observers are looking at Viet Nam, with its booming economy,  7% economic growth rate and frequent wildcat strikes and saying, “This country needs to upgrade and stabilize its institutions, fast.” Higher education and labor relations are just instances of that. I’ll bet that if I looked at the World Bank I’d see some other “systems” that were being targeted for upgrades.

At TDTU, the Labor Relations and Trade Unions faculty was founded around this time in 2009, two years after TDTU became an autonomous public university (a change in governance).  http://english.tdt.edu.vn/?p=2313  The  partnership agreement that links the three labor universities was signed in 2011. So there have been a lot of efforts to smooth out, sew up and stabilize the institutions that are supposed to keep things moving forward together and working smoothly. One effort is TDTU’s plan to emulate a TOP 100 university by 2037 (the date seems to flex a bit) measured by the QS Star system  (http://www.topuniversities.com/qs-stars/qs-stars-methodology)

Which brings me around to the task in front of me and Joe, which was to prepare a paper about teaching methods. Our two short papers on elite education were something I had to get off my chest —  the whole thing about emulating prestigious institutions disappoints me. But then our assignment changed and we’re supposed to talk about what to do in the classroom.

The elephant in the living room is the fact that everything has to be in English, so I put out a question on the Vygotskian discussion list called XMCA (Mind, Culture and Activity) that is based at UC San Diego, California, USA. A lot of people on that list have long experience with teaching in different cultures. I used the numerous responses to shape the article that I will insert below. Apologies for its length, but this is  where the rubber hits the road. I have written enough in previous posts so that you understand the way teaching at TDTU is constrained presently, so I won’t repeat that. Instead, here we go:

What teaching methods could be adopted at TDTU so it would provide an education like the Top 100?

 A few weeks ago, we were asked to produce two short papers on teaching at Top 100 universities based on our experience in the United States. In those papers, we focused on elite institutions, their resources and the market for elite education. We were then asked to focus on good teaching methods, regardless of whether they are found in elite institutions. That request led to this paper.

TDTU is an astonishing young university that has accomplished a lot in a very short time. To walk down the clean, shiny hallways at TDTU, teach in the well-lit classrooms with clean windows and look out at the well-maintained campus is a pleasure. The students love it, too. But like every other university, it struggles with resources. Some of our suggestions – like class size and teacher load, for example – are costly. But we propose them seriously. If TDTU wants to emulate a Top 100 university, the teaching and learning experience is what matters.

TDTU Piano

“Open pianos for use” scattered around the campus

Therefore we begin with physical and material support before talking about course content, the role of the teacher, students and research, the use of writing, tests and exams, and finally, the crucial challenge of teaching and learning in English when teachers and students alike have English as a second or perhaps third language.

The most important idea in this paper is that teaching should become student-centered. TDTU is already very student-centered in its campus life outside the classroom, but since we are talking about academic excellence, we have to talk about what students do in the classroom. How can the classroom, and what takes place in it, become more conducive to learning?

the Autumn Moon festival

TDTU students at the Autumn Moon Festival at Hoc Mon

 Class size, teacher load, other resources

There should be smaller classes: 20-30 students in each class. If a larger class was necessary, there would be teaching assistants or tutors to convene those groups.

Lecturers would teach no more than two-three courses per semester. Students would take no more than five classes per semester.

Teachers should have offices in which they can meet privately with students. There should be easy communication between students and teachers, via phone and email or a well-functioning Learning Management System (LMS). Teachers who are doing research should engage students in that research while it is going on through labs, field work or library work, so that a continuous flow of new knowledge is both produced, learned and taught by the university as a whole.

Books, handouts and other materials should be available at the beginning of the semester. Each student should have books. If physical materials are not available, they can be made available electronically via an LMS.

Course Content

A class does not study just one single book. Three or four would be assigned. Books and articles should represent more than one perspective on the subject in the class. At least one assigned item should contextualize the main subject: what is the history of the main subject in this class? Is this a new or an old discipline? What is its current state? Others should demonstrate the range of the discourse about the subject, including articles that are critical of the way the main reading presents it. The goal is to enable the mature student to enter the discourse and contribute to it.

The teacher encourages an attitude toward assigned readings or other material called critical thinking. The tools of critical thinking are questions. Familiar critical thinking questions are: For whom is this intended? Who produced this? What is its purpose? And: Is it accurate? Is it complete? Is it consistent? Is it good or worthwhile? Students may draw different conclusions from the material and may not agree with what the teacher concludes. Then even the process of critical thinking (on both sides) becomes what is studied critically. Critical thinking is a process of understanding the meaning of something, reflecting on it, analyzing it and drawing conclusions, but never taking it “as scripture,” or unquestioningly.

