UC Blue Ash faculty teach at Xi’an International Studies summer institute

Six professors from the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College traveled to China this summer to teach at the regional college’s long-time global partner university

A global partnership more than a decade old and an idea made reality in less than seven months took a group of University of Cincinnati Blue Ash faculty members 7,300 miles to China’s northwestern Shaanxi province this July.

They went to teach at the first international summer institute at Xi’an International Studies University. The summer program, a unique model in China, drew 3,000 undergraduate students from across the country and beyond. Faculty from XISU’s partner universities around the world taught 50 classes in an intensive three-week term.

Assistant Professor Annette Redmon called the trip “a life-changing experience,” both in the classroom and in the city.

UC faculty teach in China

Outdoor art: metal sculpture of a globe with a banner reading XISU; building in the background

Public art on XISU’s campus. Photo/Jen Carter.

XISU is one of the oldest universities of its kind in China, highly regarded for its specialization in Chinese and international language programs, with related disciplines in international studies, business and law, tourism, arts, humanities, social sciences and education, as well as the natural sciences.

UC Blue Ash Professor Shaorong Huang is an alumnus of XISU and taught there for twelve years. He has been instrumental in fostering the partnership between the Department of English & Communication and the global language programs of his alma mater.

In 2004, he provided introductions for Professor Stan Sulkes, who taught for a semester at the Chinese university and went on to found an English writing lab there. Huang believes that the lab was the first in the country.

In the decade that followed, UC Blue Ash and XISU signed faculty exchange agreements that brought six faculty members from Xi'an to America to teach English composition here. UC Blue Ash faculty taught graduate short courses at XISU in June for several years.

“We truly value our ongoing relationship with XISU," said UC Blue Ash Dean Robin Lightner.

"This continues to be an important professional development resource for our faculty, and these cultural experiences enrich the perspectives they bring to our students here at UC Blue Ash.”

A group of people stand in front of a round building with signage saying “Library” in Chinese and English

UC Blue Ash professors Matt Bennett, Maria Ortiz, Annette Redmon and Jen Carter pose with Redmon's daughter Marin, second from left, in front of the XISU library building.

Undergraduate summer program

Last December, Huang was talking with Deputy Director Fan Hua of XISU’s Office of International Exchange and Cooperation. The conversation turned to Huang’s unusual personal experience with two of the handful of Chinese universities that offer summer classes of any kind.

Fan immediately saw the potential for her university to create an undergraduate summer program on a global scale that would showcase XISU’s strong international programs and partnerships. By March, with the support of her Vice President, Wu Yaowu, Fan had XISU’s colleges and departments involved and was recruiting faculty from America, Canada, Britain, Australia, Singapore and Italy to teach a selected English-language roster of courses.

A group stands in an outdoor courtyard.

A delegation from Xi'an International Studies University visits UC Blue Ash in June. Left to right, UC professors Shaorong Huang; Annette Redmon with her daughter, Marin, Adam Chekour; Jen Carter and Matt Bennett; XISU Vice President Wu Yaowu; Vice Dean of the School of English Studies Zhang Shengting, Redmon’s husband, Patrick Redmon; XISU Vice Dean of the School of Business Li Chunpu and Du Lin. Photo provided by Annette Redmon.

"It all happened at 'China speed,'" said Huang, citing it as an example of the high-efficiency public and economic projects carried out in the country.

Honoring the partnership with UC Blue Ash, the vice president, deans and department heads from Xi'an paid an advance visit to the college in June. In the meantime, Huang sent out a call for proposals to his Blue Ash colleagues to design classes for the institute. Five were accepted in addition to his own.

XISU arranged accommodation, food, transport and tourism visits, in addition to a teaching honorarium. Faculty taught four-hour morning blocks in intensive eight-day terms. Each had a TA to provide translation help, coordinate administrative tasks and act as guides.

Students flash peace and love signs posing with their professor.

UC Professor Jen Carter with some of her students at Xi'an International Studies University. Photo provided by Jen Carter.

