Tuesday, March 19, 2019

How good is your Service-Learning Course?

This time it is the teachers who are in a class.  Normally it is the students who attend our service-learning classes.  Today we are in a workshop learning how to assess the quality of a service-learning course (subject), from one of the pioneers, Professor Andrew Furco.  He has been tirelessly researching, teaching, and promoting service-learning all over the world.  He has also been giving us a lot of help over the years. 

30+ teachers from PolyU, Baptist U, Lingnan U and HKU (and perhaps some other university that I missed) sat for 3 hours to learn to “grade” a service-learning course using 28 measures.  It is hard.  We argued, or at least debated intensively, whether the service prescribed are too “light” and can actually achieve the intended learning objectives.  We tried to guess whether the discussions as prescribed in the syllabus can actually help the students link the academic content to the issues uncovered through the service.  

Whatever the conclusion each of us drew from the workshop, we participated vigorously.  And we learned a lot.  From the workshop, from each other.  Just like many other things in education, there is no absolute answer to these kind of questions.  We learn incrementally, relatively.  

I was struck with one thought towards the end of the workshop.  It is not really common for teachers in universities to be so excited about the quality of teaching.  Why are so keen then?  Perhaps it is because we do actually fervently believe in the power of service-learning in particular, and in education in general?  Too bad that service-learning is only one of the 40 courses that an undergraduate student has to take.  If the 39 other courses are getting as much attention, …

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Harvest Ministry Community Church

Went to a Sunday worship service at the Hung Hom Hall of the Polytechnic University just now.  I didn’t know that the group exist until yesterday. It turns our they have been there for 4 years now.  That shows me there is still so much about our university that I do not know.  

I was not surprised to find the music loud, the pastor wearing jeans, and the generally casual atmosphere.  I was still pleasantly surprised to find 150 people, passionately singing, laughing at the preachers’ jokes, screaming when their friends’ faces show up on the screen among those becoming members.  

The sermon was touching and relevant, serious and also humorous.  We suffer when we are of two minds, when we cannot decide whether to live according to the worldly, fashionable trends (and feel ashamed) or to live according God’s moral precepts (and feel restless).  We have to make up our minds.  On the other hand, our assurance is from God - who does not fail, and does not depend on our will, which can (fail).  The preacher was obviously familiar with university life. His witty observations resonated with the congregation.  There are many PolyU students, but also many from other universities, and young people returning from USA. 

I was not surprised to find some students that I know or look familiar.  I was still very pleasantly surprised to find that so many of them have taken one of the service-learning courses that I taught, or have participated in some overseas project that our office have organzied - Myanmar, Cambodia, Rwanda, …, United Nations Volunteer project in East Timor, …  A girl from Kazakhstan will be going to help in the project in Kazakhstan, …  Service-Learning and faith, obviously, is a good match.  

It is so heartening to see young people so passionate about God, and actively living out their faith.  

Monday, March 11, 2019

Spring Book Club - Harari’s books

My wife and I have been running a Book Club at our church for several years.  Whenever we can, we meet once a month on the first Saturday evening to discuss a chosen book or topic.  On this past Saturday I started to discuss Harari’s 3 books.  

Our Book Club studies books from the perspective of our Christian faith.  But we don’t just study books written from a Christian point of view.  We read anything that may be relevant to faith.  

In the past, we have studied the history of the Jews, the history of the Christian Church, Islamic State, Daoism and Christianity, When Buddha meets Christ - a dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Viktor Frankl’s Men’s Search for Meaning - Surviving in Nazi Concentration Camps, The Sons of Abraham - a dialogue between a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim iman, …

We are reading Harari’s books because they made some provocative and well-argued points - and are very popular.  He claims that Homo Sapiens have been dominating other animals because the unique abilities to create and share common beliefs in virtual “things” such as countries, borders, religions, money, corporations, …, that enable and drive humans to achieve great endeavours.  

He argues that science have largely solved the problems of hunger, infectious diseases, and death from wars.  I found that the first two claims can be considered partially valid based on available data and the studies of other researchers.  But the third is far from proven.

He argues that advances such as artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering are going to create either superior humans or intelligent machines that will displace regular humans.  He is, of course, not the only one with similar or related viewpoints.  Some are arguing that the soul does not exists, that humans are nothing more than data processing algorithms, that consciousness is not necessary but merely by-products of brain processes, …  

We are barely making headway into examining the validity of such provocative thoughts.    What is consciousness?  Is consciousness necessary in order to be intelligent / human? There were 30+ people participating on Saturday, and they seemed very interested.  There were a lot of questions and comments.  We agreed to continue at the next session in May.  

We are excited learning to be thinking Christians.  We need to know what is reasonable to believe, and we want to be sure that what we believe is reasonable.  Because God is reasonable, and our ability to reason comes from God.  

Cooking on the Street

My wife and I walked leisurely from Quarry Bay to Causeway Bay on Sunday, after having a good meal in a small Nyonya restaurant.  On the way, we passed by a lot of presumably Indonesian domestic workers having a day off near Victoria Park.   I was struck by the realisation of so many of them selling food boiling in pots set on small gas stoves. 

Isn’t it illegal? Not too long ago it caused quite an uproar when the government prosecuted vigorously street vendors hawking exactly that - food being cooked on open fire?  Why does the government turn a blind eye towards such large scale defiance of the law here and now?  

I am not advocating prosecution of the Indonesians.  They need a way to relax on their day off, relate to their friends and enjoy familiar food and culture.  But why such differences in treatment?  Why is the government so tolerant towards one group of people but is so harsh on another?  Is it what is called selective enforcing of the law?  Why?

