As a Fulbright Scholar in Hong Kong during the spring semester, Dr. Rosemary M. Fisk was part of a team of seven charged with helping the city’s seven public universities move from a three-year to a four-year curriculum. The reform is designed to bring Hong Kong universities into line with their international counterparts so that their students can compete in liberal arts as they already do in science and technical fields. The program began in 2008 and will conclude in 2012.
“The project is right on schedule, though many expected issues related to resistance to change will have to resolve themselves as faculty members begin teaching new classes,” said Dr. Fisk, Associate Dean of Howard College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at Samford.
The greatest immediate challenge, she said, is for the system to hire about 1,000 new faculty members to teach the extra year of courses. Administrators already are traveling in the U.S. and Europe to conduct interviews, she said.
Fisk served with a third-year team of Fulbright Scholars in a four-year timetable to have the new system in place by 2012. They found that the universities had new general education designs on paper and approved.
“Five of the seven universities were moving to a split model comprised of a true core curriculum with additional general education courses, much like Samford’s model,” she said. In that plan, all students take the core courses and then select general education courses that enhance their major fields of study.
“We saw that each university had added courses in Chinese culture and philosophy, interdisciplinary science, and ethics,” she said. “The topic of globalization infused everything. They had strengthened efforts to make every Hong Kong university graduate bilingual (Cantonese and English) and triliterate (with reading knowledge of classical Chinese).”
Most of the new courses were “creative and broadening,” she said, such as proposals on “The Peking Opera” and “The Politics of Asia.” Courses such as these were approved. Occasionally, the team encountered a proposal that was simply an old course with a new name. “As outsiders we could encourage the university committee to reject the course and then suggest improvements without rupturing long-term relationships,” she said.
Fisk said that, despite the new emphasis on flexibility and freedom of the liberal arts, the Hong Kong higher education system remains rigidly hierarchical and dependent on standardized test scores. “Students will still find it challenging to change a major,” she predicted.
Asian culture in many ways supports the new emphasis on teamwork, said Fisk, but works against the emphasis on active learning and peer criticism. Fisk encountered the concern over peer criticism when she asked a colleague why an Olympic-sized pool on a campus was practically empty. Students were “too modest,” said the colleague.
“To be seen in their swim suits?” Fisk asked.
“No. They don’t want anyone to criticize their swim strokes,” said the colleague.
She suspects that “active-learning pedagogies that leave the individual student vulnerable to public failure will face a serious challenge in Hong Kong.” This fear “underscores the need for new strategies if the graduates are to become self-directed and creative” in Hong Kong’s new service economy, she said.
Apart from her work with the Fulbright team, Fisk was able to conduct her own research and had two book chapters accepted for publication in addition to future publications related to the Hong Kong project. She was based at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
She also enjoyed hiking. “Hong Kong has some of the best hiking trails in the world, with country parks overlooking the South China Sea and containing occasional shrines to someone’s ancestor,” she said.