Many cherished Penn traditions have been sidelined since the advent of the COVID–19 pandemic, among them opportunities for inter–Ivy League collaboration. With students no longer able to interact with other undergraduates from the Ivy network in person—be it through sporting or academic events—Penn professors in the Chinese language department have taken the initiative to facilitate discussions with classes at other universities through Zoom, guiding their students to find deeper meaning in the course content and to foster connection with other undergraduates in the process.
Recently, professor Grace Wu from Penn and professor Lulei Su from Brown University brought their intermediate level Chinese language classes (CHIN 231 and CHIN 350 respectively) for a discussion on Chinese and American political ideologies. In a separate session, Penn's CHIN 031 class–led by Wu and lecturer Jing Hu–collaborated with students at Yale to strengthen their Mandarin skills through conversation.
Preparation for these discussions was extensive. CHIN 231 students watched a documentary detailing a democratic experiment carried out in a third grade classroom in Wuhan, China titled Please Vote for Me that provides a critique of the American political system. Later, Wu asked her students to make a book with the platform Book Creator using new vocabulary to reflect on the events of the film. Meanwhile, in CHIN 031, students viewed Ang Lee's Pushing Hands, a story that touches on the familial and cultural conflicts that come with immigrating to America.
During the CHIN 231 discussion, Su asked students questions regarding the documentary, encouraging both Penn and Brown student to share their opinions with the class.
“The purpose of this discussion was to bring students to brainstorm together while practicing their Chinese speaking skills. I asked questions like, do you think American democracy can be realized in China? Would democracy benefit China and its people? Finally, we ended with a discussion on voting, what it means in America and China,” Su explains.
Penn students found the discussion to be very dynamic, as many reported that they felt more engaged than they did in typical classes. Both professors and students agreed that perhaps it was the representation of the university that motivated students to be more prepared and more eager to contribute their thoughts.
“I think because we were seeing new faces, we were more encouraged to push the conversations forward. With the same people in each class session, especially over Zoom, the structure of the content can be dry and repetitive,” Ben Yao (W '24, C '24) from CHIN 231 reflects.
These meetings of Penn students and other undergraduates from Brown and Yale demonstrate how, despite the cancellation of in–person activities where students would be able to build connections within the Ivies, dynamic conversations can still flow over virtual discussions. The introduction of new perspectives encourages students to be more open–minded and to hear perspectives that they wouldn't typically be exposed to, especially in the area of political ideology where many students have already formed strong opinions.
“Language is a really good start to cooperate with Ivies," Lauren Gong (W '23) from CHIN 231 suggests. "As Chinese Americans, we all have different perspectives on our roles in America. [In accordance with Chinese culture], we follow the rules for the well–being of others. But as Americans, we are encouraged to speak up for reform. There is this struggle of what we should do and what is appropriate, and having an open discussion with Brown students allowed for more flow of ideas.”
Ashley Song (W '24) from CHIN 031 adds, “Yale students have a different perspective compared to Penn students. The first initial difference is the perception of the movie. As there was a PhD student in the Yale class, this was a rare occasion for many Penn freshmen to hear from a graduate student.”
Furthermore, with Yale freshmen living on campus for the fall and transitioning to remote learning for the spring semester, Penn students were able to share their experiences taking entirely virtual classes.
“The session was kind of a normal class, but more fun since we were able to not just speak on the material, but also share academic experiences during the pandemic,” Melodie Liu (C '24) from CHIN 031 explains.
Participating professors have shared that while this was their first experience cooperating between schools, the overall session was positive and enriching–and served as a valuable opportunity for them to collaborate as educators as well. As extensive preparation was needed for these discussions to be productive, professors were encouraged to exchange teaching methods and share resources.
“I hope to cooperate with other Ivies and colleges in the future. It is an opportunity for both students and professors to learn from each other. Professor Su delivered many wonderful ideas, and his pedagogy is certainly one that I will consider,” Wu reflects.
In another instance, Su points out that he was inspired by Wu's use of platforms like Jamboard, Zoom polls, and Book Creator.
Ultimately, this form collaboration between colleges in discussion–based courses is both a feasible and positive way to engage students. “Collaboration between different universities is very helpful. Professor Wu had her students change their Zoom backgrounds to a Penn theme and had people showcase Penn merch. It was sort of like two sports teams wanting to not only make a lasting impression, but also create a bond with each other,” Max Yang from CHIN 031 (C '24) comments.
With thoughtful planning, students and professors alike can benefit from inter–Ivy collaboration during the COVID–19 pandemic. In a time of uncertainty, innovative ways of allowing knowledge to flow between new faces will hopefully bring a new sense of excitement to the university community.