On the other hand, why can’t the government turn this need of the foreign domestic helpers into something more positive?  Can we not make this into an attraction by giving them a proper venue and infrastructure - weekend Indonesian Festivals, Filipino Festivals, …   The foreign workers will be happy with better environments and facilities, and perhaps even opportunities to make some money.  Local people will be happy to have something new to do on weekends.  Tourists will be happy to have more opportunities for new experiences.  So, why not?

It cannot be a lack of will.  Our government can be very strong willed when it wants to - just note how determined it is in persecuting those who espouse any hint of independence for Hong Kong.  It also cannot be a lack of resources - our government has been running a surplus for decades!  Is it simply a lack of imagination? 

Of course it will involve some planning, and there are issues to tackle.  So it is sheer laziness?  

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Lin Heung Teahouse (蓮香樓)

One day in late February, I got up before dawn to have dim sum at 蓮香樓 in Central with my daughter A, who just landed at the airport from Yangon, Myanmar.   

We made such an effort because was going to close at the end of February.  And we knew that by about 8:30 am, the place would be filled with so many tourists that it would be very difficult to find a seat, let alone a table.  

By the time I get there, at 7:30 am, the sun had risen, the street was still very quiet. A and her friend were already there, and they had gotten a small table - a small victory by itself.  

Looking around, I realised that most of the customers were much older than my daughter, mostly likely old-timers.  Some of them were giving the waiters tips.  Perhaps as a result, they seemed to be getting better service than we did.  A fair deal, some might say.  

The food was marginally OK, but not great.  Frankly, we were not really there for the food.  

Rather, it was the atmosphere; the covered tea cups - which you have to hold in one hand in a special way, to make sure you do not spill the tea, nor lose the lid, when you pour; the big kettles that the waiters use to refill your covered tea cup or small tea pot, the dim sum carts that you can choose your dim sum from; the ceiling fans; the calligraphy and paintings on the walls; …  

It was the memory that they invoke - the days when I was small, when people brought their birds in their intricate cages to the tea house, …, when we were poor and going to the tea house was a rare treat. 

When we walked down the stairs and out of the place, it felt like something was being lost, and gone forever.  I wanted to linger, but didn’t.  I had to go to work.  Worse than that, the place was already very crowded, and people were standing in your back waiting for your place.  It would not have been fun to stay.   

Later, we heard that some of the staff pooled together some money to take over the restaurant from the old owners.  So now the restaurant has reopened, with a slightly different name 蓮香茶室, and the restaurant remains pretty much the same.   

I do hope they retain the same restaurant, with better food.  I may yet try again.  

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Global Virtual Classroom

We are running our Global Virtual Classroom again.  In fact, we have been running it for several years now.  It is basically a joint course that we offer together with another university over the Internet.  This year we are working again with the University of Maryland.  On our side we are offering a course on Cross-boundary Service-Learning and Leadership, while Maryland is offering a course on Global Leadership.  Because we have a larger class, we divide our students into two groups and put them in different rooms, so we end up with 2 groups of PolyU students and 1 group of Maryland students. 

Today they are discussing the digital divide: the uneven distribution of access to information technology across countries and communities.  The class is conducted in multiple modes.  A professor from either university leads a lecture or class discussion with all students participating.  

We also divide the students into small groups, with students from both universities in each group, and let them work on assignments and projects together.  

Sometimes they work intensively on their own for a while. 

They then come back to report to the whole class.  

This way students get to work with students from another university from another country from another continent, with very different language, cultural, economical and political backgrounds.  It may not be as direct and effective as travelling there to have physical contact.  But it provides that learning experience to a much wider range of students, without the cost in finances and time involved in travelling.  And it can be much more flexible, taking place for a much longer period of time overall with breaks in between. 

In itself it is another manifestation of the digital divide - some communities have access to this form of internationalisation in learning, but not others. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Lives of Others

I went with my wife to see a movie last evening and ended up wondering whether I could have survived in East Germany.  Before I went, I had a vague idea that the movie was about some repressive regime and was prepared to be depressed.  I went away with decidedly mixed feelings.  On the one hand, it was heartening to see that some humanity may manage to survive in a repressive regime such as East Germany.  On the other hand, I believe I would not survive in East Germany and probably do not wish to. 

“The Lives of Others” was set in East Germany in 1984, 5 years before the Berlin Wall came down.  Playwright Dreyman was staying out of trouble by toeing the party line.  But Culture Minister Hempf ordered Stasi, the notorious secret police, to put the apartment that he shared with his girl friend, actress Sieland, under surveillance because Hempf coveted Seiland.  

Stasi officer Wiesler was sent to plant listening devices in Dreyman’s apartment and to eavesdrop on them continuously, taking copious notes, including when they came in and out, spoke, ate, slept and had sex.  Dreyman and Sieland remained blissfully oblivious of the surveillance.  

Dreyman secretly wrote an article about suicides in East Germany for the famous West German magazine Der Spiegel.  The Staci suspected Dreyman but could not find the evidence.  Eventually Sieland was pressured to sell out Dreyman.  Just before the Staci moved in to take the incriminating typewrite from Dreyman’s apartment, however, Wiesler removed the typewriter.  But Wiesler could not prevent Sieland from committing suicide when she realised that Dreyman was going to find out that she betrayed him.  

Wiesler, Dreyman and Hempf all survived the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the unification of Germany.  

The oppressive atmosphere as depicted in the movie, said to be rather realistic, was truly depressing.  You have to bury your humanity completely in order to survive.  I don’t think I could. And I don’t want to. So I won’t.  

East Germany is now gone.  But repressive regimes remain. Is humanity improving?