The outcome of critical thinking is a well-reasoned, complex argument, a theory or a new perspective. Memorization cannot produce this outcome.

 The role of the teacher

The teacher should act more as facilitator rather than an expert. He or she is the person who organizes and structures the learning opportunities for the students. It is the responsibility of the teacher to create that structure. This is not the same as delivering content. Some structures sort students (allow some to succeed and others to fail) and some structures enable the whole class, both weak and strong, to learn together. A structure that only sorts is not a teaching practice, it is really a testing practice. An opportunity structure that really teaches requires a great variety of teaching techniques because students learn in different ways and through different kinds of experiences.

All these learning opportunities involve interaction with students, teachers and course content, and all of these interactions take place using language. The uses of language – reading and writing, listening and speaking – are all actions. When students perform actions, they learn from what they have done. Therefore students have to read, write, listen and speak frequently. The majority of class time is occupied by students using language under the guidance of the teacher.

Examples of things the teacher does to create these learning opportunities:

Get to know the students. Do a questionnaire. Ask them about anything that might affect their performance in school, the background that they might bring to their studies. What languages do their parents speak, what languages do they speak? Do they have a job? Give feedback on what you find. Get on Facebook. Make sure that students meet with the teacher privately in the teacher’s office at least once per semester.

In class, get students to perform by posing problems, comparing efforts to solve problems, developing questions that lead the class discussions, and requiring presentations, reports, or debates. A top student can be put in a “hot seat” to answer the questions of other students.

Get students to interact by pairing them up, forming small groups, organizing group discussions, creating teams, playing games, urging them to meet in study groups outside of class.

Get students to teach each other by pairing up students who have different abilities to read each other’s papers, edit them, ask each other study questions, talk through difficult concepts. Using the concept of “zone of proximal development” (students working closely with a more advanced students), enable students to perform at a level of their potential rather than actual ability.

The teacher conducts the class by setting the pace of the class, guiding the integration of new content into the class, and training the focus of the class on difficult or important issues and concepts. This may be done with short lectures, media presentations, etc. The teacher may model desired student behavior in analyzing course materials. All this activity draws on a foundation of preparation done in advance by students outside of class.

The teacher may assign study questions to be answered in writing about readings or have them write a set of study questions themselves and use them as the basis for discussion in the upcoming class. The purpose of study questions is to push students to think critically about the reading. Students may be asked to write exam questions.

The role of the students

Reading assignments should be completed before class. Students should be expected to be ready to discuss the issues raised by the materials when the class starts. The class does not consist of the teacher repeating what is in a book; the students are already familiar with what is in the books and should have an opinion about what they have read.

Students practice carrying the ideas found in one assignment over to compare or apply them to ideas found in another source. They do the same with material they have learned in other classes, whether general education classes that prepare them for society or major-specific classes that build knowledge toward their specialty. They make analogies across disciplines, perspectives, periods of history, cultures, etc. and test them to see if they have value.

Assuming students have done the assigned reading and preparation, their next job is to question what they are learning. They do not memorize and regurgitate. They test what they are learning by talking about it in the classroom. If they have prepared properly, they are not afraid of making a mistake since the whole class is engaged in a process of building knowledge and mistakes are part of clarification. Students should be able and encouraged to challenge the view of the teacher without repercussions.

Just for fun: A teaching method

Let the teacher pose a really hard question to the class, a question that can be debated and answered multiple ways. The first speaker volunteers to come to the front of the room and responds. Teacher, to the class: “Can anyone add anything?” The next student also comes to the front of the room and adds something, maybe a dissenting view or a problematic implication. Anyone else? A third person steps up. A really good “hard question” will require 10 or 11 people to come and respond before all views on the topic have been contributed. No one can speak twice until everyone who wants to has had the opportunity to speak.

This is a good way to get all the knowledge in the class out into the conversation. When the class cannot bring any more points up, the teacher knows how much the class knows about something. That can be good or bad.

A weakness of this game is that only the high-status students will volunteer and will talk too much. The teacher can avoid this by putting a time limit on each speech (or saying that a speaker can only use one sentence) and by choosing speakers by tossing a soft ball into the class and letting the person who catches it speak.

The role of research

Research is the creation of knowledge and should be a part of every teacher’s practice. When a whole university is engaged in self-transformation, research into that process itself is of great interest to the rest of the world of higher education. Therefore one type of research would be a coordinated self-study by the faculty about how this transformation is taking place. This research would be called “participant action research” and is highly “publishable.” But every other discipline has its own history and its own new horizons. Teachers should have release time to perform research, either individually on topics of their choice, or in groups or teams formed within their faculties. “Visiting experts” should not be doing research in isolation, separate from the university faculties. A good role for visiting experts or highly-rated researchers would be to coach a team of young researchers toward doing cutting-edge work. Students should always be a part of whatever research a faculty is doing.

