How can students relate to Asia?

Miriam Burstein has a typically good post up on her frustrations in dealing with students who want to ‘relate to’ The Tempest. She was frustrated by this because she can think of other ways to think about a piece of literature besides finding yourself in it.

 Take, for example, “I relate to George Eliot,” or  “my life resembles George Eliot’s.”  What does that mean? That you have a long term liaison with a man who cannot divorce his wife? That you are a successful intellectual with no “respectable” female friends, a moral arbiter considered immoral by much of the genteel world at large? That you write great novels? That you’re actually kind of conservative? That you read everything in sight? All of the above? What?  Or have you imagined a relation or resemblance into being, a spark of connection that has something, perhaps, to do with Eliot, but just as much with what you needed to find in Eliot? And if you grant that, then perhaps you can grant that there are other ways of thinking about one’s “relation” to a work or author that do not rely on mental mirrors in order to work?

For many academics, much of the “passion” is about the non-resemblance, the non-relation.

As someone who teaches about far-away places I relate to this. Why should my students care about people who are not like them, who they don’t automatically ‘relate’ to? Francis Fitzgerald talks about the trend in American history teacher-ing to try to ground teaching in things that are close to the students, rather than in stories about Far Horizons and different people.

..the now traditional social-studies curriculum..began in the first grade with the study of the home and worked outward in concentric -indeed, Confucian-circles to the community, the state, the nation and the world.1

As it happens, I was at the center of this as a youngster. Parts of my early education were dominated by the people who seemed convinced I was only interested in things that directly connected to me and my town. Township government. Zoning laws. School board meetings. No Vikings or camel caravans or Roman orators. Those would bore me. I would not relate to them. Many years later I was on a train from Shanghai to Suzhou and an American businessman and his Chinese translator sat down next to me. Since in those days a white2 skin counted as an introduction he introduced himself and it turned out he came from my hometown. He quickly launched into a rant about the corruption and double-dealing of the local zoning board. I remember thinking that I had literally gone to the other end of the earth to avoid people who talked about zoning laws in my hometown, and they had apparently tracked me down.

Fitzgerald also talks about Jerome S. Bruner’s controversial MACOS program, which was quite more my style.

Children, Bruner argued, were not interested only in what was close to home or in the information that would be of practical use to them in later life. What attracted them was myth and drama.

MACOS focused on the Netsilik Eskimos specifically because they were remote from the experience of most American schoolchildren. I think I got some of that too. I remember a game we did where I was supposed to be the father of an Eskimo family and I was given a string that connected me to all the other people who were involved in my life, from family and friends to the Canadian company that made my fishhooks to the Saudis who made gas for my outboard. I still remember that fistful of strings (which is good work after so many years) and I enjoyed the lesson and think I learned from it.

Part of the joy of finishing your dissertation is that you can think about things that are not directly connected to your research. I remember staying up all night with a copy of Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods3 , entranced by the introduction’s ringing defense of useless knowledge and loving the fact that there was no way I could use any of this stuff with my World History students. Part of the joy of having a blog is that it encourages you to think about things that don’t even relate to your teaching.

But not all students are like me. This is good thing to remember, since professors tend to think we can understand our students by resurrecting our past memories. This does not work very well first because it was a different age (we had real music back then, not noise) and second because we were always a little odd even as undergraduates. One of the things I remember best from my undergraduate days was the time my ancient Greek history professor used an entire three-hour night class to read through huge chunks of Hesiod’s Works and Days (with his own explanations interspersed) to give us a feel for what the yearly life-cycle of a Greek farmer was like. I loved it, one of the handful of really transcendent learning experiences I have had in a classroom. However, the consensus during our 10-minute break was that he was planning on taking attendance at the end and docking whoever had left a bundle of points, since why else would he spend so much time talking about something so boooooooring?

