Joshua Romanoff, formerly an English instructor with the Office of International and Executive Programs (OIEP), discusses the challenges and opportunities of building bridges between cultures.
Q: In what capacity have you worked at OIEP?
Initially, I traveled to China to co-teach an English language course to a new cohort from Nanjing Normal University during the inaugural week of their Masters in Criminal Justice joint program.
Although only one week in length, the experience made me realize that this is a program I want to continue being a part of. I feel my openness to Chinese culture and a personal interest in increasing the English proficiency of Chinese students made for an environment conducive to learning.
When I heard that OIEP needed English instructors for the students during their year of study in China, I jumped at the opportunity. I rearranged my schedule and applied for the part-time position, which entails instructing through Skype.
There is a time difference of half a day between the two countries, so I instruct the students in the morning—nighttime for them.
Q: Your comments suggest that teaching English in China necessitated, among other things, building bridges between the two cultures. How did you go about creating such bridges?
It starts with one’s attitude and perspective towards people in general. We are always learning, especially from others, and this kind of teaching is a wonderful opportunity to embrace what I consider troves of treasures.
I had so much to learn from my Chinese colleagues at NNU [Nanging Normal University] and my students that meeting and interacting with them wasn’t difficult.
Mainly, building the bridge involves focusing on language and to some extent commonalities.
Being cognizant that I knew no Chinese was a start. The students knew right away that we would have to communicate in English. When you realize this, you are more aware that the two sides need something to connect them. This is patience with a little excitement thrown in.
Every word, every gesture counts including tone and pitch, pronunciations and eye contact. This opens the door for us both to become more intricately involved in crossing that bridge and meeting in the middle.
Q: You have described an approach to teaching which emphasizes a search for commonalities and the importance of subtle gestures; in other words, a very personalized approach. How did you experience the transition—and adapt—from teaching English in person to teaching online?
The art of visual appearances produces a mystique inherent in its very nature. The quality of reception is strongly shaped by all forms of physical descriptions. The students, therefore, enjoy the luxury of eyesight in their comprehension of the material in addition to the sound. The extraneous surroundings, i.e. the classroom, classmates, disruptions, etc. intensify the keenness of students to maintain their focus.
Going from “in front” to only talking online, via Skype, is a natural extension. The encompassing experience dwindles from a river to a stream. Although there is more water in a river similar to the multi-sensory sensation, “in person” instruction delivers the equivalent of a stream’s water flow; in other words, it’s a very concentrated experience.
Eliminate the influx of superfluous outside data received, and then I am able to directly instruct each student better. Given one-on-one instruction should reap more fruit on average, speaking and listening are the two most vital senses required (with the obvious exception of material that needs to be seen to be understood).
Skype, via audio, you can argue, is pure learning. There are no barriers or interferences. Though, at the end of the day, “in person” first then online is the best-case scenario.
Q: Thank you for sharing your reflections on the techniques and challenges of teaching English to graduate students from China. And by way of concluding this exchange, do you have any advice for overseas students who are thinking about studying at the University of Maryland?
Be excited. America offers unlimited opportunities and learning and studying at the University of Maryland will open many doors at home and abroad.
Professors instruct but they also serve as mentors and guides on classroom material but also on life decisions. Take advantage of their time.
Lastly, interact with people outside your cohort. Be open to new experiences and a simple smile and “hello” will take you places you’ve never imagined.
Editor’s note (M. Dravis): This interview was conducted via e-mail over a period of several days, after which it was compiled and edited.