Dr Mark J Crowley is an Associate Professor of History and holds the distinguished Hubei Provincial ‘Chu Tian’ Research fellowship for the period 2014-2018 at the School of History, Wuhan University, China. He obtained his BScEcon Hons in Politics and Modern History at Cardiff University, an MSt in Modern History at Oxford University and his PhD from the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research, where he held an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award with the British Postal Museum and Archive. He has worked in China since March 2010 and at Wuhan University since March 2011.
Why did you choose to work in China?
This was something that I did not originally plan, and neither did it develop in the way that I envisioned! I visited China in 2009 for a holiday after submitting my PhD, and really liked the country. Exhausted from the strains of PhD study and concerns about the flat-lining job market in the UK after the 2008 financial crisis, my original plan was to come to China for a year to teach English so that I could experience life on a different continent, do a job that was far less demanding than academic work and also travel to see some of the ancient wonders of China. I then planned to return to the UK after a year. However, in the intervening period, I met my future wife and also got offered a postdoctoral research fellowship at Wuhan University. Returning to academic work after this one year break ensured that I went back to my research re-energised. The research fellowship helped me to concentrate on my refining my PhD research into articles and a forthcoming monograph. This led to a Lectureship in the following year, and a promotion to Associate Professor in 2013.
How did you prepare for the move?
There are many things that you need to do in order to be prepared for a move to a different continent, although I believe some of the biggest preparations required are to ensure that you are psychologically ready for such a big move. You will be leaving your friends and family behind to go a country where the culture, customs, tradition and language are very different to that in the western world. For me, I believed that knowledge of a language acted as a window to understanding the new culture that I would experience, so I attended some very basic Chinese classes at Cardiff University’s Confucius Institute to give me a basic grounding in the language. However, I found that this was simply survival Chinese, and that I learned much more through osmosis when I arrived! Also, since there are so many dialects aside from the standard mandarin, a newcomer cannot be expected to communicate fluently or understand everything that’s going on! Furthermore, the younger generation, especially university students, have the ability to speak and understand English, and I found that when I tried to speak Chinese to them, they would reply in English! To provide me with as much knowledge as possible about the cultural customs and traditions, I also read some online resources and books about Chinese culture, and asked many questions from my future employers about the job requirements and the living environment.
How did the visa process go?
The visa process was relatively smooth. Chinese universities employing foreigners, especially if the foreign worker is not already resident in China (i.e. transferring from one university to another) are responsible for helping with the visa process, and entirely responsible for ensuring that it meets the requirements of the Police and Public Security Bureau when you are living in China. The visa process largely comes in 2 parts. First, before you leave for China, you will need to apply for a visa to enter the country. This is a Z visa that you can apply after you have received your invitation letter from your Chinese employer. You submit this together with the relevant forms to the Chinese embassy in your country of residence. However, remember that this purely shows the Immigration Authorities in China that you are coming to work, and is NOT the document required to ensure that you can work or live in China (you will notice that it also has a limited validity of anything between 30-90 days). This is why, when you have arrived and are settling into your new surroundings, your university will ensure that this visa is updated to a full residency permit. Each university has an International Office whose staff are experts in dealing with these affairs. They should also keep you updated at every point of the process.
What was it like in the first few days/weeks?
The first few weeks were daunting, primarily because of the communication difficulties. However, body language and also carrying a list of telephone numbers that you can call in case you need translation assistance, together with some business cards showing the address of your university are all helpful to ensure that if you need to get back home in a taxi, the driver can read where to take you and can call someone if they are still unsure! Getting used to being away from what is familiar to you is what makes things difficult in the beginning. However, if you are willing to adapt yourself to the new culture and surroundings, embracing the changes, challenges and beauty that it brings, then hopefully you will be happy. In terms of accommodation, Chinese universities normally provide living quarters on campus for foreign academics. However, it is important to be prepared that the quality of this accommodation is variable. Nevertheless, since the universities are really keen to increase their international collaboration and accommodate foreign academics, it is highly probable that you could use your status as a foreign academic to either negotiate for better on-campus accommodation or to arrange a stipend, in addition to your salary, to cover the cost of rent and utility bills in the private rented sector.
What sort of work are you engaged in?
