This week’s astounding job offer

Real money! For teaching! (I taught my last class in 2010, but I’ve been surreptitiously lecturing about linguistics and gender & sexuality studies in my light-entertainment postings on this blog — yes, I’ve been using you, and I won’t stop now — though I can’t imagine that anyone would pay for this.) On the other hand, the offer e-mail is a raging wildfire of red flags, a whole trawler packed solid and piled high with stinking dead fish.

E-mail to zwicky at my Stanford address (received at 1:38am (PDT) on 9/16, so presumably originating in some time zone distant from California) from


(That’s it; eventually, I winkled out the whole originating address, which provided me with crucial information about the monosyllabic, presumably Chinese, entity Yang; more below.)

Mail header:

Teaching a PBL course on Linguistics

(Inadvisedly, I disregarded the PBL, because the initialism was unfamiliar to me; more below.)

Complete body of the text:

How desperately detail-deprived! It’s a skeletal form letter that doesn’t even use my family name, doesn’t identify Yang’s organization or institution (just the cryptic “Academic Outreach Team Representative”), and says nothing about the content of the Linguistics course I would be hired to teach.

So it’s a shrieking stinking scam, but one of a type new to me (and I’m presented with a rich assortment of scam offers every day, most of them having to do with the uses of this blog). I can’t see how I could be the target of the scam; the target must be whoever is paying the sender of the offer (an entity using the name Yang; I’ll call it YangCo) — so, ultimately, those teenagers. Why are they paying for a Linguistics course?

At  first, I imagined they might be taking the course for fun and for acquiring some competence, as high school students sometimes do with, say, a robotics course (in my times, a Morse code course, which I took with my buddy Al back in the 1950s). Undergraduates at Stanford have open to them a kind of supercharged version of such courses: the freshman and sophomore seminars — small-sized classes on topics not offered in any regular course and made attractive by the sheer coolness of the topics. The last Stanford course I had anything to do with was a freshman seminar on The Language of Comics, taught primarily by Elizabeth Traugott, with assistance from me.

I presented the case to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky over breakfast today, and she instantly appreciated that courses for fun / competence could not possibly work as an income source for YangCo. (The Stanford undergrad seminars work through a huge subvention from the university, which pays for a devoted administrative staff and the salaries of the faculty involved.)

What might work, she suggested, was courses that could be used to bolster applications for college admissions. For students who need such bolstering and more personal attention in their education. Their families, or possibly their schools, would pay YangCo for such enrichment. So if there’s scamming going on here, those families and schools are the targets, and the scamming would involve taking in much more from the targets than YangCo pays out to the instructors it actually hires (that in itself is just making a profit) without delivering effective enrichment (that makes it a scam).

(I must admit here that I don’t know the mechanics of educational scamming; I don’t for example, know just how Helmet Grabpussy worked his Grabpussy University scam, before it crashed.)

All of this is suppositional, and I haven’t found any source of information about the entity I’ve been calling YangCo and its programs that is not provided by YangCo. There is, however, such an entity, with a legal name I’ll conceal as the name BFD (for Big Fucking Deal) Research.

What I have learned springs from the e-address of Yang, the nominal sender of the message (here I conceal the YangCo name) :

I remind you that usernames and sitenames can be, within limits, freely chosen (so long as they are available, of course). There doesn’t have to be a real person named Yang Huang associated with BFD Research; this could just be the name of a bot that mails stuff out.

Yang Huang and BFD Research. Yang and Huang, two very common Chinese names, usable both as personal names and as family names, so we don’t even know which is which, because the names might be in Chinese order (family name first) or Western order (personal name first). Using the name Yang then just makes everything murky.

BFD, however, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization registered in Massachusetts. The website description, however, is written in highly abstract, mostly empty, terms, with plenty of ad puffery:

BFD aims to help international students [AZ: this appears to refer, not to students from one country studying in another, but to students in several countries] master knowledge and expertise within their chosen fields of study and develop research projects with the assistance and guidance from BFD faculty.

… We provide solutions to high schools with a whole set of teaching videos, assessments, and teacher training

The BFD program pursues its goals primarily through three specific approaches:

— 1. We provide a direct connection between top academic professors and students through mentorship programs.

— 2. We provide guidelines and criteria for universities to review the students who participated our programs by evaluating their academic performance, research skills, class participation, and language skills [AZ: the reference to language skills suggests that this really is about students from one country studying in another; but maybe this is all just incoherent fuzzy stuff cobbled together, it makes my head hurt].

— 3. We work with international high schools to provide comprehensive solutions to better their educational resources and their students’ overall learning experience.

… BFD relies on the proven value of the tutorial system, based on small learning groups and on maintaining the optimal ratio of professors and students. This approach, pioneered within the best university systems in the United Kingdom since the 1970s, is based on regular feedback from professors on writing assignments and on the verbal contributions of students within the framework of rigorous analysis, critique, and defense of intellectual ideas and concepts. This system promotes genuine learning within a process that, unlike traditional educational approaches, is difficult for students to succeed without genuine learning. In principle, BFD applies the tutorial system introduced in the UK and, to date, used elsewhere primarily within honors programs.

Bizarrely, the pedagogical approach advertised here is some version of the tutorial system, while the mail header on the Yang e-mail refers to a distantly related pedagogical approach known in the literature as Project-Based Learning (PBL in the e-mail header). From Wikipedia:

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios.

