How Chinese Students Navigate the U.S. University

New book looks at “who changes, how much and into what” with influx of Chinese students into U.S. universities and at the underground learning networks students cultivate.

December 6, 2017

A new book on Chinese students and American higher education, Inventing the World Grant University: Chinese International Students’ Mobilities, Literacies & Identities (Utah State University Press), looks at the underground networks some students develop to navigate their classwork and the frictions at play as American universities seek, in the authors’ words, “to capitalize on international students while also policing them through policies of containment.”

Inventing the World Grant University was written by Steven Fraiberg and Xiqiao Wang, both assistant professors in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures at Michigan State University, and Xiaoye You, an associate professor of English and Asian studies at Pennsylvania State University. It is deeply grounded in theory, specifically theories of “mobile literacies,” an approach that the authors write “centers on how literacy affords and constrains movement of actors, identities and practices across geographical and social structures.” But readers who aren’t invested in the theoretical framework can still find much of interest in the authors’ analysis of how the recent and rapid growth in the number of Chinese students on American campuses raises questions about “who changes, how much and into what.”

At Michigan State's campus in Lansing, one of two research sites for the book along with a private summer program in China, the number of Chinese students grew from 600 students in fall 2006 to 4,527 in fall 2016. The authors write that universities like Michigan State have on the whole “been unequipped to absorb such a large contingent of students from a single region or to accommodate sometimes wide cultural and linguistic differences. Surrounding these matters are questions about how and whether or not educators should accommodate cultural and linguistic differences.”

Inventing the World Grant University considers what it means when a minority population becomes a majority in some classrooms: in a basic college writing course at Michigan State, for example, it is not uncommon for 80 to 90 percent of students to be from China. The book describes the tensions faced by faculty as they tried to adjust to the rapidly shifting student population, tensions, the authors write, that “were driven by the fact that many of the Chinese international students had not been socialized into a Western educational system and lacked the linguistic abilities to participate in discussion-style classrooms.”

Even those faculty members who come across in the book as especially thoughtful and culturally sensitive educators struggled. A physics instructor who participated in the authors’ research described the challenges he had in structuring group work in a 200-level class in which 27 of 30 students were Chinese (the instructor speculated that his class, which fulfilled a general-education requirement, attracted high numbers of Chinese students both because many had solid backgrounds in physics and because the class put fewer demands on their English skills than did other options).

“Say I have three Americans in my classroom, what do I do? Do I put one in each group of Chinese? Or do I let them [choose]? Typically I let them do the groups, and what happens is the three Americans sit together,” said the physics instructor, who is identified by the pseudonym Manuel Antonio.

“Automatically?” Fraiberg, one of the authors, asked.

“Automatically,” Antonio responded.

“They just self-select?”

“And actually the Chinese self-select, too, they sit together because they can speak their own language.”

Antonio made numerous adjustments. He hired Chinese-speaking “learning assistants” -- though the authors note that meant “that he himself was not always privy to the Chinese conversations between the assistants and lab groups.” He stopped using PowerPoint in class in favor of solving problems on an overhead projector after discovering that students had difficulty listening to his lecture while processing the written materials on the slides. Even so, he estimated that 10 to 20 percent of students struggled because of English proficiency issues.

"For example, one student did not know the term for the metal lead. In this scenario, while the instructor tried to imagine creative ways to explain it, the concept ultimately proved too fundamental. As a final resort, Antonio turned to a Chinese classmate to translate. Engaged in these types of large and small acts, the instructor continually sought out ways to balance an assortment of needs and bridge social and linguistic differences. While these adjustments were sound pedagogical practices standard in any well-managed classroom, they were distinct in Antonio's class because of the size and scale of the shifts," the authors write.

Inventing the World Grant University also provides a glimpse into the rich underground learning networks created by many Chinese students, in which weaker students -- so-called scumbags of learning, to use a term that was popularized by an internet meme -- seek help from fellow Chinese students whom they identify as "lords of learning." The authors write that the "prevalent invocation of this practice among Chinese students constructs a dynamic scene of collaborative learning that has both positive and negative implications. For example, it is typical for students to create and maintain course-themed, digitally mediated study groups on WeChat and QQ," two social media platforms popular in China.

"On these online platforms," the authors write, "students may discuss challenging concepts, prepare for quizzes and exams, and offer and receive help on homework. It might unfold in private tutorial sessions organized by students during which a lord unpacks course materials in accessible language to scumbags. Collaboration can also transgress into the realm of cheating, as students illegally acquire and trade answers to exam questions across sections and semesters."

One student known for his knack for economics, identified in the book by the pseudonym Lee, managed seven different tutorial groups in a single semester through the group chat function on WeChat. These groups ranged in size from seven to several hundred students.

Lee appreciated the ways in which teaching helped him to better master the material at hand: as he said, "If my explanation doesn't clarify the concepts, it is probably because my understanding was limited." He also understood that the opportunity to help fellow Chinese students with their economics classwork presented an opportunity to build social -- and material -- capital. “Helping my class friends will help me now and in the future,” he said. “For example, I get to build Renmai [a network of social relationship], as many Chinese students would say. Let me give you a very simple example. I need a car because I am staying here for the winter break, but I don’t have a car yet. I sent out a message in my friendship circle [on WeChat], and several people volunteered to lend me their cars. To me, that’s one way how Renmai works. Now I drive a BMW and a Jaguar in turn.”

