The New Wrapped in the Old Wrapped in the New



Us on the stairs going up to our office in C building. The spots are on the mirror, not on either the camera or me.


Joe’s class starts at 9:25. It is now 9:48. The reason why it hasn’t started yet is because the publicity people came to his classroom right at 9:25 and asked if they could video the class. Why not, sure? I mistook the question, “May we film your class?” to be a question about copyright, permission to record your face and words, as in at the beginning of a theater performance, when they tell the audience that recording of any kind is prohibited. The work of the artists belongs to them.

No, that’s not what this is about. It’s about moving us to a room on the 4th floor of Building A, with fixed but purple cushioned seats and microphones installed in the tables, Joe up on a podium above the room. It’s the same room in which we made a presentation to lecturers two years ago. The computer has to be set up again to show the powerpoints.

Joe has prepared a pretty dense class with a lot of activity, closely timed, including reporting back on the interviews, so losing 20 minutes plus is pretty serious. There is a great deal of chaos at first, with new students (people who missed last time) having to form two new groups, and the other students not realizing that they are supposed to sit in groups. But the class gets going. The camera, I see, starts filming when Joe is talking. It does not film Vinh translating. The “camera” I am referring to is mounted on a frame, which is held up by a thin, tall, strong man; the frame seems to use a gyroscope to hold the focus steady even when he is swooping and dipping around Joe.

But despite this, once the class gets going it feels as if this is actually a better room for the class, at least for the teacher. Joe can stand down low below the screen and walk around.

Except that….. ooops, there is no blackboard. No place for students to write and collectively read material, construct a collective text, work on building an image, etc etc. Lots of wall, but no flip charts. No whiteboard. Joe wants to write “Freire” and “For whom, by whom, and for what purpose?” somewhere, but that’s not going to happen.

The good news is that Thi from Vung Tau is in the class – looking older and sophisticated. When Joe asks a question about the difference between leadership and management, she answers well, in very good English. Composition of the class today: over 50, of whom 8 are young men.

By 10:15 or sooner, the cameras and publicity people are gone. I had actually expected that they would film the whole thing so that students could watch it and take the class or review it that way. I assumed that what they were interested in was the logic and method of the whole thing.


It occurred to me this morning that between Joe’s class (this time around; the Northouse text plus the Handbook that we wrote, combined into a class about leadership from top down, leadership from bottom up) and my class, we’ve created two full classes that are now in the system, being offered on a repeated basis. Not unlike writing a play, that gets produced once here, then there, then in other places, each time with a new audience. You write it once and it is re-produced many times. So we are writing the shows that get produced in these classrooms (or at least two of them), with enrollments of 80 and 90 students. We are also writing guest lectures for Miss La and Mr. Triet’s classes, and an arc of 6 simulations about collective bargaining that will be offered on Thursdays or Fridays later in the semester.

I think this is what Dean Hoa actually meant two years ago when he would say, “We want you to help us create a curriculum.” This plus all the material Leanna and the UALE people have gathered, which hasn’t been integrated yet.

Website, E-Learning

More technology adaptation: the e-learning website is up and running, so for my class the whole Katz, Kochan and Colvin book is being scanned and all my powerpoints, class plans and extra handouts are being posted. Students will have a great deal of material to read on line. Will they do it? Yesterday Joe and I reviewed and edited the website blurb for the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty and sent it back to Vinh and the two new teachers. The new text, at least at the moment, describes the subject matter of the Faculty as being interdisciplinary and designed to prepare students for work in unions, enterprises, and government. This is comparable to what I heard while doing the interviews with labor programs back in 2014 – I’m thinking of Cornell and Athabasca – when I asked, “What do your students do?” Answer – they go to law school, into government, into unions, into businesses as HR managers, and into NGOs. Missing here in VN is the NGOs.