The use of writing

 In order for a teacher to know if the student understands something, the student has to say what they understand. But in class, only one person can speak at a time (except in a choral response situation, which has its uses). Therefore most of the assessment of student learning takes place through writing.

In the Humanities and Social Sciences, we give short assignments. Students may answer study questions, write a journal that reports the progress of their understanding or produce a portfolio of key subject-matter related documents at the end of the class, among other things.

Again in the Humanities, longer assignments will be papers or the final exam. A 15-week class will have at least 3 short (5-10 page) and 1(over 20-page) papers. These papers will reflect extended reasoning. The kinds of arguments that a student will need to be able to produce in professional life after university are long and draw from multiple sources. Students need to practice writing long form arguments, meaning arguments that gather information from a variety of sources, sort it, critique it, place it in other contexts and draw conclusions. In order to write extended arguments, they need to have practiced reading them and critiquing them.

Science and Technology programs have their own classic forms of writing that differ in length and the use of symbols. The use of writing to make an extended thought process permanent and visible for the purpose of sharing is equally key in those fields. Vocational fields would write about cases and problems.

Of course, many students these days copy written papers from the internet and do not understand how serious plagiarism is. Assigning a question that requires a complex response is one way to prevent this. Also, if a class is small enough so that the teacher understands the mind of each student, a teacher will be able to quickly identify a paper that was written by someone else.

Tests and exams

The overall purpose of a test or exam is to let the teacher find out if the students are learning what she or he thinks they are teaching. The teacher will then adjust their teaching to accomplish the goal better. This means that the teacher must write and grade the exam.

A test that does not also serve a teaching purpose should not be given. A test can be given a teaching purpose by asking questions that make students think about what they have learned in a new and different way. They might apply a core concept in a new context, or put several readings together and compare them, or relate something they have learned in class to their own personal experience.

Exams are often extended essay responses to complex question. in teh Humanities,“extended” may mean 30 double-space typed pages. It also means a complex multi-part rhetorical structure. These would be take-home exams.

A pop quiz that enables the teacher to learn if the class has understood an assignment should not occupy much class time. A pop quiz can be answered with a choral response.

Because speaking and writing are harder than listening and reading, active teaching methods that involve lots of student participation are a challenge for students speaking a foreign language. Active teaching requires students to do what is hardest for them. However, participation – “expressive competence” – is more important than correctness. Students and teachers must adapt to accepting contributions that have meaning, even if they are not expressed correctly.

This leads us to the next topic: teaching in English.

Teaching in English: Some suggestions for transitional practices

Ton Duc Thang is attempting to become a university where the language of instruction is English. Current research in the US about teaching and learning for students whose first language is not English is that they learn best when they learn in both their native language and English at the same time. Not only do people need the subtlety of a native language to grasp complex concepts, but negative emotions created by forbidding speech in a native language may hamper a person’s ability to carry on extended thought processes.

Therefore, here are some possible strategies for designing instruction for non-native English speaking students when they are being taught by non-native English speaking faculty. These could be seen as transitional activities that will “scaffold” the students and faculty as they become more adept at English. These suggestions came from academics around the world who belong to XMCA.

The teachers at TDTU who teach English as their job should be used as a university-wide consulting team to advise on adopting any of these strategies or others.

The “formal” part of teaching such as lectures and textbooks could be presented in English. Since these can be prepared in advance and read, studied and revised, handed out or even presented more than once, there is less risk of losing students or creating misapprehensions because of language problems. Then the “informal” or tutorial part of teaching could be in a combination of English and Vietnamese in order to make sure that students grasp concepts that do not have a one-to-one match or meaning across languages.

A class could be conducted with one teacher speaking English and one speaking Vietnamese. Apparently this has been done at Stanford.

A Shizuoka University in Japan one colleague teaches in English while an advanced upperclassman student participates with her, also in English, in the front of the class. The assistant asks clarifying questions, suggests examples, etc. Students in the class who can keep up will be able to engage and process what is going on directly. Others will use the co-teacher as a mediator. This is also a very good situation for the advanced student to learn from.

One colleague from South Africa suggests that given TDTU’s 20-year goal, the shift to English instruction could be done in 5-year chunks, with a review of progress each five years. This could be part of a university-side research project. Part of the first stage would be making sure that teachers and students had a good grasp of academic Vietnamese. Each faculty could create a dictionary unit that would present the terminology of that discipline (“terms of art”) in Vietnamese and English.

