Changing expectations

Updated: 2012-10-12 10:00

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Changing expectations

Kesho Scott, a visiting professor at Beijing Normal University, is committed to fighting racism. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

A teacher from Iowa brings lessons of home to Chinese classrooms

Her dreadlocks are gone - "I had them forever" - but you can sense the passion that has always fueled this longtime US activist even over a casual cafe breakfast in Beijing.

Kesho Scott's eyes gleam brightly under her close-cropped hair. Between the cafe music and the point she is making, this teacher is rarely still.

"The classroom is not a passive place," she says.

She has delighted in employing "guerilla tactics" over her 30-plus year career, insisting that you get students to think and respond if you "get in their face a little" instead of just lecturing from a podium.

She has described her mission in life as "unlearning racism inside and outside the classroom". That has kept her pumped whether she has been in front of a worldwide TV audience on the Oprah Winfrey Show or a summer-school class in Beijing.

Scott has been in Beijing teaching sophomore-level American Studies in a recently developed program for Chinese students who are studying in the US. After a year abroad, such students are under two competing pressures: the desire to return home for a summer break with their families, and the determination to make the most of their educational opportunity at a US university.

Enter Sinoway International Education, which offers "the first and largest US-standard summer school in China" at five campuses around the country. That gives students a chance to come home for a few weeks and remain plugged in to their studies. Sinoway brings teachers to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou to offer courses that are transferable to North American universities in a wide range of disciplines: accounting, venture capital and entrepreneurship, English writing lab and many more.

"Students get a chance to come home and keep up their studies," Scott says. "It's also a chance for us to check 'grade slide', for students who have been struggling to maintain their level of academic performance in a new environment. Being back in China re-establishes their comfort zone but still gives them US-standard classes.

"They are also studying with students from all over China, a taste of diversity that they may not have had at school in China. And for the professors? We get a great opportunity to come to China and work."

Scott, an associate professor of American studies and sociology at Grinnell College in Iowa, has just finished her third summer stint for Sinoway, but her China experience has been broader and she is hungry for more.

"I first came to China in 2009, for a workshop at Fudan University in Shanghai," she says. "It was probably the first conference like that in China, funded by the Ford Foundation.

"There were eight of us 'women of color'," she says, and the group was a novelty that prompted a lot of discussion not only among students but her faculty hosts, she remembers with a grin. "There were stereotypes flying all over the place, but it was great that people felt so free to talk about it. No matter what they thought or expected, they were curious and not shy about asking a direct question."

That was a match made in heaven for Scott, who has always been happy to give direct answers. She got an early taste of how teaching could help her achieve her life goals in 1974, as an instructor in race-relations classes for Detroit's all-white police force after the election of the US city's first black mayor. That was a big jump for the former dance-instructor's assistant at Toni Lewis School of Dance at the YWCA.

In the course of her academic career she has developed an "affirmative duty" technique to shift not people's awareness of racism but their "commitment and skill-set toward being actively and personally anti-racist and anti-sexist, rather than remaining merely passive observers", she says.

A first step is simply changing expectations, an experience she has repeated many times on her several stints in China, where she has taught summer courses, conducted workshops and been a visiting professor at Beijing Normal University.

"One time when I arrived at the airport," she says, "I was surprised that the folks who were supposed to meet me weren't there. I waited and waited, but nobody came looking for me or holding a sign with my name."

After waiting for more than an hour, she says, she fell into conversation with a group of Chinese who had also been waiting for a while and commiserated with them.

"Yes," one of them said with a sigh. "We're waiting for Dr Scott."

"I'm Dr Scott," she says, smiling then and now at the confusion. If you are sent to the airport to collect a distinguished visiting professor from America, you'd be looking for someone tall, white, male.

Whether talking about race in a public-radio debate in Iowa or with a group of new friends at a Chinese airport, she says, "unlearning racism" is a challenge worth the effort.

"It's about knowing people as people," she says, and she can't wait to come back to China next year and get to know a few more.

(China Daily 10/12/2012 page20)