"There's no better way to learn something than to teach it."
Written by Brent White
Over the summer, Rob Lagueux, Director of the First-Year Seminar program in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Columbia College Chicago, was selected by the Fulbright Scholar Program to help implement general education requirements at City University of Hong Kong—an experience he is also blogging about.
He and his wife Cate Lagueux, who is the former Director of Graduate Admissions and Services at Columbia College Chicago, have been in Hong Kong since early September.
Below, Dr. Lagueux answers some questions about his experience thus far as a 2012–2013 Visiting Fulbright Scholar in the office of Education Development and Gateway Education at City University of Hong Kong.
What is your main, day-to-day role as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar working at City University (CityU) of Hong Kong?
Right now I’m working on three big projects. The first is to help review and improve a course required for most graduate-student teachers. Like many institutions, CityU provides a crash-course for new graduate student teachers.
In a similar vein, my second task is to devise and develop a teaching resource for CityU faculty, especially new faculty. Here, as most everywhere, faculty are facing competing demands for their time, and so I’ve been asked to use my faculty development experience to create a series of resources that will help teachers reflect on and improve their teaching, largely outside of the typical two-hour-workshop model.
The third is to help devise and pilot a first-year learning community. This last project is probably going to be the biggest challenge, because I’ve been asked, in effect, to create a program that will shift students’ attitudes toward learning in ways that align with CityU’s move toward general education.
In what ways has your work directing—and teaching in—Columbia’s First-Year Seminar (FYS) program contributed and transferred to what you are doing for CityU?
The projects I’m working on here about faculty development across the university and student learning across departments have clear analogues in the cross-college context of FYS.
One of the great joys of FYS is having frequent and sustained conversations about teaching with colleagues from all of the disciplines that Columbia teaches, so I get to learn about pedagogies from fields I would normally have little or no exposure to. I think that’s an advantage here at CityU, because it would be easy—if one didn’t have a broader context or awareness—to walk into a room and say, “Here’s how teaching is done.”
Working in FYS has given me a much more heightened appreciation for the range of successful teaching practices that different disciplines bring to the table, as well as the awareness that no single one of those will be appropriate in every situation.
Directing FYS and, even more, teaching FYS, has made me more broadly educated, too, both through traditional means like reading outside my discipline, but also from students’ and faculty members’ own stories. There’s no better way to learn something than to teach it, and teaching an interdisciplinary course means that you have to learn about, and within, other disciplines on a daily basis.
A recently published article titled “Disappearing Liberal Arts Colleges” in Inside Higher Ed quotes a study that found that over the last twenty years there’s been a 39 percent decline of liberal arts colleges in the United States. Do you see any relationship between changes in higher education in the US, and the changes occurring over there?
I think there is a relationship, but somewhat ironically it’s in the opposite direction. Both the US and Hong Kong are increasingly concerned about the role higher education plays in the future lives of their college graduates, especially in a decade marked by such frequent change and so much economic uncertainty. Both the US and Hong Kong want their college graduates to have the skills necessary for fulfilling individual lives, as well as for the continued prosperity of the nation.
In the US, this has often translated into a shortsighted emphasis on testing, or an attitude along the lines of, “What good is class X going to do me in my job in career Y?” or, “What good is the department of X when it has only Z majors?” We’ve seen the latter recently as major universities have shuttered departments of Classics, languages, etc., with an eye not on the importance of those disciplines in an educated society but instead on the bottom line of the school. We see the first view when students are so focused on career readiness that they forget about life readiness.
Hong Kong, conversely, which has traditionally ranked very high in test scores in math and science, has come to realize that its students are going to need more than that in the coming decades. They are going to need the kinds of skills and knowledge that are not easily measured with standardized tests, like curiosity, adaptability, self-motivated inquiry, and the like. So, Hong Kong has introduced an American-style educational system, adding a fourth year to a previously three-year university curriculum and requiring general education courses—courses outside a student’s major that aim to broaden their education and the skills and attitudes they will bring with them after graduation.
In what ways do you anticipate this experience will change you? Additionally, how do you suspect what you are learning as a Fulbright scholar and working on at CityU will transfer into our FYS program and your own pedagogy?
We’ve been here only for about eight weeks or so, but I think that this has already made me much more self-reflective about my own teaching practice and about teaching in general.
As the Fulbrighter here to help in various ways with the general education implementation, I am often asked, indirectly or directly, to answer some form of this question: “How is it done in the US?” That’s a tricky one, as I’ve come to realize over and over again that there’s almost never a single way that colleges and universities do things in the US, and even if there were that wouldn’t mean that it’s ideal for Hong Kong.
There’s also a tendency to want to create binaries in comparing Hong Kong and the US. There is undeniably some truth to aspects of these characterizations, but there have been many times when I’ve thought, “Well, it’s not always like that in the States…” or, “We have the very same problem, and I’m not sure we’ve figured out a solution either.”
So, while I’ve been fortunate to observe and take part in all kinds of discussions that highlight interesting differences, a lot of the most fascinating realizations for me are how similar things can be more often than not. In a way, I feel like I’ve gotten a very good and up-close view of the neighbor’s grass, and realized that—well, perhaps it’s not greener. And since there’s no reason to be unduly envious, let’s meet at the fence and talk about lawn care.
Rob Lagueux is blogging about his experiences living and working in Hong Kong as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar. Read his blog: http://unforbiddingcity.com. Q&A conducted by Brent White, Director of Communications for the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.