This blog has more or less become a travel(bl)og(ue), but that wasn’t the original intention. Once upon a time, I had ambitions to do something cool with my teaching in China, and to blog about it as I went. Well, I’m still working on the cool stuff, but haven’t reported about it here. I haven’t reported about how, at first, all the students stood up to speak in class (but it was hot and crowded and the chairs were squeaky; so I told them they could remain seated). I haven’t reported about their tendency to memorize passages verbatim, something that is much more strongly emphasized in Chinese education than in schools in the English-speaking world. I haven’t reported about the lovely red flowers my t.a. made for me to use as participation tokens (when a student participates, I give her a flower; she redeems it for grades), or about hot, humid room that curls paper in one’s fingers and sets everyone a-fanning themselves. (I have a beautiful silk fan that I fan myself with as I walk between the rows of students, feeling for all the world like a teacher from a Tennessee Williams play.) In any event, there is much to report, and I promise to do so forthwith. But for now, I just want to share the super cool thing that my students will be doing this week.

When I first decided to teach here, I debated whether or not to teach Searle’s famous “Chinese Room” thought experiment. On the one hand, I always teach it in intro classes. On the other hand, it represents Chinese as unintelligible gobbledegook and I wasn’t quite comfortable sharing that representation in China with Chinese students. That’s when I realized that it’s only acceptable to teach the Chinese Room in Canada if it’s acceptable to do so in China, and that my Chinese students could teach me whether it’s acceptable or not.

Suddenly, I remembered another Western philosophical text that trades on a particular representation of Chinese thought, Malebranche’s Dialogue Between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher. Since I already planned to teach Malebranche in my early modern philosophy class, it was easy enough to add this text to the syllabus and subject this second Western philosophical representation of China/Chinese to the scrutiny of Chinese students in China.

Well, I taught the Malebranche last week. The students were mystified by Malebranche’s representation of Chinese thought, which was, to them, unrecognizable as Chinese. I’m teaching my other class The Chinese Room tomorrow. And, this week, both classes are going to examine both representations more closely through some in-class groupwork.

I reproduce below the respective in-class assignments. Next week, I’ll report on how they went.

Here’s the assignment for intro:

PHI12 In-class group assignment #1

In his famous Chinese Room thought experiment, Searle describes a “program” that allows a non-Chinese speaker to interact in Chinese, creating the illusion that he is fluent in Chinese. How realistic is it to imagine someone writing (and someone else following) such a program? Let’s find out!

Over the next 45 minutes, work with your group to write a short “program” that will allow me (Shannon) to interact with students in the class in Chinese. Of course, 45 minutes won’t be nearly enough time for you to make me appear fluent. Instead, aim at producing some short, modest interactions. Whatever instructions you write down, I will follow to the letter. (So, don’t expect me to make any assumptions about what you want me to do. I will strictly follow your program, just like a machine.) Other students from different groups will be the ones interacting with me and judging the success of the program.

We’ll spend the last 45 minutes of today’s class “running” the programs. As we do, each student should complete the following questionnaire. (P.S. It’s time to give your group a name that I can use to identify it from now on. So, take a couple of minutes at the beginning of class to decide on a cool group name that you all like.)


Group name:

1. What was the biggest challenge about writing a Chinese Room program?
2. What difficulties in running the program did you encounter that you didn’t anticipate?
3. Did your experience writing a “Chinese Room” program change your opinion about Searle’s thought experiment? About philosophy of mind generally? If so, how? Explain, using as much detail as you can.
4. Evaluate the success of the other groups’ “Chinese Room” programs (I’ll be sharing these comments on Moodle; so be constructive in your remarks):

Group name What worked best about this group’s program? What worked least well about this group’s program? Any surprises or additional comments?

5. Any further comments about this in-class assignment?Please turn this questionnaire in at the end of class.

And, here’s the assignment for my early modern class:

PHI13 In-class group assignment #1

In his Dialogue Between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher, Malebranche represents the Christian philosopher as the champion of the infinite and the immaterial and the Chinese philosopher as the champion of the finite and the material. Despite this difference, Malebranche is convinced that there is sufficient common ground between the two sides for the Christian philosopher to convert the Chinese philosopher to his side. As we discussed in class, however, Malebranche’s representation of “Chinese thought” (or the very idea that there is a single, monolithic Chinese way of thinking) is hardly accurate. Here’s your chance to even the score.

Choose one “Christian philosopher” – either Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, Spinoza (not quite Christian, but close enough), Malebranche, Leibniz or Locke. Now choose one Chinese interlocutor. It could be a Chinese philosopher with whom all of your group members are familiar, or it might be a Chinese student (one of you, or an amalgam of all of you), or perhaps someone else you know – a parent or grandparent. Finally, choose a single topic for them to debate – some topic that the philosopher in question wrote about (and which we’ve studied as a class).

Then, take the first 50 minutes of class to write a brief (5-6 minutes) dialogue between your two characters. The dialogue should explore the similarities and differences between the two characters on the topic in question, and their reasons for holding the views that they do. In the last 40 minutes of class, two members of each group will perform their dialogues.

In addition to helping to write (and perhaps perform) your group’s dialogue, you must complete the following questionnaire. (P.S. It’s time to give your group a name that I can use to identify it from now on. So, take a couple of minutes at the beginning of class to decide on a cool group name that you all like.)


Group name:

  1. Who were your dialogue’s two characters? What topic did they debate?
  2.  What contribution did you make to your group’s dialogue. (Be specific. Provide as much detail as you can.)
  3.  Comment on your fellow group members’ contributions to the assignment. Did some work especially hard? Some less so? Who was helpful? Who wasn’t? Provide as much detail as possible. (Your answers to this section will be kept strictly confidential.)
  4.  What was the most important thing you learned in the process of creating and, if applicable, performing your group’s dialogue?
  5.  Any further comments?
  6.  Evaluate the other groups’ dialogues (I’ll be sharing these comments on Moodle; so be constructive in your remarks):
Group name Who were the characters in this dialogue? What topic did they debate? What was the best or most interesting thing about this dialogue? What could have been better? How? Any further comments for this group?

Please turn this questionnaire in at the end of class.

For those of you who prefer the travel(b)log(ue), never fear. Next time, I’ll report on our trip to Shanghai, a city of astonishing contrasts.