“Debating Globalization” in Shanghai: On Course Creation and Challenges

(Rosemary’s note: Framing the Global Fellow Sean Metzger is teaching in Shanghai, China, this fall. We’ll be hearing from him and some of his students on the blog for the next few months. This is Metzger’s first in what will be a series of posts.)

As part of my work with the Framing the Global project, I am trying to bring to undergraduates some of our own discussions about what globalization is (or might be) and how one goes about researching such complicated phenomena.

My current course, which is taught in English at Fudan University as part of a University of California-Fudan exchange, is structured to introduce some frameworks for thinking about global research following the Framing the Global fellows’ ongoing dialogue. Our collective volume Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research serves as the major textbook.

Over the next couple of months, the class will collectively trace some of its work through the Framing the Global blog, as a way of centering students not only as consumers but also as producers of knowledge regarding the global. The centerpiece of this work will, therefore, be student voices.

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View of Shanghai. Image by Sam Gao. (Flickr Creative Commons)

One major goal is for the class to divide into teams in order to conduct a research project of their own design that relates something they encounter in Shanghai to the global. The pedagogical intention is that each group will develop its own understanding of and perspectives on processes of globalization from the specific locale of a Chinese metropolis.

In anticipation of seeing these projects develop, I briefly mark here some of the challenges and opportunities of creating and running a course of this kind.

One issue is, of course, language. I believe we started with six Chinese nationals. Most of them dropped after day one when they realized what level of English was required to engage the material. The two who remained dropped because of other graduation requirements.

This situation has left me with just one student from the PRC — she is a senior, who was assigned to me as a paid Teaching Assistant. Of those who remain, about twenty are UC students and another ten hail from various countries such as Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Mexico.

But English language materials also create another problem in terms of globalization. As one of my astute students pointed out today in class, the students often equate globalization with Americanization because many of the perspectives we have read reference, even if they do not center, the US.

Another issue involves what I might call disciplinary expectations. Many undergraduates have often not done extensive interdisciplinary research. Perhaps more importantly, many of the American students have come out of contexts where “No Child Left Behind” has shaped their educational experience.

In this regard, many of those enrolled in the course seek concrete answers and seem hesitant to allow themselves to think critically about abstractions (which, is of course, necessary to consider globalization; as I indicated in my “five questions” post, globalization is an abstraction insofar as it is an aspirational term—for better or for worse).

To push the thinking of my students, I ask them to write a very brief reflection on a question I pose with the intention of tracking the intellectual development each week. The first question posed was: How do you engage the global?

The responses broke down as follows (where people identified more than one thing, I generally pulled first response just to create a schematic):

  • 10 responses said something about Consumption
  • 9 responses said something about Networks
  • 1 response said “An Experiment Almost”
  • 10 responses said something about a Category of experience
  • 1 said a Kind of Attitude and 1 said a Language

As a cluster of ideas, this list provided a good opening to the term. Almost all the responses were framed in terms of quotidian experience (e.g., “I engage the global when I eat foods from around the world”). Most did not differentiate between international (nation-state to nation-state exchanges) and more global phenomena.

However, several responses did articulate globalization as a kind of inquiry. The student who wrote “An Experiment Almost” offered an intriguing provocation because he gestured towards globalization as a kind of heuristic, something that we think we might see or experience but that requires some sort of elaboration and testing to determine its validity, value, and effects.

“Debating Globalization” is designed to test ideas from and through both philosophical perspectives and empirical situations. For example, how do we assess when a network (e.g. the internet or financial trading) is global? Or to rephrase the question in less positivistic and (for me) more generative terms, what are the effects of a network that we perceive as global?  What is the relation of individual agents and larger actors (e.g., corporations, nation-states, etc.) to the perceived global phenomenon? What do we learn by framing a network as global and what kinds of information might we occlude?

— Sean Metzger in Shanghai

(Rosemary’s note: Next week we’ll publish the first student responses. They were asked to answer the prompt “What would you like your global entry point to be?”)

You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.