“Do you know any Chinese people?” I asked in a sarcastic stage-voice.
I was play-acting, pretending to talk to an imaginary American colleague who had trouble differentiating one Chinese student from another.
Hamming it up got a laugh from my Chinese students: one is an excitable world traveler; another a demure bon vivant; and the third, an exuberant woman, bursting with warmth and kindness. My comment was amusing to the four of us because of the marked differences between these women. The trio is worlds apart in behavior, personality, skill levels, and style.
But this type of confusion happens. Further, the phenomenon is not restricted to teachers. A young woman of color in another course declined to be the session’s comments-keeper. (This task requires tracking class participation, so volunteers need to identify classmates to record involvement). She struggled to tell her peers apart.
Why You Might be Struggling
I was play-acting with my students for dramatic effect. In reality, it’s unremarkable that Chinese students get lumped together. A scan of the peer-reviewed literature reveals stacks of studies about “own race preference,” or “cross race effect” (and other synonyms). Research shows we’re more likely to recognize people of our own race than of others from the earliest ages. In one study, “3-month-old infants demonstrated a significant preference for faces from their own-ethnic group.”
Fold in a meta-analysis documenting it’s easier to recognize someone of our own age, and there might be mayhem, especially when experienced professionals teach in majors or schools with lots of young Chinese students. Male instructors face an even greater challenge. Research on gender difference in facial recognition documents they’re less likely than females to remember faces.
Actions to Take
But the conversation needn’t end there. I’m no cross-cultural genius, but I’ve been reasonably successful in getting to know students as individuals. This is due, in no small part, to working for well-resourced institutions with manageable class sizes that facilitate relationships. I’ve also been able to learn who’s who using tips borrowed from pedagogy pros. In fact, these strategies help me master names and personalities regardless of race or ethnicity, which becomes more important the longer I teach and as the number of courses I’ve taught grows.
- Use tent-cards that students set up on their desks every session. I chop off the tabbed edge of recycled folders and pass them around with a magic marker. I ask everyone to write down the name they want me to use. Nothing could be simpler to reinforce my learning. I know who I’m talking to from that moment forward. Asking for a preferred name is key because many Chinese students choose American nicknames. This is handy for memorization because unfamiliar words, even simple ones, are difficult to pronounce and remember.
- Avoid relying on the pictures in the learning management system. Chinese students in particular often post generic-looking portraits with neutral expressions. theory, student photos are intended to help, but often don’t when they are generic. Ask for a short narrative profile with a selfie cut and pasted into the text before the first class. No one uses standard-issue pictures for this task. Consequently, the image looks like the person you’ll see in class.
- Students bring me hard copies of their bios I can review between classes. I’d even brought the profiles as cheat sheets to review discretely if I didn’t have everyone’s name “down.” The added benefit of the profiles is I can ask questions to assess subject-matter knowledge as well as acquire bits of quirky, interesting, even touching information.
- I recently tried something new: in-class one-on-one conversations while the rest do project work. I found this technique to be rewarding and helpful for providing feedback, answering questions, and getting to know everyone.
- I use short icebreaker questions at the beginning of every class if time permits. I ask about nonacademic issues to get participation juiced a la: What’s your go-to relaxation technique? What are you really good at? This provides unique info to help me learn about people and gives the class regular practice in impromptu public speaking.
- I also provide students opportunities to get to know each other. On the first day, everyone interviews someone they don’t know with a short list of questions. They then introduce their partner to everyone else.
I take advantage of in-class group exercises or pair-and-shares, directing students to partner with those they haven’t worked with yet. They report in evaluations that they appreciate hearing other people’s perspectives.
Building Mutual Understanding
Being recognized as an individual is better for everyone involved. As a life-long learner, I certainly want to be recognized by a teacher as being different from the rest of the students. As a teacher, the more I know about a class—regardless of ethnic makeup—the more equipped I am to address problems, teach to specific interests, and, on my end, learn from their experience and contributions.
Thanks to NYU’s Elizabeth Izaki, Shuaxian “Phoebe” Li, Craig Mills, and the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, American University of Bulgaria’s Jesse Scinto, and Laurie Tvedt for their insights and thoughtfulness.
About the AuthorMore Content by Diane Rubino