My first year teaching in China

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Foreign academics coming to China will face a series of challenges but also many opportunities in their first year. In many disciplines, the appeal of hiring a foreign academic is that he/she can teach through the medium of English, and speak the language of the quality of a native speaker. Moreover, they may offer a perspective or expertise that may not, yet, be developed in Chinese universities. For example, one major area of interest in my discipline (History) is environmental history, which is a topic that is not widely developed in Chinese universities. Recently, many foreign academics have been hired to this area, and have helped to advance this area of study further within Chinese academia.

Adapting to a different teaching style

The teaching style and expectations are very different in China compared with what one might be familiar in a western university setting. In this respect, it is important for the lecturer to be able to adapt successfully to their new environment, while also realising that the learning styles that they have grown accustomed to can, with modification, be transferred to the Chinese context. Primarily, students tend to be much more deferential and obedient – this is clearly embedded within Chinese culture, where there is a reluctance to challenge the lecturer in any way. However, in a subject where debate and discussion is a good method of learning and teaching, this can sometimes prove very frustrating for the teacher who wants to get the students to debate the advantages, disadvantages and difficulties of a topic. If your discipline requires debate and discussion of a topic in a seminar format, getting students to engage in this way can be difficult, but rewarding when it is finally achieved. In one case, I needed to resort to saying deliberately provocative things to get students to speak up!  Once they did, they relished the opportunity of an open debate with their classmates, and now all students engage positively and critically with the material presented. Watching this transformation among students has possibly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching in China so far.

High-quality teaching and accessibility

Nevertheless, it is important to note that despite the deferential attitude, students expect high-quality teaching. While many Chinese academics typically assign a textbook for use in the classroom (and then expect students to follow it in class), deviating from this trend can often engage students more deeply, and get them motivated to look beyond the textbook and pursue their own research interests, thus oftentimes leading to more insightful and thought-provoking questions. In this respect, the foreign academic can bring an aspect to the classroom that is distinctly different: the foreign teaching style. Learning in China, especially in middle and high schools (which are very exam orientated) have focused on rote learning. This, in many ways, has acted to inhibit critical thinking. If a teacher comes from a background where critical thinking is encouraged, introducing this to students in a university setting will provoke their interest, and get them very engaged with the material. Indeed, if a lecturer can introduce this, it is likely that this teaching style will gain interest among the student community, and students may wish to attend your class, purely for observational and/or personal interest reasons. This has happened for me on many occasions, especially when I have been teaching classes on the struggle for female emancipation and suffrage in Britain in the 19th and 20th century, primarily because these are topics and approaches that are far-removed from the traditional Chinese learning culture and style. For the lecturer, it is important to be aware that students will provide an assessment to the university’s teaching department at the end of the course, where all lecturers are scored.  This is the student perception of the course and quality of teaching, much like the questionnaires provided to British students at the end of modules in a British university.  While it is difficult to correlate a link between the score you receive and your prospects, achieving a high score will certainly not harm your prospects for a long-term appointment! 

One area where foreign academics can make a good impression with Chinese students would be to ensure that they remain open and accessible to students throughout the duration of the course. In China, there still appears to be, especially in many of the nation’s elite universities, a distance between academics and their students. In many cases, students have expressed their reluctance to approach their lecturers since they fear being rebuffed. If a relaxed and open attitude can be adopted from the beginning, where a lecturer can be open and accommodating to students, especially through hosting regular office hours and responding to emails, then this will certainly help the foreign academic in China to become popular with students, and enjoy the happiness and satisfaction that is brought from engaging positively and actively in the development of students. In my 7 years’ experience of working in China, I find that students are very hard-working and enthusiastic. If you invest your time in a student who is interested, you are unlikely to be disappointed and will see excellent progress from these individuals.

Embracing a different culture, and making a new contribution

When I came to China in 2010, I never really expected it to be a long-term move. I was familiar with teaching British students, and I didn’t know whether I would transition well into the Asian market. I found, and still find, teaching Chinese students an absolute joy. I have found that my greatest enjoyment from teaching comes with engaging with students who are interested in the material, hosting discussions outside classes, and offering help where possible though writing recommendation letters. While this entails extra work, it does provide an all-round experience that is rewarding and enjoyable. Moreover, active engagement with students can impact on many other areas of academic life. Sometimes, when pressure is very high, and you are not sure that you are making a valid contribution, an email from a student thanking you for an enjoyable course can remind you of the reason why you chose this profession. Moreover, a question or point raised in a seminar can provide you with a different perspective on a topic that you have been researching for years. Indeed, much of my published work has been influenced by the very insightful questions that I have been asked at seminars. 

Thus, I feel that the biggest reward you can get from your early teaching period in China is to engage positively with what you need to do. Propose and teach courses that are not widely on offer within the system, and engage students through innovative teaching methods. While it may take you a while to get familiar with the different culture and environment, my experience has proven to be overwhelmingly positive, and one that I have not regretted for a single second in the entire time I have been in China.

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