Stimulating Discussion With Chinese Students

The campus cats. Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Some of these tips I got on arrival, from Fulbright meetings. Other later in my time here. A lot didn’t work. Below is what did. The custom is, teacher’s right/students listen & regurgitate later. Much has been written about how frustrating this is to American lecturers, here and at U.S. colleges (where, sometimes, language proficiency or fraudulent applications may be at fault). There are solutions.

Distribute questions a week in advance to a group. The group prepares the answers. The “discussion” (group presentation) occurs at a planned time.

This didn’t suit a reporting & writing course. They reported and wrote almost every week. Instead, I gave a quiz on the rare non-reporting, non-writing weeks, to ensure they used that week to get caught up with the past month or so’s reading. After the quiz was a reasonably good time for discussion; everyone was ‘on the same page.’

Explain that they need the skill of being able to discuss material, to be transnational. Explain that it’s required in the U.S. classroom, from middle school onward. Lay out the expectation the first day that every student is expected to speak in class, and that to challenge the teacher is considered polite. That questions don’t imply I haven’t done a thorough teaching job.

Unless the students had done a semester abroad, or was naturally extroverted, this had no impact. By the end, I’ve imparted a living sense of a different student-teacher relationship–more actively engaged (if not quite Socratic), more ‘democratic’ and hands-on and debate-oriented. But it’s a slow build, not something you can create in a day.

Call on students randomly.

This worked poorly.

–Go around the room, one by one.

This also worked poorly. Many students were unprepared, unwilling, too nervous, got stage fright & lost their fluent English.

Ask a question. Break up into pairs for discussion. Let one of the pair represent their thoughts aloud.

This might work. I broke into groups of 4 or 5. Sometimes we had a good exercise. The problems were 1) I gave too much time to prepare; 5 minutes would be good but I probably gave 10+, so it devolved into a chat-fest. And 2) the same old gregarious, extroverted, most-fluent students would be speaking, as always.

Here is what worked for me:

Explain the purpose of student-teacher individual conferences, and then pass out a weekly sign-up list. I made coming in mandatory, at least once. Many students came a lot. I had 4 hours/week set aside for conferences (most weeks), at my kitchen table. Discussing, tutoring, mentoring, relationship-building all much easier in this informal setting.

Class lunches. This was strongly recommended by Fulbright, as a key part of our We’re-Not-Your-Typical-Foreign-Expert approach. Great tradition. Class leader would reserve one big table (7-9 students), almost every week. Rotated around until everyone (nearly 90 students this year) participated. They ordered so I learned about a lot of good foods, too. Guest speakers sometimes joined, or other faculty, which was extra great.  Informal setting meant no one was on stage so there wasn’t stage fright or the other problems. Only downside was, had to regularly remind everyone to use English, so we could get to know one another better.

–Distribute a ‘self-evaluation sheet’ the day a piece is due, and discuss after they’ve filled it out. Got this idea from a Chinese professor. Students use this ‘quiz’ to evaluate their work (which they have in hand, in hard copy), against the techniques/skills/theories contained in the latest readings. After they’re done, it’s all fresh in mind, they’ve had a critical, analytical half hour with the material, they’re called on to share aloud the result of their self-evaluation.

BFSU Main Building spring 2012

Top 10 Lessons, Midway Through Year

Sort of lost, as usual

At the Fulbright Mid-Year Conference in Xiamen–five days with the great full-year lecturers and getting to know the Spring-only group, I’ll be presenting…along the lines of this very condensed…

Ten Lessons Learned, Midway Through a Year in China

Mu Mansion, Yunnan


1. To understand anything, rely on Chinese journalism in translation.

Kuilan Liu, translator, scholar, friend


2. Banks are the object of protest. But life without them here (can you say “disintermediated”) isn’t great. In emergencies, there is no such thing as check, credit card, ATM. Find a place to hide a humongous wad on your person.

Calligrapher, Xi'an


3. Shame a student and you will never see his or her face again. (Suppose that’s why they call it “Losing face.”)

Mao Statue, Lijiang


4. Zithromax, Zithromax, Zithromax. Don’t leave town without a year’s supply x the number in your party.

Tagong cook, Sichuan


5. No matter how fab my lectures and exercises, students prefer field trips to places they’ve only heard about: global media and international NGOs.

6. When ad libbing a public speech (or–with any luck–delivering a prepared one), you might get away with a lighthearted opener but ultimately, weighty and formal are expected.