Crossing cultural barriers

Most of those classes taught by the six visiting UC professors focused on international communication and cultural understanding.

Jen Carter, assistant professor of sociology, submitted her proposal because she had never really considered including China in her travels and because she loves challenging her students to question their preconceptions.

“I’m teaching intro to sociology [at UC Blue Ash] now," she said. "That’s the core of what I teach. I get to see our first-year students, and I really enjoy getting them to open their minds to new ways of thinking about the world. I teach my intro course in a pretty domestic kind of way, where I focus a lot on American culture, but I think having the opportunity to travel allows me to infuse a lot more into those conversations.”

In preparation for her Xi’an course, “Culture, Communication and Community," Carter had the students in her spring sociology intro class make lists of what being American meant to them. She created a word cloud from the lists.

Word cloud with the largest words religion, American flag, sports, education, fast food, cars, money, American dream, freedom

American students’ word cloud from Professor Jen Carter's UC Blue Ash class. Image/Jen Carter.

“Really big in the middle is the American flag and religion and fast food. Freedom and things like that were all big. But most of the things that made it onto the American word cloud were material objects.  

“I took the word cloud to my Chinese students and asked them to tell me what they thought was interesting or strange. They thought that it was weird that American students had put the flag on there, because they couldn’t really understand why that would be that important. They didn’t understand why cars would be on there, because it’s just not something they see as incredibly important in their culture.

"So I had to try and explain—if you want to go someplace, you drive. You can’t get on a high speed train and get there. They thought it was strange that fast food was on there really big, because, sure, they have it there, we ate KFC, but it just isn’t super important to them as a part of their culture.”

The Chinese students created a very different list of their own important cultural associations.

Word cloud with the largest words spring festival, Confucianism, dragon, respect elders, filial piety, red, Taoism, family

Chinese students' word cloud from UC Blue Ash Professor Jen Carter's Xi'an International Studies University class. Image/Jen Carter.

Maria Ortiz, assistant professor – educator of Spanish in the Foreign Language Department, investigated an overlapping set of cultural differences with her students at Xi'an.

“For me,” she said, “this was the opportunity to design and teach the class of my dreams. This is my dissertation.”

Her comparative literature course, “Food, Identity and Culture,” explored the customs and values different communities associate with preparing, sharing and eating food.

Students pose in a classroom before a screen showing a slide that reads “Food, Identity and Culture."

UC Blue Ash Professor Maria Ortiz's “Food, Identity and Culture" class at Xi'an International Studies University. Photo provided by Maria Ortiz.

Sharing and respecting food are basic values in Chinese culture, as the Americans learned from some of the elaborate meals hosted for them. On the other hand, most Chinese students learned some unfamiliar concepts from their textbook readings about religious rituals related to clean and unclean foods, religion being another area where Chinese and American students have very different cultural associations.

They were also fascinated to learn that Ortiz’s native food culture in Puerto Rico is based on rice, just like their own.

“I showed them the traditional Puerto Rican plate of food. I said, look, all of our food has rice. Food actually travels all over the world, and we’re so connected. We bonded over rice, like sticky rice. We came together through food.”

Table covered with food

A meal local professors hosted for UC Blue Ash professor Jen Carter in Xi'an. Photo/Jen Carter


A display in Xi’an’s Muslim market. Photo/Adam Chekour.

Ortiz described the final project her class did, particularly the work of a group that named themselves the All-Meat group.

“For their final project they had to create a restaurant and a menu, based on what they had learned. They created this menu where you could go eat your emotions. They took you through different emotions from the [hors d’oeuvres] to the main dish to the dessert.

"They made it so meaningful. The way they connected the symbolism from the culture into their food, I was moved beyond words—you know when you see not only the lightbulb, but the lightbulb broke, it was so bright.”

Students stand with their professor in front of a whiteboard with food words and names

UC Blue Ash Professor Maria Ortiz with students on the last day of class in the XISU summer institute. Photo provided by Maria Ortiz.

