University of B.C. students in a Chinese politics and development course are wrapping up strange semester that included the abrupt disappearance of their teacher, the appointment of a teaching assistant to lead the course, and the disappointment of not being able to study with a leading thinker in the discipline.
Assistant professor Xiaoiun Li in UBC’s political science department was supposed to teach 100 students in the undergraduate course and lead a group of 20 graduate students throughout the fall term.
But some undisclosed immigration issues apparently required him to leave his position in late September, after he started teaching a few classes. The department head in political science Barbara Arneil explained to the students. A temporary replacement was hired to handle the professor’s undergraduate course, but few details were offered to students.
“I asked him to be my academic referee, but now I am not even able to contact him,” said Grace Chen, a student who once took Li’s course. Holding a PhD Degree in political science from Stanford University, Li has received several grants and awards from such organizations as the National Science Foundation and Chinese Ministry of Education and his research has appeared on core journals like Asian Survey.
The department informed students that the professor was no longer available, but no details about the situation were provided.
“Basically we got this information just before the students did,” said Barbara Arneil, the department head in political science.
The department had to rely on information from Li’s lawyer, who apparently assured the university that Li would return in mid-November.
Arneil also claimed that, in the political science department, although abrupt disappearance of teachers sometimes happen out of different reasons, one like Li’s is very rare.
“All I can say is human error happens. And in any case, this is something you couldn’t have planned before,” she said. Arneil would not speak directly about the case due to privacy concerns regarding the professor.
The courses must go on
In the meantime, the course is being led by Linting Zhang, a senior PhD candidate in political science.
“I want the students not to worry about the situation. I have been assisting this course for three years in a row, and I welcome any suggestions from the students regarding this course,” said Zhang.
Meanwhile, the students seemed to take the change in stride.
“It was confusing for a period. We didn’t know where we were on the reading list,” said fourth-year student Uli Zhao. “But I think Linting has been doing well. If it wasn’t for the absence of the instructor, we couldn’t have had so many guest speakers from different departments and universities give us lectures.”
Students enrolled in the graduate-level course had other challenges to contend with.
After Li left, they were led by guest lecturers for the first few classes, but they have been without a lead instructor for the past month and a half.
During these weeks, the political science department has been looking for candidates from economics and mathematics. A new professor has since been hired starting early November.
“What was difficult on that is, it is a required course involving quantitative research methods, so there are only few people who are qualified to teach,” said Arneil.
During the semester, graduate students organized their own study group, coming together to learn the subject by themselves, while the department remained open for questions and suggestions.
“We were just trying to make the best out of the situation,” said a graduate student who did not want to be identified because of concerns about his grades. “We paid tuition fee, and we committed ourselves to this course. If we couldn’t get what we expected to get, so of course it was frustrating and disappointing at a time.”
Other students just found the whole experience confusing.
“Waiting wouldn’t have been much of a problem if he was back. But then he’s not, ” said Anna Steshenko, a graduate student, “And we don’t know how the new professor will grade. I heard that they haven’t come up with a decision yet.”
Students did reach out to the Graduate Student Society at UBC, but the representative for political science was not able to provide any help.
The professor is expected to return
Li is listed to lead another undergraduate course next term, and 100 students have already signed up. Students have been told that, if they prefer to transfer to another course, the department will support them to do so.
At this point, Arneil expects the course to go ahead, indicating the department is optimistic about resolving the immigration issue.
“But I don’t have a crystal ball with respect to the circumstances.”
Li is reportedly in Shanghai, China. Officials at UBC will not discuss his whereabouts, citing privacy concerns.