Emory and Globalized Education

Teaching in the internationalized classroom

Thomas Remington

Professor of Political Science


When I first started teaching at Emory in 1978, students from outside the U.S. were rare. With time, the number of international students has grown rapidly and the range of countries they represent has grown as well. Like most U.S. universities (and, increasingly, high schools), Emory College has rapidly expanded the number of students from China. We also continue to see a substantial stream of students from other parts of Asia, with large numbers coming from Korea and India. 

This change in the composition of the Emory College student population has challenged me and other faculty members to reconsider the effectiveness of our teaching methods, since much of what we might take for granted in dealing with an all-U.S. student body in a class does not hold when a sizable portion of the students come from countries with substantially different educational and political cultures. In an introductory comparative politics class, for example, we cannot assume that students are familiar with basic facts or concepts that U.S. students learn in high school civics classes.

For me, in my classes, these changes have been bracing and salutary. A senior seminar I taught in fall 2011 stands out as the high point of my teaching career at Emory. In this seminar, which developed as an outgrowth of my research interests, the class focused on comparing the transition experiences of Russia and China as they have undergone market reforms. The makeup of the students was unusually heterogeneous, with participants from Turkey, Colombia, Ukraine, China, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as the U.S. The students were particularly good and lively, and they often shared personal experiences bearing on the issues we were discussing. As in the best courses, I learned a lot from their questions and comments. 

One of our sessions was devoted to a meeting with a group of students from Nanjing University in China. My students came prepared with questions based on our readings and the research they were doing for their research papers. The Chinese group was led by a faculty member who let his students ask and answer questions without interference. The Nanjing students all knew English, but frequently the concepts we wanted to address were abstract and rooted in social science literature, so the one Chinese student in the seminar, who had been at Emory for three years, was able to step in and elaborate on questions and answers in both directions. The result was a serious, substantive discussion on matters such as the quality of democracy in the U.S. and the extent of corruption in China. 

In spring 2013 I taught an upper-division course on the political system of China, a topic I have grown increasingly interested in. Roughly half the students in the class were Chinese, whether born in China or American-born of Chinese parentage. Other members of the class had backgrounds from Korea, Cuba, and Russia—as well as a large contingent of students from the U.S. Often, one or another of the students had personal knowledge of a place or organization we were discussing, or they brought in experiences related by their parents. Sometimes a student would follow up on a particular issue by phoning a parent or grandparent back in China to get a personal reminiscence or to check a factual point. A professional journalist from China spending the semester at Emory, sat in on the class at my invitation. Sometimes I would ask her to explain a particular ideological concept or informal political institution, and, with the help of the Chinese students in the class whose English was better, she would give us authoritative and insightful accounts.

I continue to feel a certain self-consciousness when I teach Chinese students about their home country. The advantage I bring is the wealth of literature available in the West on Chinese history and politics and the social science conceptual frameworks that help us make sense of the flow of events. More important still as a teaching objective than particular facts and concepts is the premise that students in the social sciences must learn to examine evidence rigorously and draw their own conclusions about how and why particular outcomes occurred. There is always a normative side to empirical questions in the social sciences—is this particular institution good or bad from the standpoint of some set of values?—but the point of the educational experience is to enable students to analyze material on their own and understand how to weigh alternative explanations for outcomes. This is hard enough for many American students to learn, but harder still for students who come from cultures where the assumption is that there is a right answer, a right way; that the teacher knows it; and that the student’s job is to master it. That way of learning is antithetical to a liberal arts education, which prizes disciplined, rigorous, analytical, and individual reasoning.

With respect to China, it remains the case that the Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989 is not publicly discussed in China, and the information about Mao Zedong transmitted in Chinese schools is highly selective. The searing memory of the Cultural Revolution is largely suppressed. Often Chinese parents are reluctant to discuss painful and sensitive parts of their country’s past with their children. So when Chinese students take classes at Emory, they are able to explore freely issues related not only to their nation’s history, but also to their own families—and draw their own conclusions. In many cases they ask to write their research papers on topics that they cannot study at home. As one student observed to me, Chinese students study English in order to learn about China. At the same time, they generally take a refreshingly candid and open-minded view of the United States. Some are intrigued by the importance of religion in American society, and others wonder why democracy can produce the severe polarization and deadlock we are observing in U.S. politics in recent years. How culture and politics interact and how universal are democratic political institutions—enduring questions in the social sciences—are fresh and topical for many of our international students. The questions that the international students bring to my political science classes allow me and other students to see our own country in a new light.

Like most American universities, Emory has benefitted from the confluence of several factors: growing affluence in much of Asia, a hunger for the benefits of education in Asia and elsewhere, and the quality of American higher educational institutions. The U.S. model of the research university, in which faculty members treat both teaching and scholarship as core missions, has proven to have international appeal. So Emory and other universities enjoy the American comparative advantage in the global market for higher education. Over the next few decades, though, this particular comparative advantage will diminish. The quality of the universities in other countries—particularly those from whom we have grown accustomed to drawing students—is rising steadily. Like other U.S. universities, Emory will need to invest in those attributes that have given American higher education its international edge: an unflagging commitment to scholarly excellence, a spirit of open-mindedness and inquiry, and a faith in the American model of the liberal arts education. I believe that this model, still a distinctively American innovation based on the partnership of individual inquiry and civic responsibility, has enduring value in a world of globalized education.

Continuing the conversations with CFDE

Join the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in spring 2014 for an Academic Learning Community (ALC) on “Teaching International Students.” ALCs are short-term seminars that meet regularly throughout the semester for collaborative explorations of emerging research and teaching topics. Open to faculty and ESL staff, this ALC will examine the resources already available and the resources needed for faculty to best teach international students. One significant outcome of this ALC will be to inform the development of training opportunities for faculty as they work with growing numbers of international students. Watch the CFDE website (cfde.emory.edu) for more information coming soon.