So how to relate to those students who are different from me? How do you get them to share your passion for the strange? Part of it is just tossing a lot of stuff out there. Some kids really do like economic history with lots of tables. Part of it is trying to include lots of quotes and pictures that will humanize (i.e. make understandable) the people and topics we are dealing with. Part of it is picking out universal themes. Stories of young people growing up should work for anyone. Part of it is connecting it to things in Modern China, which is where you can make money. I don’t really care for the Just So Stories feel of linking everything to the present. “So, kids, that’s why Chairman Mao always slept with his head facing south.”4 You can also link things to stuff they know in the U.S.A. I feel dirty all over every time I tell students that the Laozi’s Dao is kind of like the Force in Star Wars, but it does seem to get a reaction. Part of it is using my own enthusiasm to fill up the void left by a lack of interest in an esoteric topic.5 I get quite manic when I am explaining basic Marxist theory in the China class. Part of it is trying to restrain my urge to jump up and down on a desk and yell like Miriam Burstein. And part of it is accepting that education is what people take out of it, and if students don’t want to take some of this stuff home with them they don’t have to.


What do you do?



  1. p.182. I think this may be the only allusion to the Great Learning I have seen in discussions of American education 

  2. or black 

  3. Bottéro, Jean. Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 

  4. Mao counts as the present. All students come in knowing the names of two Chinese people, Mao and Confucius. For a bit we had Yao Ming, but he is fading. 

  5. I always think that a classroom needs a certain amount of enthusiasm, and if they don’t want to provide it I can. Yang Zhu would say I was wrong here, I suppose. 

1 Comment

  1. Love the topic. I teach Chinese history–Neolithic to present, selected highlights–in a freaking semester, to high school students in Singapore (an international school). Probably the most successful hook I’ve developed–and this is borne out by anonymous evaluations every semester over the past four or five classes–is East/West comparisons: Pangu and Nuwa c/c’d to Genesis, Noah to Yu, God to Yinyang, Zhuangzi’s afterlife to Christianity’s, Wen/Wu/Duke to Abraham/Moses/David, Constantine’s backing of a popular religion in late Rome to a late Han emperor’s crushing of a similar group of salvation millennarians (Yellow Turbans and folk Daoists), China’s “Age of Exploration” v Europe’s (Zheng He and Da Gama, Mongol conquests compared to British, on and on. Confucians and Daoists and Legalists compared to Moses and Jesus and Paul. Mandate v. Divine Right and Democracy. Indo-European noun-based “neurolinguistic programming” (riffing off Chad Hansen) and Sino-Tibetan “gerundic” (“Windows” and “Mac” operating systems.) You get the drift.

    Oh, and the “hippies” of the Period of Disunity (Seven Sages, Tao Yuanming, Wang Xizhi) compared to those of San Francisco (a stretch, but a fun one) and Christendom’s own medieval recluses after Benedict.

    I find all these things welcome for two reasons, mainly: first, comparisons bring contrasts into sharper and more impactful focus, so they do start to see China as the “Newer World” it really was (and still is, to us); and second, it gives a manageable element of World History to the Chinese history course, because it’s only Western and Chinese history that we consider. They seem to value being able to revisit and consolidate their dim understanding of Western history.

    While I’m aware of the pitfalls of essentializing both, as long as I make them conscious of those pitfalls, the enthusiastic reaction for these layovers across the centuries more than justifies it, in my book.

    Film clips from the 2011 Three Kingdoms CCTV (Youtube has all 95 episodes, subtitled, and they’re spectacular), 2011 Bu Bu Jing Xin (set in Kangxi’s court, a “Dorothy in Oz” Beijing hip girl wakes up a palace girl in the Forbidden City after an electrocution sends her into a bizarre “backwards reincarnation”–thanks, Buddhism!), maybe some subtitled Water Margin (1998?) CCTV clips (again, awesome) do wonders to give audio-visual dimensions to the readings.

    And yeah, as you say: raving like a lunatic at how endlessly interesting every single century is….

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