Currently I am engaged in the full range of academic work as if I were employed in the UK. I convene 3 undergraduate classes, 1 postgraduate class, supervise undergraduate and masters’ dissertations together with PhD theses, and am also the Graduate Admissions Tutor. I am also research-active, and am working simultaneously on book projects journal articles. Universities in China see the employment of foreign academics as a positive thing, especially if they can produce English-language publications, since they help the university to obtain high scores in the Chinese government’s research assessment (which is the equivalent to the UK’s REF)
How many hours do you work?
Between 55-60 hours per week. I undertake 9 hours of teaching per week. Classes are organised in 50 minute sessions. Since I am the only staff member that teaches in English, and my classes are large, there are no seminars. I supplement this by getting students to discuss topics in class, but the classes are primarily lecture-based. Aside from my teaching, the rest of the time is taken with research and administration, with around 20% of my time being spent on administration.
How did you find the Higher Education sector in China?
The first (and perhaps most obvious point) is that I found the sector to be absolutely massive. In Wuhan alone, there are 50 universities and over 1 million students. In China, there are over 3000 universities. I find that the sector is still growing and seems to be embracing a lot of ideas from western countries. Many universities are seeking to be more ‘international’ through exploring the possibilities of signing Memorandums of Understanding (MOU’s) between themselves and universities in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. This, I believe, in the long-term is part of the Chinese government’s desire to make China an international education system through raising standards and where the exchange of students between the nations can be a mutually-beneficial exercise. This is slowly becoming a reality with the desire to employ foreign academics to help with this process. This is one aspect of the work that I am involved with at Wuhan University, and for foreign academics working in China, one of your biggest assets is your connections with UK universities, since the sector is always seeking to explore how it can improve its international standing through forming collaborations with overseas universities.
How does Chinese university teaching differ from other countries you have worked in?
There are a few differences, but this is largely caused by the significantly larger student body. Seminars are few and far between, primarily owing to the difficulty in dividing such large groups into manageable discussion groups and assigning them with the teachers holding the required expertise. For example, there are normally between 70 and 90 students in my Masters’ class, whereas in the UK, this would probably be fewer than 20. There is also a preference among many Chinese students to follow a particular textbook for their classes, and sometimes this is used in class. However, I tend to prefer assigning my own reading materials for students to do in their free time, and present my lectures using Powerpoint and other interactive technologies, including movies.
What about your work with the students?
In my experience, the students are extremely diligent. For the undergraduate students, they enter the university having completed the extremely competitive Chinese University Entrance examination (the equivalent to A Levels). These are extremely pressured, and many parents, particularly with the one child policy in China, place significant pressure on their offspring to succeed in this examination so that they may enter a good university and thus gain a good reputation (or as referred to in China, ‘Face’) for the family. For postgraduate students, they are also required to undertake an entrance examination before starting their further study. This academic culture means that students, generally speaking, are very focused and interested in the subject that they are studying. They are aware that the job market is very competitive, and are thus driven to achieve the best possible results to ensure that they can be best-prepared for the future.
How has working overseas helped your career?
It has helped me to connect with a vast range of Asian networks that are interested in the study of British history. I have attended various Asian-based conferences, and have widened my academic network. This will help me when I leave China to develop relationships between my new university and other Asian institutions. Furthermore, the limited teaching schedule has also given me the additional time required to refine my research for publication, which will certainly be very beneficial in future job applications.
Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work in China?
I would say that working in China is certainly a very worthwhile experience. I have been lucky in that my department head obtained his PhD from the UK, and understands the importance of research and international collaboration. Chinese universities are really focusing on English-language publications, since it helps them to get more credence in the research rankings and develop their international standing. Additionally, if you have a clear long-term research goal and plan to increase your international network through attending international conferences, Chinese universities are likely to support this through providing a research stipend, since they are seeking to enhance their international collaboration, and view this as an excellent way to ensure this could be achieved. Since the Chinese universities are not as cash-strapped as many western universities at present, I have been told by colleagues working in the UK and the US that obtaining research money for the purchase of books and attending international conferences would appear to be significantly easier in China than it would be for junior colleagues in the UK or the US. If you are ready to take on a new challenge and embrace the change that this would bring to your life, I would thoroughly recommend China as a place to build your career!