A new campus as Utopia - Wenzhou-Kean University
As a scholar and fiction writer, I am interested in utopian narratives and the ways that places designed upon an ideal can influence the population that inhabits them. So it isn’t surprising that I classify Wenzhou-Kean University (WKU) as a type of utopia. Our university is utopic, not in the sense that it is a perfect place, but in that our community was conceived of as a remedy to educational issues, such as China’s alleged education system that tends to prioritize memorization over the development of problem-solving skills with real-world application and Chinese students’ lack of preparation in developing global citizenship.
Sociologist and utopian expert Ruth Levitas writes “utopia is the expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living”.1 Levitas, R. 2013. Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstruction of Society. (Kindle ed.) Palgrave Macmillan. The utopic solution in this case is a seemingly simple one: provide a western education in a western language. Campus buzzwords are critical, creative, and English-only. Students are promised an education that builds these skills and provides preparation for further education and employment abroad. Our course curriculum is the same as that of our home campus in New Jersey and our pedagogy emphasizes student-centered learning, a contrast to the passive learning of power point-centered lectures that most Chinese students are used to. But these are only superficial techniques emerging from a larger, philosophical desire to shift the student from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of it.
Like traditional utopias, ours is rather isolated, situated at the foot of a mountain in the outskirts of Wenzhou, a city that has incorporated western business models and is known for its economic and industrial development, but is slow to accommodate western culture. This can be limiting; unlike Tier 1 cities that host a large population of foreign experts, our students’ access to English-speakers is restricted to those they find on campus. But the isolation of the campus is also one of the benefits. It is a blank slate where what is needed can be created. When students and faculty expressed the desire for coffee and a café-culture, rather than ask the canteen to provide coffee we invited students to submit business proposals for coffee shops. The winning team now operates Social Dog, a coffee shop on the fifth floor of our campus building and where they know just how I like my Americano. Similarly, we recognized the need for heightened verbal interaction and built the necessary elements into our introductory speaking courses. Groups of students interrupt classes (with an ok beforehand from the professor) to shout a line or two of poetry or a song. We term this ‘song bombing’ (my personal preference is to be ‘bombed’ with lines of Whitman). This can get competitive, with classes keeping records of who ‘owes’ who. The process may seem purely ludic, but it incorporates the elements of gamification, a growing field in western education. Students are not only practicing pronunciation, they are developing identities as proactive members of a community.
Developing more sophisticated levels of interaction, WKU has worked to make debate central to our campus culture. Fostering the students’ debating skills increases participation and builds analytical skills. Students who were once shy now argue aggressively and persuasively with one another—and sometimes their professors. While aggression may not always be desirable, it is an overcorrection that will eventually balance out. More importantly, this willingness to engage is a mark of the successful global personality that our students desire to embody.
This atmosphere of engagement has developed further community-building. While faculty and staff organize lectures and activities, students have developed a debate club, a salon society, a finance club, and a host of other clubs as well as a media club to document and celebrate these clubs and their accomplishments. They are no longer passive observers, but people who shout lines of Whitman or Szymborska to one another, debate me in the hallway, and who are capable designers of the space they inhabit now and the spaces they will inhabit in the future.
Jennifer Marquardt is Assistant Professor of English at Wenzhou-Kean University (email@example.com).