Assistant Professor Stephanie Danes Smith
Two hundred students. Four hours a day. Four days a week. A semester’s worth of content. No air conditioning.
When I contemplated teaching in the Sichuan University Immersion Program this week, I didn’t like my odds. I wondered how I – the least capable Mandarin speaker on the planet – could possibly share the key concepts of public relations (PR) in a meaningful way. How could I overcome language and cultural barriers to engender the engaged, participative dynamic I like to foster in the classroom?
The answer, oddly enough, was found in T-shirts.
Facing an auditorium filled to the brim with students, I tried to break the ice a bit. The vast majority of my students were Chinese. Two students were studying in Belgium (one was Flemish and the other British). My normal warm-up jokes fell flat (as they do, I’ll admit, at Kent State). I decided to stand back and observe the students. The one thing they shared in common was apparel choice: most were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with logos and slogans. Improvising like a desperate woman, I decided to devote class time every day to a T-shirt of the day contest, allowing students to nominate other students (and themselves). The “winner” was chosen by student applause. From day one, this got students to interact with each other and with me. (It was all good fun until the student with the “University of Akron” T-shirt showed up, but I digress.)
From there, we eased into terrific discussions about what PR is, how it differs from advertising and marketing, and its history. It was delightful to listen to Chinese students say “Ivy Ledbetter Lee” when they learned about the so-called “father of public relations.” (I may have said that I was the “mother of public relations,” but I’m sure it was just the heat talking.) This led to discussions of persuasion theory, research and how to develop PR objectives, strategies and tactics. I used as many cultural equivalents as I could; for example, to gain understanding of “idea latency,” I used the (unfortunately) common experience of mosquito bites (yes, we all have bites in places where one really should not get bites).
Pop culture, as it turns out, is also a great unifying force. How did Miley Cyrus successfully rebrand herself from Disney kid to … well, whatever she might be these days? The students know and love Miley, so there was an easy departure point for deeper discussions. They also love Beyonce (it’s illegal not to, apparently), but Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and the Biebs are over for them. And I learned about Angela Baby, one of their favs.
I used case studies pulled from contemporary Chinese experience – like the failure of Mattel’s “House of Barbie” in Shanghai and the challenges currently being faced by Disney Resorts in Shanghai – to further engage the class. I did not need to find culturally appropriate content for our discussions about ethics, however, because the students agreed that two personal ethical codes matter most: “Respect others” and “do no harm.”
We also discussed our perceptions of each other. The Chinese were startled to find that many in the West believe they are both rich and extremely smart. (The native humility of the Chinese students touches me very deeply.) The Chinese students describe their American peers as independent, creative and “well-built.” They also say European peers are gentle, romantic and humorous.
A few observations left their mark on me. First, Chinese students will not ask questions during class, but they will encircle you at breaks and after class. Second, they will take photos of every single PowerPoint lecture slide. Third, they want selfies with the instructor. And finally, they will ask (repeatedly): “Instructor, can I add you to my WeChat contacts?”
These students are exceedingly bright. They speak multiple languages. They hunger to know more about other nations. They can dissect the American Presidential election in ways that astound me and go deeper than headline news. And they were eager to build bridges to understand each other.
Most of the Chinese students want to study in America; some surely will. But they are also very proud of China and want to share their stories – where they were born, what they like to do, why they are proud to be at Sichuan University.
I hope I left them with some lasting concepts about PR. My first week in a Chinese classroom left me feeling renewed as a teacher: slow down, observe the class and look for cultural common ground.
And, when all else fails, cue the T-shirt contest.