Associate Professor Matt Bennett of Electronic Media Communications, taught a class called, "Chinese Cinema, Global Audiences."

"We looked at Chinese cinema from a number of different western film studies approaches: national cinema studies, genre studies, auteur theory and feminist film theory," Bennett said.

"Wherever possible, I paired the assigned readings by Western film theorists with essays by Chinese critics and theorists, stressing the importance of indigenous scholarship when studying a national cinema. That way, the class was able to see both the possibilities and limitations of Western scholarship when applied to Chinese cinema."

Bennett said his students enjoyed the chance to see their country through another cultural lens. They asked him if they could study Disney’s “Mulan” rather than the 1964 Chinese live-action classic “Hua Mu Lan.” He said they were surprised to find how much they enjoyed the neo-noir Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" compared to the recent, comedic Chinese adaptation, "A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop." They even studied early "yellowface" depictions in Western film through the Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu films.

A group of students poses with their teacher on a staircase

UC Blue Ash Professor Matt Bennett's film studies class at XISU. Photo provided by Matt Bennett.

Bennett was able to bring in a Chinese film scholar, Xiaotan Wan, of Shandong Normal University, as a guest lecturer, which added another dimension of cross-cultural perspective to the course.

“Her focus was in women’s representation, women gender studies and film. Having a native Chinese film scholar come and speak with the class, I learned as much from her as the students did.”

Bennett said the most rewarding part of his visit was the time he spent with his students in and out of the classroom. He'd be happy to return to XISU and next time teach an American cinema course.

Three people pose arm in arm in a classroom

UC Blue Ash Professor Annette Redmon poses with her daughter, Marin, and her TA, Gana. Photo provided by Annette Redmon.

High-caliber students

For Annette Redmon, assistant professor in the Business & Economics Department, the opportunity to teach in China ticked an item off her bucket list.

She taught a business law class for the institute.

“I did it as if, ‘You’re going to do business in America, here’s what you need to know.’ So we talked about some of the differences in our laws.”

Some things, she found, translated easily. In a discussion of copyright infringement, everyone knew who Taylor Swift was.

She described her students as highly competitive and likely to putting a great deal of pressure on themselves to turn out high-quality work.

“They got to pick a legal topic, whether it was a contract dispute, discrimination in the workplace, product liability, like failure to warn. Each group presented and made a video, and they just seemed to absolutely love that. That was our final-day project, and they had just a little bit of time to work on it. They delivered.”


UC Blue Ash Professor Adam Chekour's research methods class. Photo/Adam Chekour.

Adam Chekour, assistant professor of mathematics, agreed that the students turned out graduate-level work. His class on research methods used project-based learning to teach different investigational methods and principles.

“Basically, they go out there and experience what it is to conduct research. First they have to come up with a research question, which they have to refine with me. And from there they start building their research questions, like surveys, questionnaires, and then they go and gather their data and present. There were mini-presentations along the way, with me lecturing in between, and then at the end they have to present this, the results of their projects.”

“What fascinated me is the speed at which they collected the data, thanks to WeChat [the multipurpose social media app]. WeChat is an amazing platform, it has everything—it has Blackboard, it has Canvas, it has all these crazy things that we are using here, it’s gathered right there. So you can recruit people to answer your surveys. Some of them did 200 in a matter of one day or two! They are involved in so many social networks through WeChat, and they asked those people, who responded to their survey immediately.” Projects covered topics like ethnic food or social issues of concern to the students, like LGBTQ awareness at XISU or domestic abuse.

The class that Huang taught was "Interpersonal Communication in Cross-cultural Context." He, too, commented on the dedication that the students gave to their courses at Xi'an.

A man holds a microphone in a banquet room.

UC Blue Ash Professor Shaorong Huang speaks at the closing ceremony for the Xi'an International Studies University 2019 summer institute. Photo/Maria Ortiz.

“The students were very good at working, studying, under pressure. Most of the summer school classes were very short—two or three weeks. Yet every student would complete all the class assignments, homework and projects on time. There was no complaining from them.”

