Thinking about Chinese student experience

Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

The first time I encountered a Chinese student in a university classroom was a harrowing experience. As a first year PhD student working on a thesis about Taiwan I was invited to give a guest lecture for comparative social policy Master’s class. My lecture about Taiwan was one of six case studies introducing students to social policy in different societies. I had taught a lab-based stats class, but this was my first experience in a lecture theatre. I struggled with anxiety and low self-confidence throughout my PhD and I was nervous. Within the first few minutes of the lecture, still in the grip of nerves, one of the only Chinese students in the theatre raised her hand. I wasn’t expecting or inviting questions at this point. “Hi, you have a question?” She didn’t have a question, it was more of a statement: “Taiwan is not a country”.

I was at a loss for words. The lecture was about social policy, and I had no idea why this student felt the need to intervene with such a statement. As she didn’t offer further comment, I continued the lecture. Halfway through the lecture the student raised her hand again. “Taiwan is not a country”. This time, I was a little less patient. “I’m talking about healthcare why are you telling me this?” It seems that I’d compared Taiwan’s health insurance system to that of “other countries,” thereby implying that Taiwan was also a country. I was astonished, annoyed and embarrassed. But it was a useful lesson. More than a decade has passed and I’ve taught hundreds of Chinese students since, and I have never been interrupted like this again.

I confess after that first lecture, decompressing with a beer on campus by myself, my thoughts were rather uncharitable to the Chinese student. Later, I was better able to empathize. Imagine if everything in your environment since childhood had instilled in you “incontrovertible facts”, and then an outsider, who you’ve also been primed to believe is biased against you and hell bent on denying what you “know” is right, does exactly that. It isn’t the fault of the Chinese students who turn up in your classes that they have grown up in an authoritarian information environment where the Party is highly motivated and capable through control of the media and education systems to instil a particular worldview.

Does that mean we should avoid talking about certain issues, or modify the way we talk about them, for fear of upsetting our Chinese students? Absolutely not. To do so would be a disservice to the profession, the discipline, and all of the students in the class, including the Chinese ones. For any HE professional, avoiding or sugar-coating a legitimate and necessary topic (like Tiananmen or Taiwan), is anathema. But, we also know that cognitive dissonance is one of the biggest impediments to positive learning outcomes, so we do need a strategy. For colleagues in most disciplines this is not a huge issue – it is for me because I teach Chinese politics and society, often to Chinese students.

At the outset of my classes I explain and exemplify how there are usually two sides to any story, and seemingly “incontrovertible facts” have their own distinct provenance and meanings. I then explain that we will be discussing and interrogating western and Chinese understandings of China. I explain that there is instrumentality on all sides in the construction of these understandings and I always ensure that different views are provided and critically assessed. I require all students to ask why different actors evince the views that they do.

This is the broad context in which my classes are taught and it is the approach I take to all issues, including ones that might elicit “emotional” or “unquestioning” responses. I assure students that any viewpoint is valid, and encourage them to voice “unpopular” or uncomfortable ones; but they must agree to make a reasoned argument and to respect and engage with others who do so. We don’t shy away from interrogating the education system and information environment in China that Chinese students have grown up in.

In all cases I treat students respectfully, tactfully and non-confrontationally. Deliberately making students uncomfortable or attempting to negate their prior knowledge is a recipe for disengagement and potential conflict, none of which improves learning outcomes. We can address any issue in class, but we do so in an atmosphere that encourages exchange and learning. That may sound idealistic – but it has allowed me to deliver on my duty as a teacher.

I am there to provide my students with all the relevant knowledge I have at my disposal, some of which will certainly challenge that made available in Chinese curricula and media. I want students to learn how to critically evaluate information, critically engage with different viewpoints and to compose reasoned arguments. In the process of implementing these techniques, some Chinese students will come to question some of their assumptions, go beyond and challenge previously acquired knowledge. Others won’t, and that’s fine.

I have had many Chinese students thank me for illuminating their own understanding about China. As I commented for a recent piece, many Chinese students understand that the worldview they receive in China is partial and are receptive to different perspectives. As a teacher, it is extremely gratifying to see students learn and develop. But it isn’t my job to try to change their worldviews.

If Chinese students are going to have a more profound experience studying overseas, I believe it will come from their experience outside the classroom, from their interactions with host populations and local cultures. Chinese students are often critiqued for hanging out together to the exclusion of others. But in their defence, little thought has been put into how to create and manage a more holistic overseas study experience that enables them to go beyond the comfort zone created by associating with their compatriots. For instance, we organize lubricated “socials” for freshman students to get to know one another – but what about Chinese students who don’t drink, or have insufficient confidence or language skills to engage socially in this context? In some schools, cohorts of Chinese students are taking degrees and classes in which their classmates are also mostly Chinese. Few opportunities exist for facilitated exposure to local communities.

In the UK, “student experience” has become a buzzword, mainly because of the National Student Survey and other League Tables that can affect recruitment. As domestic student fees have risen and students have been framed as “customers”, universities have made huge investments in fancy gyms, dorms and catering facilities. But as a sector we need to think more specifically about the “Chinese student experience”, inside and outside the classroom.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute. Image Credit: CC by Flickr/kaysgeog.  

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