I will have to take a lot of pictures of this library. It has a name: INSPIRE. From outside, you see a huge orange column, wrapped in blue and gray tile, and bands of blue windows. The actual entrance is like walking up to the top of a Mayan pyramid, only in bright orange, blue, gray, and wood. Before ascending this tower you have to go down a narrow spiral staircase to the basement (which we are told is open 24-7, for students to study all night) where you put on some soft gray clogs, which we are assured are washed once a month.

The library inside is a dream of lime, lemon, cream, glass, smooth bright floors, labels in English. We go into a “presentation room”, one of many which we can apparently book, with a flat screen TV and risers made of bright smooth wood, in a “c” shape. The young man who delivers the presentation shows us the home page of the website of Hollis, the Harvard University website; tells us that the TDT website and software were designed in Israel; that the interior of the whole library was designed by industrial design students at TDT (and it is the most student-friendly hive of spaces that you can imagine), and that books are filed on shelves in alphabetical order by title, because the title is easier for the students to read (bigger letters) than author. This stumps me for a while until I go into my email to send a message to Dean Hoa and see what happens when you look someone up by “Nguyen.” Our group includes two other Asian men and a young woman from Estonia who is here for a year and we are told we do not have to take a test. It may take a month to get a library card, however. The young presenter assures us that someone will deal with all our needs and questions. A goal, working with Julie Brockman at Michigan, would be to set up some kind of international partnership for improved access to academic material.

There is a museum in the library. At its center is an architectural model showing the future of TDT. That whole piece of land beyond the second canal, it turns out, is going to be TDT. That land that was being bulldozed and excavated and drained two years ago, and now is overgrown with head-high tropical grasses (elephant grass?) is going to be full of giant white university buildings. The vision is gigantic. It makes the existing TDT right now seem tiny. There will be more dormitories, of course. ONe of the big buildings is a Finnish-Vietnamese high school, being planned jointly with Finland.

Construction has been held up by “red tape,” says the library presenter. We had also heard that RMIT was going to build on that land.

Weirdly, this place does not really feel foreign any more. Is it because there is so much new, high-tech stuff? So much evidence of hard work towards developing this into a real major university? I don’t think it’s just that. I think that having read the Appy book, American Reckoning, helped me find a place in the history that has brought me here. But also, the traffic doesn’t astonish me this time. The food of course – pho twice a day, with something with rice and spinach soup for lunch – is a change from what I eat in the US, but it does not feel foreign. Maybe a little too much fish.

Last Sunday night we had dinner with Vy and An. They have grown up a lot. They wore elegant little dresses (a particular Vietnamese style that depends on being slender) and have interesting jobs. An left the furniture store and is now a vegan and at her new job (something about social media that has a lot of connections with France) she is assigned to create a “green office,” which she is taking very seriously. (We went to a vegan restaurant.) Vy, who gave herself a trip to Hanoi last spring by herself, teaches in a pre-school but is applying for an HR or purchasing job. They looked older; I felt older; I am just glad they are both well.

The Big Difference

The biggest difference is that we are actually teaching collective bargaining and using that term. I don’t hear the word “social dialog” around at all. Joe’s class, half Northouse and half our Handbook, really got down to the contrast between corporate and union perspectives today, explicitly. You could see that when the students reported how they filled out a version of Fred Glass’s contrast table (his is about communication; Joe adapted it to leadership). There must have been a sea-change somewhere. We are doing collective bargaining simulations (a series of 6, with only 3 dedicated to table skills), two classes in CB in Miss La’s class, two in Mr. Triet’s class and session of my class in Vinh’s class. Then we will be meeting with faculty to discuss research, and it seems as if we will be able to devise a research project (such as how labor education has evolved here over the recent past) which will involve them. If we have their participation, this research might actually be possible.

The photo below is the air conditioning unit, which inspires me a lot, too — maybe as much as the library. This morning it was groaning and overflowing, with torrents of water pouring down the steps.




Published by helenaworthen

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

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