Lee also saw broader benefits in helping other Chinese students succeed. “I'd love to see more high-achieving Chinese students in business school so that we can compete against the Americans,” he said. “Second, I am a firm believer that I will be able to improve myself by helping others. I'll be more successful if everybody else [Chinese] does well. I am idealistic in that way. We are the minority here, or I would even go so far to say we are a socially vulnerable group. We should really stick together to succeed.”

By contrast, another student, Yan (also a pseudonym), was drafted reluctantly into serving as an expert for a writing class, a role that for her was more of a burden than a boon. “To her, being bombarded with questions was not only annoying but confounding,” the book says. “What was really puzzling was that her classmates seemed to have no grasp of what was happening in the classroom.” Rather than read the assignments distributed by the instructor, “students resorted to Yan to provide explanations in a language they understood. These explanations ranged from basic questions about due dates, length requirements or submission guidelines to more complex issues with assignment completion,” the authors write.

In their conclusion, the authors consider the pedagogical implications of their research. “Broadly,” they write, “our study offers a framework to better understand the dynamics and complexities of teaching and learning in a space in which national identity, social class, culture and language are increasingly entangled. This framework provides key insights into a rich underground set of literacies and practices that remains invisible to educators.”

“Our study,” they write, “provides a glimpse into this population’s lifeworlds.”

In written answers to questions from Inside Higher Ed, the authors elaborated further on the implications of their research for pedagogy.

"We recommend what has been referred to as reciprocal pedagogy that is loosely summarized as engaging in genuine dialogue with international students and trying to learn about their backgrounds and histories. We see this as a two-way street in which both the teachers and students must shift their stances. Having noted our broader goals and aims, we did find some overall general trends and themes in the context of our research," the authors said.

“Central to working with Chinese international students is the importance of understanding the social, cultural and educational contexts in which many of them have been socialized. In part due to a highly structured educational system that revolves largely around a national entrance exam, many of the students are used to memorizing large bodies of information, deferring to teachers and authorities, and solving problems or questions with a single correct answer. As a result, many Chinese international students need more time and exposure to open-ended problem solving while learning to take positions and support opinions. They are also not generally accustomed to discussion-style courses with a stigma generally associated with losing face.”

“Students’ reluctance is often compounded by struggles with mastering the language. Though many of the students do learn English from an early age, they typically do so based on approaches that focus more on grammar or drill and skill as opposed to offering ample opportunities for practicing the language. Grounded in these contexts, we would therefore recommend constructing assignments with ample use of models, examples, and explicit aims or objectives. We would further encourage instruction that breaks down assignments into multiple stages with multiple opportunities for feedback. In the case of writing, this means employing multiple drafts that offer opportunities for practice and revision. Additionally important is recognizing and creating opportunities to unpack examples or concepts that are commonly taken for granted in U.S. contexts (e.g., frequent use of sports metaphors related to baseball or American football). A final key practice includes presenting classroom information in multiple modes or forms. One instructor in our study, for example, found that PowerPoint slides often contained too much information to absorb quickly when coupled with the talk, so began to write out notes and … solve mathematical problems on an overhead as he worked to make it easier for students to follow the course. In many ways, these recommendations reflect general best practices in university teaching and are not unique to Chinese international students.”

The authors continued, “Though such solutions are not perfect, we have seen that involving students in collaborative forms of learning can be useful, while also allowing Chinese speech and writing into the classroom. Indeed, central to our key findings is the significance of the collective or dense social networks of the Chinese international students that often influence their classroom practices and learning. While this has been addressed by other scholars and in popular media, we believe our findings add texture and a historical-social dimension to our understanding of how Chinese international students navigate the university. In some cases the students do segregate themselves or use their networks in a manner that is not always conducive or productive for deeper forms of study. But we also found many ways that the students’ informal networks were productive and a rich source of academic learning and socialization into the various disciplines. For example, we found many students take initiative in organizing their informal learning spaces to recruit each other as resources and unpack challenging course material. One key for instructors is to leverage these dispositions and design collaborative assignments that make everyone in the group accountable.”

“Finally,” the authors wrote, “one of the main findings is perhaps most relevant to business and engineering schools, but also we believe relevant to our understandings of student population as a whole. We found rich types of entrepreneurial activity on campus. Engaged in large- and small-scale enterprises, many of the students proved to be adept at problem solving, creative thinking and managing complex projects in their efforts to start their own student organizations and businesses that often stretched across transnational borders. In relation to students’ academic lives, the key is to tap into some of this creativity, ambition and drive that often goes below the radar or unnoticed in part because of language and cultural barriers. While this is to some extent dependent on the course or discipline, in a business class, for example, it might be useful to have students discuss the Chinese market or various marketing and business decisions based on the cultural context in China.”

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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