Confucius (551–479 BC)
A Chinese philosopher and educator
How could a Chinese scholar, growing up in an illiberal education system, teach liberal arts?
Teaching in a different cultural setting pushes me to reflect on how I had been taught and how I want to teach, no matter where. Two processes are crucial for me to pursue my teaching philosophy. First, thank sociology. For me, studying sociology, especially doing research on people's struggles in an authoritarian regime, comes to be a process of liberalizing and re-humanizing myself from communist indoctrination. Second, I consciously attend professional development workshops to learn to teach. I attended the UW-Madison Teaching Academy Summer Institute (which trains junior faculty in course design and classroom communication), the Graduate School's Inclusive Teaching Workshop, and my department's “Teaching Race” Workshop.
The more I learned, the more I connect my teaching ideas to Confucius teaching philosophy that still provides inspiration on mentoring, inclusive teaching, and student-centered experiential learning.
"Never feel boring to learn; Always have the passion to advise." -- Confucius
A good teacher must be a good mentor. In Chinese culture, two elements define a teacher -- scholarship and integrity, which give teachers the ability to teach and mentor students. As you may know, Chinese teachers' universities are called "normal universities" (师范大学 Shi Fan Da Xue). Profound knowledge makes a teacher (师 Shi); moral integrity makes a role model (范 Fan); together, they define 'normal' (师范), a good teacher and mentor."
I enjoy advising and mentoring. Besides office hours, I like to have a one-on-one conference with students. I often approached the students to make an appointment who seem to need help. My teaching experience tells me that instructor-student relation is important for learning. Students speak feelings, give helpful feedback, or take advice only when they trust instructors. For example, one student still came to me for advice on career planning after two years she took research methods with me. I also like to help peers. I have mentored new international students in my program. The Director of Graduate Studies in my department also invited me to give a mentoring talk to new graduate students.
"Education for all." -- Confucius
China has a long history of the official education system. Before Confucius (551-479 BC), Chinese official schools only admitted nobles, not ordinary people or "uncivilized barbarians" (who were ethnic groups and nations at that time but were incorporated into Han now). Among the pioneers, Confucius opened an ancient private school. He welcomed students from different social statuses, nationalities, and ethnicity, as well as made tuition affordable to the poor. In his time, Confucius did not include women, and it took another two thousand years for Chinese women to accept formal education.
My educational experience has made me acutely aware of the institutional barriers for students from under-represented groups, and able to empathize with those who confront challenges on their way to achieving educational goals. I grew up in a communist shipbuilding factory village and became the first college student in my entire family. I went to college in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—where I recognized my ethnic advantage in Xinjiang’s higher education system compared to Uyghur students who had to begin college with mandatory Mandarin language program. Later, I applied to graduate school in the US and found myself an international student as well as an Asian minority on campus. I struggled to figure out the academic process and adapted to new educational and cultural environments in both the Xinjiang Uyghur region and America, learning understanding and respect for students from all different cultural and social backgrounds.
"Teaching attuned to differences." -- Confucius
Teaching attuned to differences situated learning in students' life, and find a way to support students to make use of strengths to overcome barriers. Students do not have equal access to learning, even when they enroll in the same course at the same college. To work with diverse students, for example, at the beginning of the semester, I take a small survey to learn about their backgrounds, objectives, and concerns, as well as determine if I need to accommodate certain students' needs (such as to customize assignments).
My experience taught me to be patient with students who struggle to articulate their thoughts and navigate course assignments. I have found that by understanding students’ backgrounds and unique experiences, I can discover their motivations and their strengths. For example, While teaching at UW-Madison, when a first-generation college student was struggling to write a paper, we met to discuss her interests and college experience in a few meetings, and she eventually wrote an excellent essay on the military sexual-assault prevention program based on her own unique experience as a member of the National Guard. In another instance, a group in my class did not perform well in doing their project, and I found that one Latina student could not meet the group’s schedule. After talking to her, I discovered that she was a single mom working full time, and she also needed to bring her son to autism therapy during the weekdays. We figured out an individual work plan for her, and importantly, I regularly checked on her progress. Without sacrificing the quality of her education, together, we found a strategy to ensure that she passed and graduated on time.