Huang was able to put the students’ attitudes into a cultural context of high respect for education and educators in China. The formal ceremonies that opened and closed the summer institute also marked the value that everyone involved placed on the experience.

“In Chinese tradition, a saying goes, ‘A teacher for a day is a father for a lifetime,'" Huang explained. "Respect to teachers from their students is part of Chinese culture."

Screenshot of a text message reading "Happy teachers' day, Mr. Matt"

A student's WeChat message to UC Blue Ash Professor Matt Bennett. Image/Matt Bennett.

A teaching legacy

“A couple of them still email me,” said Redmon, whose TA composed a song of praise for her. “They ask if they can practice their English. You really felt like you made a difference. The best thing that we took away is that we made a difference in their lives. Just like here, too, when you have a student who sends you an email down the road.”

Carter also talked about how much she values being able to bring home the experience for her UC Blue Ash students. She is using the Chinese students' word cloud and innumerable examples of cultural differences and similarities in the sociology classes she is teaching back home.  

Carter now has plans to lead a study abroad program for the college to England and Iceland in 2021. Bennett, who has previously led study abroad for the college, will teach in Bangalore through USAC, a third-party study abroad provider, next year.

Travel in Xi'an

"A lot of us can relate to our students as being first-generation college students," said Redmon, acknowledging that it can be hard for many to look beyond their studies.

Ortiz agreed that she tries to coax her students to see the opportunities they can have.

“I think it’s just the fact that we can share that experience from going ourselves to other places and say, ‘Look, I was scared as anything, but I went there and I did it, and I didn’t speak the language—who cares? Just go and try it.’ You just immerse yourself in a way that becomes very natural in the end. Look at all of us [the group who went to Xi’an]. How different could we be? We built this family around us.”

“I think it’s about evolving your personality," said Chekour. "This is one thing I tell myself all the time as a traveler. Travel helps me build my personality, just by experiencing all these things that I would not experience by staying here and watching media. I like to go out there and just discover it. It changes me.”

So all of them, in between lesson planning to keep ahead of their students and meet XISU’s high expectations for the summer institute, took time to appreciate the city and its culture.

Group of the Xi’an terra cotta warriors and horses

Xi'an's famous terra cotta army. Photo/Jen Carter.

Xi’an is one of the historic cultural capitals of China. It is best known to American tourists as the site of the third-century BCE tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and its army of terra cotta warriors.

With a population of 12.9 million, the city itself was an adventure.

“It felt like every day was Black Friday, just because there were so many people out and moving around in traffic,” says Ortiz.

A motor cart hauls both goats and people on a Xi'an street, with people and cars in the background

A street scene in Xi'an. Photo/Jen Carter

A street festival at night with lanterns

Xi'an at night. Photo/Jen Carter.


UC Blue Ash Professor Adam Chekour and his TA, Liu Caihong, at the Bell Tower of Xi'an. Photo/Adam Chekour.


Xi'an old city wall. Photo/Adam Chekour.

Future of the summer institute

The whole group would go back to Xi’an if invited. XISU is looking to expand the summer institute with additional courses and languages next year.

The University of Cincinnati’s Vice Provost for International Affairs Raj Mehta said he would love to see UC faculty become more widely involved with the institute. He thinks the program is an innovative way to meet a need for many students.

“Since so many students, not just at UC but all around the US, return home to China during the long summer vacation, a model where they can continue to pursue their studies, continue in high-quality English classes and even continue to earn credits they could take back to their US universities is a wonderful idea. And of course a partnership like this between XISU and UC helps expand the global opportunities we can give American students, too.”

Huang serves in the China advisory group for UC International that helps Mehta and university administration determine international strategy for UC and for his own college, and he will continue to help foster the collaboration.

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Featured image: Left to right, Jen Carter, Maria Ortiz, Shaorong Huang, Annette Redmon, Matt Bennett and Adam Chekour. Photo by Patrick Redmon.

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