A Chinese controversy at USC

[I will continue adding links to this post as I find relevant material on-line.]

This is a post about an unusual controversy in the United States over the use of the Chinese language in teaching. The controversy occurred at the University of Southern California (USC), in the university’s Marshall School of Business. Ironically, it concerns a class on Business Communications. The class was taught by Prof. Greg Patton, a scholar with years of experience in China and U.S.-China relations. Here is a link to Patton’s page at the USC US-China Institute, and another link to his page at the Marshall School of Business.

A brief segment of Prof. Patton’s class illustrated how the problem of inadequate preparation for speech or presentations may prompt one to use meaningless “filler-words”, confusing or blocking the flow of speech and ideas. As an example, Prof. Patton gave the chinese word ‘nei-ge’ 那個, usually translated in English as ‘that’, but also often used in a non-directional sense close to English ‘the’. As a filler word, it is more like English “um”, “er”, “ah”, having no real meaning at all, except “I’m thinking … I’m thinking …” and is usually said several times in rapid succession. Prof. Patton’s example was: “nei-ge nei-ge nei-ge”.

As anyone who lives in a Chinese speaking country knows, this is a good, clear example of a filler, extremely common in casual, un-planned speech. Unfortunately, however, despite Prof. Patton’s clear statement that this was an example from Chinese, some students in his class interpreted the phrase as a racial slur in English. They promptly wrote a letter of complaint to the business school. As a result, Prof. Patton was removed as instructor for the class, and the dean of the business school, Professor Geoffrey Garrett, sent an email apology to the class.

I’ve been following the controversy as more has come out about what the exact nature of the students’ complaint was, and how USC has handled it. As of now, I am deeply concerned about the consequences of the controversy for Chinese language teaching in America, and more generally for the Chinese speaking community in America. I’ll have more to say about this in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve put together some links to various statements and letters from a variety of people. A lot of this material comes from The Volokh Conspiracy, a law blog run by Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA. Prof. Volokh’s field is freedom of speech, hence his interest in the controversy.

Links on the controversy

  1. A clip of the class at USC Marshall School of Business in which Prof. Patton gives nei-ge as an example of “filler words” (youtube)
  2. A post on Professor’s removal from the class, from U Penn Professor Victor Mair’s ”Language Log” blog with many interesting comments from several American academics specializing in matters Chinese. Commenting here has been ongoing until the last couple of days. (I have some comments here myself) (Mair 8/28)
  3. The first post at ”The Volokh conspiracy” (volokh 9/3)
  4. The initial letter of complaint from the students, a letter sent to all students in the 2020 class by Dean Geofrrey Garrett, and a response to the students’ letter from Professor Patton were posted at a website run by USC business students (Quants 9/04)
  5. Post from Volokh on some of the news coverage of the students’ complaint and Prof. Patton’s removal (volokh 09/05)
  6. A little joke from Prof. Volokh about “homonymophobia” (volokh 09/06a)
  7. Prof. Volokh’s response to the students’ claim that Prof. Patton’s lecture ‘affected our mental health’ (volokh 09/06b)
  8. A letter from Chinese and East Asian graduates of USC Business School in support of Prof. Patton (volokh 09/07)
  9. Letters from USC president and provost to the Chinese students who wrote to support Prof. Patton (volokh 9/9)
  10. A letter from the Business School Faculty Council to faculty members (volokh 9/10)
  11. Volokh’s comments on the implications and long-term effects of the controversy (volokh 9/12a)
  12. Volokh post on the USC students who complained and earlier incidents in China and Taiwan (volokh 9/12b)

More links

  1. How one word led to an uproar“: A long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the story, with comments from Patton and others. The CHE article is paywalled, but Eugene Volokh has excerpts so try there first (Volokh 09/17)
  2. Two more articles on the story, both discussing USC faculty reaction to the business school handling of students’ complaint against Prof. Patton. One, based on an internal survey of USC business faculty, appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The other appears in this month’s issue of the Atlantic. Links and brief excerpts can be found again at the Volokh Conspiracy blog (volokh 9/22).
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