Informally, at the same time, there would be tutorial sessions (small groups with a tutor) that would always start off a topic in Vietnamese and then move to a review of the session in English. At least for the first decade of the transition, students should be free to code-switch.

Universities all over the world are hastening to become part of the English-speaking academic community. This is a necessary survival strategy. Success will bring Vietnamese students and teachers into communication with their colleagues around this world. However, there are examples of failure as well as success, and instances where plans have had to be dropped and expectations changed to fit reality. The surest way to move forward without risking making a mistake is to make sure that teachers have the support and opportunities to do their job right.

Conclusion

The changes suggested in this paper would be costly and difficult and would require a less top-down, more teacher-centered support and governance approach to managing the university. This is indeed a change in governance. In addition, the working conditions that are conducive to good teaching can be negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement which would spread a commitment to the change throughout the teaching faculty. As a union-sponsored university, TDTU could be an exemplar in a negotiating a contract that established good working conditions for teachers.This would also make TDTU as truly student-centered  in the classroom as it is in campus life, and would have the effect of providing a real TOP 100 education for our students.

___________________

THANKS TO XMCA PEOPLE

Andy Blunden, University of Melbourne, AU (retired)

Bella Kotik-Friedbut, Hadassah University, Jerusalem

Hans Lambrecht, Belgian Development Agency, Hanoi

Le Pham Hoai Huong, M.S.

Bosco Li and Anna On Na Shum, The University of Hong Kong

Carol A  Macdonald PhD, Department of Linguistics, Unisa (Pretoria, SA)

Diane Potts, University of Lancaster, UK

Asmalina Saleh, on Hongkong, Thiland, Maylasia and Singapore experience in bilingual education

Elinami Swai, Open University of Tanzania, on the attempt to transition to English from primary to university levels

Valerie A. Wilkinson, Shizuoka University, Japan

REFERENCE

Vallely, T. J. and Wilkinson, B. 2008. Vietnamese Higher Education: Crisis and Response . 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138: ASH institute

Tiger

Tiger economy

And finally, a snapshot of current plan at TDTU:

In order to become the equal of any of the top 100 universities in the world: identify them based on various ranking  lists, go on line to see what they teach, copy the syllabi as much as possible, and buy one book in English for each class and build sets of power points to “teach the book” through. This is how the new curriculum that will will start in October is being created. It  is intended to draw international students from around Southeast Asia, whose common language is English.

One aspect of this, part of the worldview that includes it, is respect for the authority of the text. Find the text, teach the text.

This respect for the text infuses the culture of exams, too.  We are trying to write the midterm exams right now. We have to write two versions “in case something happens.” This exam is worth 20 percent of the final grade. The rest of the grade comes from a 70 percent final exam (one hour) and a 10 percent exam. We have to write out the answers to each question, because we won’t be grading the exams ourselves. They will be graded anonymously by someone else. Also, all the answers have to be in the handouts (I guess if the students had the book, they could be in the book.) That means that if it isn’t in the handout, it can’t be on the exam. So it’s all regurgitation. No asking students to combine or compare things and do some analysis. No questions that ask, “What do you think about such-and-such?”

The test is supposed to produce grades that form a bell curve a little to the right of the middle. “5” out of “10” is passing.

Doing an exam this way does constitute a sort of quality control measure. There won’t be any cheating, I guess – at least not in the sense of a teacher giving a favorite student (or a paying student) a better grade. So it’s a guard against corruption. That apparently has been a problem, going way back in history to the mandarins in Confucian Viet Nam.

Another thing in its favor is that this exam method completely dis-associates learning from testing. If the tests don’t measure learning, then learning is not what is being tested. Testing measures something else.  I’m not sure what, but it’s not learning. So learning can go on undisturbed by these testing events. Like your annual doctor’s visit that is completely separate from living a healthy life. So it’s really my mistake, to think that the learning of these students is what gets measured by these tests. No wonder I keep getting the feeling that the kids are way ahead of the system – smarter, more conscious.

Actually, what I think the test measures is the teacher’s ability to write a test that will produce the hump in the chart that peaks out at “7.” So it’s the teacher’s ability to guess where the class is.

_____

 

We actually gave this material as a talk to the lecturers at TDTU. We were supposed to do it in 15 minutes, but I went over. They seemed very interested and the event actually produced some follow-up discussion which was, however, in Vietnamese so I didn’t understand what was being said. But the sight of some real back-and-forth and even joking was an eye-opener, because mostly, discussion does not happen. Here we are posing with many of the lecturers after the talk.

Lecturers at Jn26