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Teaching Asia to Australia: Face-to-Face and First-Hand


The one measure outlined in the White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, that seems to have caught the public’s imagination is the access to four priority languages (Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese) at all levels of the Australian education system. This is an important move as linguistic literacy is part of deeper and broader engagement with Asia. However, it’s a fact such broad measures will cost and educational institutions around Australia are already shouting: show us the money!

Are there other ways to bring Asia into our university classrooms? Catherine Gomes and I advocated in an earlier piece in The Conversation that Australian universities treat the thousands of Asian postgraduates that we train as assets by integrating their skills and first-hand knowledge of life in Asia into our classrooms. It is relatively simple to implement and the effect can be immediate. They may speak in differently accented English but it would do Australian undergraduates no harm to listen to these different rhythms of speech and realise there’s more than one way to communicate in English. The experiential knowledge Asian postgraduates can add to our studies curricula would be invaluable. From contents and contexts to structures, there is much room for teaching Asia to Australia.

Simon Marginson points to the white paper’s plan to send more of our Australian undergraduates to Asia on exchange as another way of preparing Australia for broader and deeper engagement with Asia. There is no doubt that such exposure can bring myriad benefits ranging from relational and cultural to intellectual. But why are we stopping at students?

Two months ago I was introduced by chance to a visiting lecturer from China. She, along with 30 or so other colleagues had been sent to the university where I work on exchange for three months to study Australian university teaching. On impulse I invited her to attend a guest lecture I was delivering that very afternoon. Chatting to her after the lecture I learnt that the entire group visiting from China consists of teaching-intensive academics, here to attend lectures, brush up on their pedagogic skills as well as visit various parts of Australia. By the end of the afternoon, several of my assumptions about Chinese academia were corrected and we were both exhausted but I learnt more about teaching in China face-to-face in that brief exchange than I could have picked up from reading several journal articles or watching documentaries.

The white paper emphasizes the need for researchers to collaborate with Asian partners and rightly so. Still, we need to look beyond research and consider teaching. After all, on a day-to-day basis those teaching have a greater and more immediate impact on Australian undergraduates. Can we learn how to teach better or differently from our Asian counterparts? I think we can and should. Secondment is already a part of the academic tradition and every university here has or should have a policy in place that governs such initiatives. Much can be achieved if Australian universities sincerely welcome and actively encourage secondments. The China Exchange Initiative in the US operates such a scheme at the pre-college level. The guest at my lecture was part of her province’s teaching development program. There are models available that we could fashion similar programmes from. It doesn’t have to be about languages only.

If we genuinely want to bring Asia to our universities, we should send our teachers to countries in Asia to observe, to teach and to learn. What we stand to gain is immeasurable. Not only will our teachers study how universities in these nations approach teaching, the things they do well, the problems that trouble them and how they resolve the issues that threaten the quality of teaching. Importantly, we will also learn about the societies that many of our international students come from. The conviction that knowledge of and participation in Asia matters and is worthwhile is what those of us teaching at universities need to convey to our students. Nothing convinces better than first-hand experience.


I'm a research fellow at an Australian university where I work on a number of projects. These include projects to do with new media and migration and the Chinese diaspora in Australia, projects on the Malaysian internet, ethno-religious issues in Singapore and Malaysia. And, before I forget many of the photos I use on this site were taken by my sister, Jessie and myself. All rights are reserved.