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Fulbright Teaching Experience in China 2016-17
by Shin Freedman

Abstract: Teaching the Framework for Information Literacy to Chinese graduate students as a Fulbright Scholar was a transformative experience for me. During a semester-long teaching assignment, I learned more about myself through the role of “foreign expert” and about my students who were Chinese Information Science and Archival Management majors: how they learn and how they may become information professionals in an emerging global higher education market.


Teaching graduate Information and Library Science students as a Fulbright Scholar at a prestigious Chinese University was an enlightening experience from which I have just returned from a semester long teaching assignment. After all the excitement of being selected as a Fulbright Scholar to China, I was still full of apprehension as to the teaching experience itself. What would be an appropriate approach for teaching in my discipline? My experience of teaching abroad was going to be considerably different in terms of expectations, reputation and actual experience for myself as a lecturer as well as for my Chinese students.

I covered topics on plagiarism, ethical use of information, citation management, research processes, database search strategies, and access to knowledge in digital information. In addition to the teaching activities, I engaged in public lectures, seminars, and roundtable discussions on the following subjects: collegiality, mentorship, academic librarianship and professional identity, library leadership and workplace civility. I also enjoyed lecturing in a number of Chinese universities from Beijing to Nanjing to Chongqing and including traveling to Korea, all in one semester.

Being an academic librarian from a medium size comprehensive university in the USA and going to a major research-based Chinese top 10 university was an extraordinary transformation of myself as a teacher. Developing my professional identity as an educator was something for which I had strived for a long time. At last, I was going to have the chance to practice my lifelong dream in China in the fall of 2016 along with seven other Fulbright Scholars who arrived in China to teach and conduct research.

My teaching philosophy includes three main principles. First, I believe that instruction should be both experiential and interactive. Among educators, Ken Bain and Susan Ambrose have influenced my thinking. Second, I emphasize student ownership and commitment in my courses. This involves having students make decisions about their research assignment content, project timeline, and research methods; students are then held accountable for their decisions. Finally, I find it critical for an instructor to acknowledge and, when appropriate, to discuss the thoughts, opinions and experiences of students. Structured peer discussion or writing reflective journals in the form of research logs often exposes students to views or experiences very different from their own.

I have reflected on how to make myself comfortable to teach Chinese students who would be exposed to a foreign teacher for the first time in their entire K-12 and university learning experience. I wondered about what I would have to do to reorient my students from a more traditional lecture-based pedagogical style as the sage on the stage dispensing knowledge to passive listeners as opposed to my preferred approach of guided inquiry.

Arriving early in the morning for my classroom where there is no visual sign of surveillance cameras (It is common to find surveillance cameras in Chinese university classrooms), I noticed my teaching assistant who is a Ph.D. student would place a cup of hot tea on the table. A box of tissues would be on the side near where I placed my laptop. At a slight hint that technical assistance might be needed in viewing of my lecture PowerPoints, at least 3 or more students would jump right in to help me. At the end of 4 hours of class time, I would carry my heavy teaching bag from the classroom building to my faculty apartment on campus. Whenever my students saw me in the hallway or on campus, they would take my bag and carry it for me without any hesitation. All of this attention that I got during my Fulbright in China was simply delightful, yet totally unexpected.

The Chinese university curriculum is heavily loaded with content knowledge usually covered by the textbook and the teacher’s lectures. Unanimously, the students expressed the belief that the larger the quantity of information that one collected, the deeper one’s understanding of the object being studied. In relation to pedagogy, according to the students, course content is taught in a pre-established, highly-organized sequence, usually following the table of contents in the textbook or a list of learning materials pre-arranged by the teacher. Specifically, a good lecture was depicted as a well-prepared and clearly structured presentation with the intent to help learners understand the content step-by step. (Chen & Bennett, p12)

On the other hand, personal dimensions of learning, such as personal knowledge developed beyond the educational context and individual learning needs and preferences, were deemed to be less important in this environment. (Chen & Bennett, p14).
During my occasional lecture-based teaching which most of my Chinese students were accustomed to, they were attentive, respectfully took notes and recorded my lectures almost verbatim in their notebooks and journals. However, when the discussions started, they were hesitant, not because they were not very confident in spoken English, but because they were unaccustomed to taking the risk of expressing their opinions openly without fear of contradicting the professor’s point of view.

During the first class meeting, I reviewed the syllabus and my expectations. However it was not until the third class after I re-emphasized that I expected the students to participate as part of their grade that my students’ responses gradually became more participative. Eventually, they began to openly question and respond to one another in the class. They were also required to write reflective journals throughout the entire semester which was another unusual practice for them. Students’ opinions became more expressive and clearer as time passed. They sought out each other’s opinions and advice in and out of the classroom.

I often wondered how to stimulate their critical thinking in the evaluation of information at hand as confident information professionals. Students were used to being taught in concepts and overview, but had not had any applicable practice. After introducing ‘concept mapping’ or ‘mind mapping’ for research topic selections, they wrote in their journals, “I have never considered applying [concept mapping] to research... it broadened my horizon and improved my skills in research.” In introducing the information lifecycle, the following comments illustrated: “, “Information Lifecycle –The Information Literacy, you introduced is more helpful. . . I do not know whether the difference is because what we were taught is different or just the latter is easier for students to understand and find proper tools to search information. Whatever it is, giving students what they need is essence in teaching. . . So, I want to know once I have a question that interests me how do I identify the significance of research topic to others. Another student wrote, “I’m not very familiar with determining clear research questions of a specific research topic since in my past research experiences, there was no definite practice of asking research questions.”

As the semester progressed and the students became not only more participative, but delightfully outspoken. I often rewarded them with clear verbal praise, or a high five, or a hug. This open praise was also something quite outside their comfort zone and it took them a while to get used to it. On one occasion, one of my students did such a good job that I gave her a hug after class. After a while, other students earned a hug and waited patiently for their reward. After the final class of the semester, all my students lined up and demanded to be hugged and would not let me leave until they had received their well-deserved reward. I took this as a clear sign that they had gotten the message that I wanted them to take responsibility for their learning and that I was looking forward to the day when I would welcome them to join me as professional colleagues in our newly formed global connection.


References

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.
Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Chen, R. T. H. & Bennett, S. J. (2012). When Chinese learners meet constructivist pedagogy online. Higher Education, 64 (5), 677-691.
Ibid., 12
Ibid., 14

Copyright 2017 by Shin Freedman.

About the author:
Shin Freedman is Head of Scholarly Resources & Collections of the Whittemore Library at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, where she specializes in scholarly resources and collections, teaching information literacy, and research and evaluation. Her research agenda includes: academic librarian’s professional identity, collegiality, mentorship, incivility and bullying in the library. In 2015, she was appointed to a founding member of Charleston Insights Editorial Board of Charleston Insights in Library, Archival, and Information Science in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2016, she received a Fulbright U.S. Lecturer Award to China. Contact Information: sfreedman@framingham.edu