Dialogic dynamics in Chinese universities’ English classrooms: collective identity and the critical global citizen

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When the lead author of our new article in Teaching in Higher Education (Wen) obtained her doctoral degree in Australia and began to lecture ‘Extensive Reading in English’ in Mainland China, a senior professor and previous dean of the school advised that it’s better to avoid the units of ‘Bible stories’ and ‘Festivals and holidays’ (Christmas) in the textbook – because ‘everyone knows’. She was confused, as if she was the only one who didn’t know it, and students also knew this established rule or practice very well – Christmas celebrations are prohibited on campus.

Later we recognised that these contents have tensions with the mainstream ideology and are not possible to be lived through the units’ selection process since Western religious culture was deemed as unbefitting of China’s own traditions and of building cultural confidence. While there is a sound understanding of the necessity, and even some passion, for foreign language(s) and intercultural education that conform to a global and neoliberal agenda, there is still much caution with occidental countries in Mainland China. In addition, though the national curriculum is aware of the values of English education in developing young people’s intercultural understanding, global sensitivity and global consciousness (Yu & Maele, 2018), no consensus has been reached concerning what higher education institutions should be doing to educate for the critical citizenry (Friedman, 2018; Gu, 2016).

In our paper, we drew upon an English Language Teaching (ELT) reading course in Chinese higher education and elaborated on how a Freirean informed approach opens up pedagogical encounters and opportunities for undergraduates to become interculturally aware citizens. Our ethnographic research was undertaken among students on less ‘privileged’ educational pathways in a teaching-intensive university, where classrooms are under different sorts of surveillance and pressures – both try to be more internationalised as ‘elite’ universities but also position agency peripherally in the educational hierarchy, absorbing less ‘elite’ students with lower academic grades. This is where the potentialities exist; through the discourse of meritocracy, as students are likely to turn ‘the gaze’ on themselves and take responsibility for their own futures. The study frames ELT – intercultural/global citizenship education as a site of social justice for the general populace’s intercultural awareness and basic sense of inter-connectedness, which are disproportionately designed for and available to national elites (Hayden, McIntosh, Sandoval-Hernández, & Thompson, 2020).

We provide insights into how ELT foregrounded intercultural awareness in Chinese higher education and the ways in which dialogic practices were implemented to support the conscientização process in an ideologically contentious curricular arena, as academically less ‘superior’ undergraduates were turned into free agents who could control their own learning through community practices. A Freirean pedagogical approach also broke the rigidity of textbooks and counteracted a neoliberal market-oriented education that prioritises standardised testing and instrumental purposes of language(s) education (Xiong & Yuan, 2018). Though the students were required to sit a standardised test at the end of the course, our pedagogies provide a useful framework for developing students’ intercultural awareness in the exam-oriented education system that is strewn with ambivalence. At the end, we were able to show how dynamics at the micro level of the classroom can actually afford students privilege, openness and collective identity to navigate the global village.

Wen Xu (East China Normal University) and Jorge Knijnik (Western Sydney University)

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