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UK Prepares Students with 'China Literacy' for 21st Century World

by Sarah Geegan

As the University of Kentucky prepares its students to compete in a globalized world, it's crucial to provide students with what associate provost for international programs Susan Carvalho calls "China literacy."

As the world's leading exporter, with the world's second-largest economy, there is no question that China is a dominant player in the 21st century marketplace.

"We’re thinking about how to make sure we’re graduating students who are world-ready, and there is no question that 'China literacy,' if we could use that term, is needed by people who are going into the global workforce," Carvalho said. "And it’s hard to think of any sectors that aren’t impacted in some way by what China does."

Just as China's influence spans across various industries, the elements of global literacy span across multiple disciplines. Part of fostering this literacy in students involves developing China programs for faculty across the curriculum.

"One message we want to send to students is that global literacy is not just about culture classes and language classes. It’s about how knowledge is created, disseminated, and used in a commercial and global environment of commerce," Carvalho said. "So, by sending to China faculty who are from a broad range of disciplines, some of whom haven’t been to China, the hope is that this perspective about China will be infused across the grid, not by just something that anyone teaches but by experiences that faculty have."

Shanghai's skyline at night.With this goal in mind, the UK Faculty China Short-Term Teaching Program came into fruition, through the work of the UK Confucius Institute (UKCI), the conduit for UK’s China initiatives. UKCI has supported UK students' experiences in China for the past two years, and this summer UKCI supported 29 UK faculty members' travel to China to teach at Shanghai University.

"We are very proud that in the two years of its existence, the UK Confucius Institute has become the driving force for the “China Literacy” for faculty as well as students," said Huajing Maske, director of UKCI. "In addition to UKCI’s Distinguished Scholars Speaker Series which bring five speakers each year to speak on China-related topics,  being able to support the 29 faculty members to go to Shanghai University is unprecedented. This will undoubtedly contribute to increasing China literacy on campus."

These teaching stints embedded the professors in the departments of the partner universities. This afforded them much more meaningful experience by making them colleagues with Chinese faculty.

Ernest Yanarella, chair of the Department of Political Science, taught a course titled, "Bridging Modernity, Globalization, and Sustainable Development in China and the West."

"I must say that teaching in China to young Chinese college students was one of the most meaningful educational experiences I have had as a scholar and university professor," Yanarella said. "The course sought to develop a conversation with 30 English-speaking Chinese first and second-year students at Shanghai University about their future—and ours. It proved to be a splendid opportunity for an American scholar and teacher to engage in a real dialogue with future leaders of the Republic of China."

Yanarella said that such partnerships are a win-win situation for Chinese universities and the University of Kentucky. 

"The opportunity for UK faculty to teach at Chinese universities opens up possibilities of promoting greater cultural understanding across political and other divides and generating collaborative teaching and research projects with Chinese scholars," he said.

History professor Phil Harling taught a course titled, "British Imperialism and the Opium Wars."

"To their great credit, the Shanghai University authorities seem genuinely interested in exposing their students to more discussion-intensive experiences in the classroom," Harling said. "I think the students enjoyed the casual give-and-take of an American-style classroom."

Harling said the experience left him much more optimistic about the future of the Sino-American relationship.

"This will only become more important as the 21st century progresses," he said. " Moving forward, I hope more UK faculty will have the chance to meet and learn from colleagues in China."

A center for Chinese language, culture, art and business, the UK Confucius Institute serves as a gateway to China for the university and for Kentucky. UKCI works to strengthen China Studies within the university, while at the same time providing leadership and support for Chinese language programs in Kentucky’s K-12 classrooms, and forging important community relationships through Chinese cultural outreach to people in the Commonwealth.