"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." -- Xunzi (340 - 245 BC), a Confucian philosopher
The quote is often mistakenly cited as Confucius' words, but it is from Xunzi, one of the greatest Confucian philosophers. The Confucian philosopher made a point that when it comes to learning, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as doing. True learning is evident when experience produces an action.
A variety of pedagogical practices can keep students active in learning, encouraging students to try multiple pathways to engage with theories and concepts. I have used a range of different methods to help students make the connection between knowledge and the real world. In addition to giving short lectures and holding small group discussions, I also incorporate games, video clips, in-class writing exercises, collaborative quizzes, and student presentations. The use of a simulation game, “Beat the Bourgeoisie,” which I learned from the ASA TRAILS online teaching resource, worked well in stimulating discussions on social class. By having students from a bourgeoise group and a proletariat group to compete for rewards based on real-world rules, students viscerally felt how economic, social, and cultural capital realistically affect people’s social mobility in America. When discussing family in my classes, I showed the first episode of Modern Family and led a group discussion on the extent to which the TV show represents contemporary families in America. I also asked student groups to discuss a set of trivia questions based on the show, challenging the students’ perceived norms about the American family today.
Learning-by-doing is my guiding principle for preparing students with the tools and skills to pursue answers to real-world problems. I learned this strategy from my experience of coaching students in writing analytical essays and doing group projects, in which students practice collecting, summarizing, analyzing, and interpreting data. In methods of sociological inquiry, I advised students to design and carry out three group research projects. In Survey of Sociology, I taught students about crafting and writing a sociological essay. By teaching these courses, I have learned to take a scaffolding approach by decomposing the project into various steps, and for each step, I gave explicit skill instructions and in-class small exercises before students begin to work on their own.
"One with understanding is not as good as one with interest, which in turn is not as good as doing something one enjoys." -- Confucius
Students will perform best when they are motivated to learn. Giving some control over the learning process can motivate students to participate in and take greater responsibility for their course work. I agree that instructors tend to make too many of the decisions about learning for students, which makes students less motivated to learn and even become dependent. I like to share some power with students in ethical and responsible ways, such as giving students choices about the issues they want to learn but may not appear on the syllabus draft, input over what classroom policies they think could be better, whether they could set individual assignment deadlines, and what assessment criteria they may want to create. For example, before students gave their presentations, I led a discussion on the elements of an excellent presentation, and together, we created a grading rubric, which I let them use to conduct peer-grading. For their final paper, I required that students gave comments on a peer’s draft based on clear guidelines and counted the quality of comments as part of their grades. In teaching the survey of sociology, I also learned new approaches from colleagues. For example, one colleague allowed students to set individual deadlines for their four analytical essays due throughout the semester, an approach that created flexibility for students and was manageable for the instructor.
"Acquire new knowledge and thinking by re-appreciating the path of learning, then be a teacher." -- Confucius
This quote is often cited to persuade students that reviewing what they learned would generate new thinking and knowledge. I find that it is also helpful for instructors in terms of improving teaching. I have consciously enhanced teaching skills through student feedback, self-reflection, continuous learning. For instance, I learned from a professor to use a classroom diary to collect students’ questions and comments at the end of each section and provide immediate responses or adjust instruction when necessary. For another example, after reflecting on students’ difficulties using STATA for a survey project, I simplified the analytical procedures and STATA commands in the following semesters. Instead of teaching multiple ways to get statistical outcomes, I decided to show only one because the primary objective of the project was to have students get hands-on experience with the survey method rather than statistics. To prepare for future teaching, I also attended UW’s Teaching Academy Summer Institute to learn about course design, teaching technology, and classroom communication.