McDonald's, Old Beijing


7. Related: Give thanks, give tribute, give recognition.

Temple lamps, Chengdu


8. What the young feel and believe most deeply–everything you most want to know–they can’t articulate. Fish can’t explain water.

Guest speaker banquet


9. Gradual (imperceptible?) change is praiseworthy; upheaval is scary.

10. A little repression is always to be expected.

798 Art District, Beijing 2011

Rescued by the CCP

Big in Changchun!

I was crying in public (2nd time), sick, at an airline counter with a feverish kid. Needing to leave a frigid northern city, & they F -ed up our reservation. No one spoke English. SOS call to student and the line was busy. No plane seats for us, sick kid or no.

Suddenly, concerned and gentle eyes. Square face, black v-neck sweater, a guardian angel of a G-man in his 50s–and somehow I knew he was, from the first instant, but how??! the 6 guys identically dressed behind him with similar briefcases?? what do Party bigs carry??–loomed above us at the counter: “Is there some way I can help you?” he asks, in perfect kindest English.

More tears, soothing v-neck interventions, a lucky flight delay (smog in Beijing) and $600 later (refunded today), we were saved. Homeward bound.

Talking at the departure gate, the boys’ old-style People’s Liberation Army winter hats (the current weird China-tourist-souvenir fad) spur him to recall that those were the hats they wore when he was 11 in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began. (I feel vaguely panicked at the semiotics, the potential ideological echo, the kids may be broadcasting wearing these hats.)

His father was a poor farmer, “so I was a poor farmer.” I shush the boys to listen, hoping for a long recollection, but the G-man’s not a talker. All he’ll say is the universities were closed. “When they opened them again, I took the test and entered university.” He’d rather talk about America — New Jersey! He’s been to 25 U.S. states. His sister lives in South Carolina. How do the boys pursue their education here? he asks. Why was I in Changchun? (Motor City, home to China’s automotive plants, and several gigantic universities.)

“You’re a businessman?” the kids say.

“What makes you think so?” he answers, bemused. “I’m a servant of the public. I’m with the government.”

And not that a t-shirt would show, because we’re layered up, as if for skiing. But Kenny recognizes, in a whisper to me, it’s a good thing he’s not wearing his kitschy-wry-making-fun-of-Mao t-shirt that I have, against his opposition, banned within China as inappropriate.

Students arriving for one lecture

It was my first lecture tour that took us to Changchun, up in Jilin province where it’s 10 degrees F, near Korea, and they eat this delicious soup made with meat and sour fermented cabbage. I experienced my 15 minutes of fame, as students rushed the stage for photos, and to cop my PowerPoints off the PC. When I gave prizes to a few volunteers who helped during a writing exercise–journalism textbooks donated at home, shipped here by Fulbright–others in the audience swarmed, fought to handle & admire them. English books aren’t only costly, they’re almost impossible to find.

Our (kind, generous) hosts, professors of media, were surprised to learn we don’t have (aside from CSPAN, I suppose–I tried to explain that!!) an official, state media. Surprised at how deep the newspaper crisis is, as China’s print readership (like India’s) is still growing, with new readers rising in waves of rising income, education & literacy.

Student questions: “What do you think of our lack of youth freedom?” “How can I get real information for my stories?” “Do you believe in advertorials masquerading as news?” (not quite in those words)

Our host, professor Bao


Pu Yi, the last emperor, born in unimaginable continent-sucking wealth in the Forbidden City, lived here, too, in his 30s and 40. After the Japanese invasion during WW2, Changchun was a war-time capital of Japan’s Manchukuo state. Pu Yi lived here much lower on the foodchain, as a Japanese ‘puppet’ ruler.

The last emperor


After Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Pu Yi tried fleeing to Russia, but was captured & imprisoned.

Pu Yi's prison uniform


Quite a book-end to the Imperial dynasties’ glories. The Chinese eventually pardonned his treason; he ended his life as a Beijing gardener, happy, at least in a few pictures. Here’s his bike.

Leaving for Beijing

Can one teach journalism and the role of social media without mentioning the Arab Spring?

What can you feed a family of four using the only cooking tool available in the faculty apartment (a hotplate)?

How many size-13 men’s shoes, boots and ice skates get into suitcases before you exceed Continental’s  per person weight limit?

For answers to these questions and more, see you on coplansinchina.