At this point, I’m assuming that allusions to the tutorial system and to PBL are entirely ornamental, but the description of PBL resonates with me deeply. Any reader of this blog who ever took an introductory course from me will recognize my insistence that the students engage with actual data (of many diverse kinds) from languages in their sociocultural contexts, with the students wrestling with the task of discovering the principles at work in the data, by forming, testing, and revising hypotheses, and then writing up an account of what they find. (Which I then put together with technical terminology, some history of how the concepts involved have been treated in the literature, and so on.) In a process of cumulative learning that builds up in homework, class discussions, and exams throughout the term.

There were exams (always open-book exams, and mostly take-home exams), but they were part of the learning process. No exam ever had true-or-false questions, fill-in-the-blank questions, define-a-term questions, or multiple-choice questions; it was all short essays asking for evidence and argument. Including my famously evil questions of the form:

Give an example of [technical term] (1 pt.) and explain why it is an example (4 pts.)

Teaching this way is fabulously time-intensive. Grading the exams depended on my assembling a crew of graders working with me, and the grading involved writing feedback on the answers, not mere assignment of points. Because every exam question — just like every homework question — was intended as a learning experience. The point of these exercises was understanding. And I was quite visibly passionate about that.

It was grindingly difficult work, but I miss it more than I can say. Because fairly often it succeeded, and then there was wild joy in Mudville. (Some students, of course, just hated being forced into active learning.)

(On top of all that, I had to take precautions to circumvent cheating and to work around websites that disseminated previous exams (with answers) from my intro courses. I don’t miss any of that one bit.)

For a few moments when I read the Yang e-mail, I thought that someone was offering me real money to do my kind of teaching, flat out. But then I saw the red flags and smelled the fish stinking in the mist.








10 Responses to “This week’s astounding job offer”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    I’d be interested to know what and have to say, if anything, about BFD – are they a participant, a victim, or an unknowing lure?

    • Stewart Kramer Says:

      Since large blocks of puffery were quoted, Google easily finds an actual BFD website, including the claim that it’s a 501(c)3. However, while GuideStar and CharityNavigator have many variations on B, F, and D, the only match in Massachusetts is a BF Foundation Inc, in Medway rather than Cambridge, with an EIN, 501(c)(3) IRS ruling year 2013, not currently scored by CharityNavigator.

      So, scammers might be exploiting a mostly-inactive foundation’s name, or running a decade-long scam, or something else. The name and details don’t quite match, either for plausible deniability, or by carelessness, and both of those would be red flags.

      • J B Levin Says:

        I have no doubt, and I believe Arnold has now confirmed, that the organization named in the “offer” was a legitimate-sounding name included as corroborative detail, intended to give inartistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald but possibly convincing narrative.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        (to J B Levin) Yes, the Pooh-Bah gambit. A follow-up posting is moments away…

  2. Max Vasilatos Says:

    This is so evocative for me. My memory is not hugely reliable, but I seem to recall Carl Rogers starting a course by announcing the topic, then suggesting that everyone should go learn about it and they would then reconvene to discuss. The class had expected, and begged for, a traditional lecture, so long and hard that eventually he gave in and delivered such a lecture. At which point they begged him not to do it again. 😉

    The other recollection is when Mom was way back teaching via correspondence, writing of course, and someone submitted an assignment that seemed familiar. She checked and indeed, it had been lifted entire and was by *her* (Lois Lowry). Really, the gall. She handed the whole thing over to the administration.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Whoa. These were intro courses, and the active learning was much like the laboratory component of an intro physics or chemistry course — with the expectation that the students would be discovering known principles for themselves (and so understanding them better), and with assignments that directed them towards this discovery. And then with plenty of context supplied by me.

      I did use more open-ended assignments in undergrad honors seminars and grad seminars. Where I’d do scene-setting lectures while offering various not-fully-understood phenomena for investigation by the students (I had a giant list of puzzles and unknowns). Who then reported regularly on their progress to the class at large and eventually wrote course papers — that could serve (with further work and revision) as qualifying papers, conference papers, master’s theses, articles for publication, the germs of doctoral dissertations.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    (to Stewart Kramer) Oh dear. As I tried to make clear in the posting, BFD is my (mocking) *concealment* of the actual initialism, so of course you didn’t find anything useful. On the chance that the *actual* organization was a legitimate enterprise (with woolly, largely empty, p.r. text) being exploited by someone, I concealed its identity. But now I have been to the ASC (American Scholastic Convention) website and can say that it’s a bizarre and baffling pile of stinking dead fish. I’ll blog about it very soon. The website is, if you’d like to check it out yourself.

    • Stewart Kramer Says:

      Yes, and the concealment was not very secure. The minimal Google search is the 7-word phrase “chosen fields of study and develop research” (in quotes) to get only 2 hits: ASC and your blog. ASC claims to be 501(c)3 registered, but their name doesn’t quite check out. And their address is a Regus co-working site in Cambridge, MA.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        Thanks for the detective work.

        I spent a few moments trying to visualize the address in Cambridge. Ah, a co-working site.

        Now I wonder how they created the enthusiastic-learners photos on the ASC site.

      • Stewart Kramer Says:

        Google image search says some of the pics are on Chinese sites quoting/touting ASC (and the Google does a slightly better job of translating the Chinese text into natural-sounding English than ASC’s own site, but ASC looks better because the spacing and punctuation is better). One of the pics is on a site of sample backgrounds for LinkedIn, so it’s everywhere. Others are unique to ASC, or (curiously) aren’t indexed by Google at all (maybe some ASC pages are robot-excluded). I’ll guess they’re all stock photos, but some are on non-public pages.

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