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A firsthand experience

1:39 PM  Oct 2nd, 2012
by Teri Rizvi and Cameron Fullam

Like novelist John Steinbeck, who once embarked on a cross-country journey to discover the soul of America, Joe Watras jetted to China this summer to see for himself what he’d already absorbed through books and lectures.

“I went to the setting to paint the scene, to get a feel for the conditions. Without that, I’d be flying blind in the classroom,” says Watras, professor of teacher education.

During lunch in the Barrett Dining Room on campus, the soft-spoken Watras chatted amiably about why he chose to spend a year studying the political, social and economic landscape of China with seven other faculty members. Shortly before Memorial Day, they flew nearly 7,000 miles to Beijing for the beginning of an intense three-week immersion experience.

This is a study-abroad program — with a twist. It’s designed to change the way faculty teach.

“We’re creating a cadre of champions” for bringing the world into the classroom, says Amy Anderson ’09, director of the Center for International Programs. “Many of these faculty are exploring a place they’ve never been before. It’s outside their comfort zone. We’ll run one more program in China before exploring countries in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East before rotating back again.”

The program’s initial focus is apparent. China sends the largest number of international students to the U.S., and the University of Dayton’s international student population mirrors that trend. The University opened its doors this fall to more than 1,500 new and returning international students, with nearly half from China.

Watras became intrigued with the differing ways the U.S. and China approach the teaching of professional ethics to school administrators after Wu Hongkuan, a visiting professor from China Jiliang University, made a casual observation during a classroom discussion of Thomas Sergiovanni’s book Moral Leadership.

“Sergiovanni recommended that school principals emphasize developing a spirit of curiosity among students, looking at conditions that impede learning as problems to solve and developing attitudes of respect among students and teachers. He wanted principals to use these characteristics to rate the performance of the teachers. Some critics complained the model was authoritarian,” Watras says. “Most of my graduate students approved of these ideas, and Mr. Wu thought this was the way that members of the Chinese Communist Party tried to work.

“I thought we could work together to flesh out his observations.”

When Watras visited China Jiliang University in Hangzhou, “officials greeted us like we were visiting royalty.” Watras, whose own lifelong research has focused around school integration, discovered “friendliness, openness and concern for higher values.” It made him reconsider “my prejudice that the Chinese political system was oppressive.”

“There may be elements of repression,” he notes, “but there seems to be a consistent drive for personal achievement and social growth that is consistent with the best elements of democracy. The people told me we’re trying to blend Eastern and Western views of ethics.”

The Global Education Seminar, now in its second year, opened up the eyes of other professors, too. As music therapy professor Susan Gardstrom stepped last summer into a therapy center for children with autism, she was surprised to hear children singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

“Growing up, the only information I remember getting about China was that the Chinese were going to take over the American auto industry,” she says. “Obviously that was a narrow and biased perspective, so I relished this opportunity for personal growth. This visit stimulated a desire to learn more about the country, heightened my cultural sensitivity and developed in me a sense that we are all in this together.”

Gardstrom interviewed music therapists in psychiatric and educational settings. She exchanged ideas with two professors at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and a therapist who traveled to Sichuan as part of an earthquake crisis intervention team. She also led a workshop on clinical improvisation and delivered two research presentations.

Gardstrom and Watras are part of a growing number of faculty who are strengthening the University’s network of international relationships — and enriching curriculum revision, scholarly study and collaborations.

“There is great value to have study-abroad programs for students, but we can have a greater effect on more students if we change the way we teach in the classrooms here on campus,” says Don Pair, associate dean for integrated learning and curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The effects are immediate: faculty from last summer have already changed what they are doing in the classroom as a result of their experience.”

For example, history professor Chris Agnew has created three new courses and plans to develop an Asian studies minor. Agnew teaches Asian history with a specialty in Chinese history, and he took advantage of the trip to conduct research and sort through ancient texts in libraries.

Engineering technology professor Sean Falkowski had no previous experience with China before his participation in the Global Education Seminar. He used the trip to understand how sustainability works in China. He plans to apply what he learned to the University’s redesigned program in global manufacturing systems.

For Watras, the experience sparked a desire to apply for a six-week Fulbright grant and return to the country for more intensive research.

From the pace of new construction (“buildings pop up like mushrooms after a rain”) to the diligence of the people (“green tea blooms on hillsides as steep as buildings”), Watras can now paint a scene of China for his American students.

“We weren’t tourists,” he says. “It was an opportunity to learn and grow — and bring those ideas back to our disciplines.”

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View related stories from the Autumn 2012 issue:

A longstanding relationship

At home in China

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