When globalisation's dream meets complex Chinese reality

US lecturer highlights the politics and pros and cons of working in China. Sarah Cunnane reports

June 9, 2011



Credit: China Photo Press/Getty
Eastern exposure: Despite the discomfort factor, says a US academic, her time spent in the Chinese academy was worthwhile


In the year before she went to teach in China, Laura Getty, head of the department of English at North Georgia State College and University in the US, made sure she was well prepared for the trip. The professor of literary studies studied the language, read relevant books and developed plans for the course she would be teaching.

What she was not prepared for, however, was the culture shock she experienced during her five months in the world's most populous country.

Writing about her experiences in a paper for the latest edition of the journal Teaching in Higher Education, Professor Getty points to a "blind spot" over the impact of cultural differences on the globalisation of higher education.

"Lip service to the concept is not the same thing as understanding the challenges involved," she writes.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Getty said that administrators with little or no experience of teaching were unlikely to understand the challenges academics faced when adapting their teaching methods to the demands of international partner institutions.

"For example, I found out at the end of the semester that all of my grading had been for very little, because the university didn't allow anything other than As or Bs for most of its students," she said.

Speaking on the condition that the Chinese institution where she taught not be identified, Professor Getty said that as a foreign tutor, "you're not prepared ahead of time if you haven't actually been told upfront what you are meant to do".

But not all her experiences were negative. "The students were in many ways more prepared, more cheerful and more enthusiastic than a lot of my American classes."

However, she added: "The administration side of things, on the other hand, was a bit of a shock."

Saving face

The problem, set out in detail in her paper "False assumptions: the challenges and politics of teaching in China", was that for the Chinese institution, "it was more important to preserve 'face' than to tell the truth".

This meant that many of the questions she had asked before arriving received "answers that changed, no answer, or answers that I would later discover to be false".

The problems were exacerbated, she said, by the mistrust of email among many of her Chinese colleagues, a stance that proved warranted.

Professor Getty said her own emails sometimes took more than eight hours to be delivered because they were read by the authorities before being sent on.

She also faced frustrations upon her return to the US, writing in her paper that she was "surprised (and occasionally offended) by the flat rejection" of some of her descriptions of life at the Chinese university.

Professor Getty told THE: "I felt that (my American colleagues) were looking at my experience as being related to me, that in some way I had not done well enough.

"When the second person went and encountered some of the same difficulties, it became clear that this was not the case; it was a cultural difference."

She added: "That's what I found so astonishing: here we are trying to globalise, and yet cultural difference is something we are not taking into account."

Despite her concerns, Professor Getty conceded that it would be difficult to open up the discussion about adapting to different higher education cultures.

"If you talk about the issues over, say, copyright and you turn it into an official university document that says the place you are going to does not honour copyright, and this is how you work to make sure you are doing something ethically, you don't want this guide to be handed to the host institution," she explained. "It becomes a political matter...this has to be done under the surface."

Despite the many differences and difficulties she encountered, Professor Getty said that lecturers thinking of taking up academic exchanges in China or elsewhere should not be deterred.

"It was worthwhile, but in the sense that sometimes growth requires a certain amount of discomfort," she said. "Anyone going on an experience like this needs to understand that growth can be difficult."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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