Saturday, September 27, 2008

Suggestions Needed: Teaching Culture in China

Next semester Christie (my wife) and I will be teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Each of us will be teaching a course called "American Culture." The course content is entirely up to us, and we've been slowly engaged in the task of putting together the material we will eventually be covering (individually, the courses aren't team-taught, but we'll teach the same syllabus). We really need help accumulating suggestions from people regarding what to cover, and how to cover it. Click below the fold and give us a hand! All suggestions welcome!

The folks at Tsinghua would like it if the course covered standard cultural stuff (politics, religion, race, etc) but also a fair amount of "pop" culture as well. In addition, they seem to like the idea of using movies and other artistic media to get out lessons across or our discussions going.

This means that we have a lot of things to consider. First, there's the question of "what to cover?" Second, there's the question of "how to cover what we cover." In the first section, we're looking for subjects to cover. So -- when you think of "American culture" what subjects seem to you to be no-brainers? In the second part, we'd be happy to hear suggestions for (a) movies that could be shown that highlight those themes, (b) artwork, (c) music, (d) literature, etc. In both sections, it's pretty much open. So feel free to add what you can! We need every idea we can get!

Section One: What to Cover?

So far, we're thinking of the following "units" (not in order):

1. The Autonomous Self

2. The American Dream (Economics, Class)

3. Immigrants

4. Gender and Sex

5. Race

6. The (Wild) West

7. The South

8. Religion

9. Politics

10. Culture Wars

11. Education

12. Holidays

13. Consumerism

What else? I have no doubt there are lots of themes we haven't thought of. Please feel free to add more!

Section Two: How to Cover What We Cover

This is totally open ended. We have lots of readings and some films in mind, but I won't list them. Instead I'd rather just leave it open: what would you do? What readings would you use? Films? Literature? Cool and fun class exercises? Really anything here -- the sky is the limit.

Really -- feel free to suggest anything here. For instance, in unit 13 (Consumerism) I'm thinking seriously of showing "Dawn of the Dead," which has an interesting way to present a critique of American consumerism.

We'd appreciate any suggestions you might have. The more the better!


  1. Wow. That's quite overwhelming. It might be interesting to create a list of music genres (going back in time a few generations, too) and pick a song from a different genre to illustrate each week. For instance, you could have them listen to Sinatra singing "My Way" for the "autonomous individual" unit. You get to introduce different genres, major stars, and different cultural themes all in one. And they might find some things that they like.

    If you haven't done it already, you should tap into the very extensive network of ex-pat ESL teachers in China. A lot of them incorporate American culture into their courses, and might have a lot of good ideas.

    How did you swing a gig at Tsinghua?

  2. Dave,

    Great idea. I've already added a few songs, with exactly the idea you propose. I hadn't thought of "My Way" -- it's on the list now! Good one! A perfect fit for that unit!

    Do you know offhand where I might find that ex-pat ESL material? I could rummage around in Google, but if you know offhand, let me know. Sounds very useful.

    My university just began a faculty exchange with them (after years of slowly building a relationship with them). I was invited by the VPAA to be the first "ambassador" in our part of the exchange, so to speak, due to my interests in Asian philosophy and culture.

    One of my aims while there is to set up a regular summer study abroad program (every two years) for students at my university that would begin at Tsinghua (using their facilities), and then travel by train westward to a few different cities, ending in Lhasa (Tibet). Ambitious, but I always figure you should shoot for the roof and then see what you wind up with! If I can get it rolling, I'll add more about it here when the details seem doable.

  3. I haven't looked into it since SARS derailed my own teaching-in-China plans, but you might start by checking out the TEFLChina mailing list or Dave's ESL Cafe. (Dave's ESL Cafe is not specifically directed at China, but it might be a better starting point than Google.)

  4. Sirprised not to see any Sports on your list... As American as baseball (and apple pie), after all.

  5. A couple of suggestions that spring to mind...

    Roger & Me (or perhaps an episode of Michael Moore's short lived TV show)

    Supersize Me

    Perhaps "Shipping Out" by David Foster Wallace (who's been on my mind since his recent death) -- maybe that would work with Consumerism

    And surely you'd have to show a episode of the Simpsons.

  6. Anonymous:

    You're right, and a few people in other places I put this "call" noted that. I'll definitely add a unit on it!


    I thought of Roger and Supersize too. My worry about Roger and Me, though -- not sure if it is well grounded -- is that I'm not sure the humor would carry over. They might not get it. Anyone have any idea?

    I put out this "call" in about five places and "Simpsons" came up in all five, by the way!

  7. Another idea: For the holidays unit, you might have them watch a movie or TV episode about a dysfunctional Thanksgiving family gathering (Hannah and her Sisters? Home for the Holidays? Pieces of April?). You get an American movie, a look at a distinctly American holiday, and what the students may find an interesting look at American family relations, all in one. I'd be curious to hear their reactions to it.


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