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Moving Your Classroom Overseas

The rewards and challenges of teaching in study-abroad programs.

October 9, 2014

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the GradHacker Managing Editor and teaches Chinese history at CET Academic Programs in Shanghai, China. Follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham.

Back in the spring of 2011, I was planning a summer of preliminary dissertation research in Shanghai but coming up short in ways to fund my trip. My advisor suggested I get in touch with the director of a study-abroad program that I had previously attended in China, and ask if he needed any temporary instructors for the summer session. He did, and since that first summer I’ve taught three more courses at the same program and found that I really enjoy the combined professor and tour guide role that working with study-abroad students involves.

Though grad programs in the U.S. don’t spend much time discussing the opportunities for graduate students and new PhDs in the field of international education, more and more American and European universities are opening programs, and even full-fledged campuses, overseas. These schools need instructors! You might be able to combine a unique teaching experience with some time to work on your own research. Post-PhD, even if you wind up at an institution in your home country, you might find yourself asked to lead short study-abroad tours during the summer break if your expertise is focused on another country’s history or society.

One of the major reasons I enjoy teaching study abroad is that the students are generally self-selecting, inquisitive, and engaged: they’ve chosen to spend some time in another country and want to talk about what they’re seeing outside the classroom. Yes, we sometimes wander away from the topic listed on the syllabus for that day (I’ve found that students generally prefer asking questions about Chinese undergrads’ dating and relationships to discussing the Opium War). But, I try to rein in the conversation when it strays too far, and chalk it up to broadening students’ horizons when I’m unsuccessful. And their questions often make me stop and really think about social dynamics and political issues that I don’t always notice anymore after nearly a decade of moving between China and the U.S.

For me, the best part of teaching in Shanghai is making the city our classroom. While the majority of our sessions are still spent in a mixed lecture/seminar format, I plan a couple of outside research assignments and a major field trip each semester as well. When we’re discussing historical events in class, I can refer to statues or monuments that I know the students have seen during their time in Shanghai, helping them forge a link between material in their textbook and how historical events are remembered in China today. It’s also easy for me to bring in guest speakers—other scholars who study Shanghai, visiting academics making trips to the city, or foreign journalists who cover China—and students seem to appreciate hearing more about others’ life and work in the country.

Of course, there are challenges in teaching study-abroad. It’s not always easy to get the books I’d like to assign (one was held up by customs for over a month this term), and students often want to spend their weekends (and sometimes weekday evenings, too) experiencing the best of Shanghai’s legendary nightlife. That’s certainly one way to get a taste of the local culture, but it’s not always to the benefit of their studies! The same goes for trying out Shanghai’s delicious street food: pretty much everyone, including me, misses class due to food poisoning at least once a semester. Some students who are first-time travelers—to China or just in general—find the new environment overwhelming and spend an unhappy semester missing the comforts of home, so an instructor needs to be sensitive to the difference between run-of-the-mill homesickness and serious depression. And while you might go overseas planning to do your own research, teaching and all the work that goes with it will take away from your archive time, so you should moderate your expectations about how much you will actually get done.

Teaching study-abroad students and helping to introduce them to a country that you’ve dedicated your life to studying can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. I’ve repeatedly found that the students’ enthusiasm is contagious, getting me pumped up even as I’m touring the Oriental Pearl Tower for the dozenth time (I wish I were exaggerating that number). Teaching overseas can present a somewhat different set of challenges than you’ll encounter at home, but it also enables you to add depth to class discussions and forge links between course material and daily life that enhance the students’—and your own—understanding of the subject.

If you’re interested in exploring study-abroad teaching opportunities, talk to the people at your school’s center for international programs, or spend some time online researching independent study-abroad companies that work in your country of interest. Get in touch with ones that interest you (and be wary of ones that don’t seem legitimate!). Make sure your passport is up-to-date, plan your syllabus, and have fun!

Have you taught in an overseas program? Share your experience below!

[Photo by the author and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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