Teaching In China – Education Theories Out – Return To Real Work In The Classroom

Actually, my teaching philosophy is quite simple: hard work, on the part of the students and on the part of the professors. There is no way to sugar-coat it, regardless of what educational theories we apply. As I tell my creative writing students, we must learn to show and not to tell. This is true of teaching as well, which is why I remind students that I practice what I preach: i.e., I am a writer who must go through all the agony that I am asking them to endure.

What I have discovered here in Ningbo, China, is pretty much what I realized was the case when I taught in Anshan: that students are being graduated with degrees in English but are learning or retaining very little. When I have communicated with former students in Anshan who are now employed in the work force, I have learned how little their degree has actually meant to them, which perhaps explains why they are selling furniture over the Internet instead of pursuing further degrees and getting involved in professions instead of careers. The emphasis in many schools here is more on maximizing profits by attracting more students than it is on teaching them very much. Yet I do here in China what I did in Atlanta: I attach errors charts, which frees me from writing too much on the actual papers. I want them to take responsibility for learning and correcting their mistakes. Otherwise, instructors are marking all over their papers in red and students are, for the most part, ignoring everything but the final grade. The fact that they fail to make many changes during revisions proves this. Students listen to each other more than they listen to the instructor; I have heard this many times from Chinese teachers as well as from the “foreigners.” They think and work as a unit, rarely daring to have individual ideas. Hard-working students who fail to share their homework with their lazier friends are looked down upon as being uncooperative, even in graduate school classes where, in some cases, students always pass — whether or not they even show up for class.

This is particularly true here in China where students are constantly preparing for national exams, and teachers are usually teaching toward those exams. I made a statement at an international banquet thrown by the city of Anshan that I wanted to teach students to broaden their horizons, not just prepare them for national exams, important though they are. I try to emphasize that it is not so important what students get as it is what they become. I believed this in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and I believe it even more now. Studying merely for test-taking and looking for short-cuts on the Internet leads to water-skiing over topics, I believe, rather than scuba-diving – exploring topics in depth.

Not only is it a challenge to train students to learn for the sake of learning instead of cramming for exams; it is also quite a task to promote an active learning process where they take personal responsibility for their learning: i.e., they learn to think for themselves. I want them to learn to spot their own errors, and to do more than merely retell the plot of a work of literature. At the two universities where I have taught, they are not often trained to do more than that.

An article I came across in a textbook in Anshan compared American community colleges to private four-year colleges, stating that beginning students often learn more in community colleges because teachers were more dedicated to teaching them than they were in doing research and being published. Having taught at two community colleges, two private colleges, and, now, two universities, I didn’t immediately accept this at face value. However, it did make me realize that teaching students who are less prepared and less motivated than those at American universities might be more challenging than teaching upper-level courses at private colleges and universities. Teaching overseas sounds intriguing until the reality sets in. The question is — particularly in joint programs with the US or the UK — is the concern for maximizing profits or genuine education? The parents are being charged a lot of extra yuan to have their children in a Sino-US program, but are they getting their money’s worth when Chinese teachers are over-worked and often barely qualified to teach English, when foreign experts themselves may be barely qualified to do anything but speak their native language and professors with advanced degrees are told indirectly not to fail the students (indirectly because few Chinese administrators will speak to “foreigners” and decisions are made behind the instructors’ backs), and when the students themselves (with cell phones attached to their ears) don’t expected to be challenged?

The paper load alone limits the time that one can devote to doing research or, in my case, writing fiction. Teaching is more of a challenge, as a Chinese colleague pointed out, and more demanding here where students are often not self-motivated than it would be when teaching motivated graduate students at major research institutions. Not only are many unmotivated, particularly if their parents can afford the tuition at a third-level university where tuition is higher than it is at the better schools, but more than a few are about as mature in their early twenties as sixteen-year-olds are in the UK, the US, and Europe. Girls who should be adults at the university level often giggle like children — in a shrill manner at times that be quite painful — and gallop into the classroom as if they were imitating circus ponies. Boys shout so loudly in the corridors that you wonder if they are refugees from a juvenile detention center.

As I told my colleagues at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, we are fighting (teaching) in the trenches. However, it may be that the trenches are where the work needs to be done if we are to do more than preach to the choir. It is here where we must teach students to question what they read and are told and to think for themselves. It is here where they must learn critical thinking skills, if these, in fact, can be taught.

Perhaps there is one theoretical approach to teaching writing and literature that works all of the time; if so, I have yet to find it. What I have found instead is that we often must fly by the seats of our pants. Teachers must be ready and willing to change horses in the middle of the stream (while avoiding too many clich├ęs like these) and do what seems necessary or appropriate for not only a particular class but a particular situation. For some of these situations, we might be exactly prepared. However, we are dealing with something that is organic, not static. It is give and take, and we are going to make mistakes. Hopefully, we will learn from these, and, hopefully, we will learn that we must be willing and able to make changes when necessary and not be bound to formulas that worked in the past.

I guess this is what I have mainly learned by teaching students from another culture, and whose first language is not English.

As far as teaching literature, I do somewhat the same, except for one emphasis: archetypes.

Many ways to study literature exist. One way is to look at the historical context of the novel, play, poem, or film. Another way is to study the background or experiences of the author; however, still another way is to focus on the meaning of the literature itself – to look at images, symbols, and archetypes. Gerald Graff tells us to teach the conflicts in the classroom – to point out the different approaches and conflicting critical arguments. However, since teaching world literature and mythology, I have found it more valuable, and interesting, to teach the archetypes. I did this when teaching students with African heritage in Atlanta, and I do this now while teaching Chinese students; I point out the similarities of the literature across the board by focusing on the archetypes.

I ask students what might be the benefit of this last method of spending more time looking at the meaning of the literature. They may, as I have observed, prefer other methods, but I ask them about the possible universal benefit of looking at the created literature itself. I don’t ask them to defend which method is the best, but I realize that some prefer biographical and historical contexts (perhaps because of their culture). I just ask them to explain the benefit of the third approach, and I do this after showing them a colorful Power Point presentation of archetypes/symbols. I want them to see connections and similarities – that literature does not exist in a vacuum tailored for a particular culture or historical context.

By comparing similarities in myths, they are able to see how small the world really is. The world becomes smaller, but their horizons become wider. If we can point this out, we are on our way down the road to accomplishing our tasks. What we should not forget, however, is that there is no substitute for hard-work in the real world, and if only we could keep the concern for maximizing profits and excessive educational jargon out of the classroom, maybe we could actually find some students who really want to learn. Maybe then being at a university would mean something once again — both for the students and the instructors.