2002 Student-Faculty Fellows: Colgate University

Daughters of Mulan:
Female Representation and Construction in Chinese Girls’ Schools, Textbooks, and Popular Culture

Mentor: Heidi A. Ross, Educational Studies/Asian Studies
Students: Jenna Kaye Boswell ’02; Mariah Margaret Contreras ’03; Yue Ming Mei ’02; Rebecca Jane Pond ’02; Karin Elizabeth Thul ’02

Abstracts of Reflections

Heidi A. Ross

Colgate group at the Forbidden Palace

I began this project looking forward to working with my students on developing our photovoice methodology. My desire to capture the voices of girls, virtually “missing” from the literature on Chinese education, grew out of previous research in Chinese schools, and forced me to re-conceptualize my research methodology, as well as seek more opportunities for involving Colgate students in my fieldwork. Photovoice really did serve this purpose. It enabled Chinese girls to intervene in educational research. It enabled my students a very personal and direct way to talk with girls about real issues. This project also reaffirmed for me, and I think for my students as well, that building collaborative opportunities into research is indispensable to comparative and inter-cultural understanding. The research team succeeded in collaborating with a wide group of educators and students, and this process provided us with unusual access to unpublished classroom-based research materials from girls’ schools. Our review of textbook materials from a gendered perspective was fascinating, and I am currently working on editing two issues of Chinese Education and Society on the gendered nature of primary and secondary school textbooks with our colleague at Beijing Normal University colleague, Professor Shi Jinghuan.

Jenna Kaye Boswell

With Beijing Normal University student at Beijing street market

During my time in China, I consistently found myself feeling that understanding Chinese culture and in particular Chinese education, requires a comprehensive approach. For starters, in the educational sphere, Chinese students and professors appeared used to being observed. In fact, many seemed to enjoy the observation and interaction with our group. One phenomenon that truly amazed me was the willingness of so many Chinese students and professors to engage us in conversation in English in either more formal interviews, or simply as we walked through the halls of the schools. I also found myself sometimes wondering if there was some kind of connection between the one child policy and this growing interest in the “whole child.” Parents can direct all their attention to their one child and probably have greater interaction with that child’s school and education. For only children in China, school seems an important opportunity to learn social interaction and to make lasting friendships. Chinese students seem to have a sense that they are all expected to work hard. There is definitely a sense of competition, but also a ” we are all in this together” attitude.

Mariah Margaret Contreras

Visiting a Beijing private school

Summarizing the experience of this trip is indeed arduous-I do not want to misrepresent China, overlook a capturing moment, or underplay any part of this trip. In retrospect, I see very little I would want to change (except my stomach’s pitiful non-ability to travel). Discovering the communities that create China has made me aware of both the relativity of cultures and the congruity of cultures. There are of course enormous challenges that China faces as a nation, especially in its developmental stages, but it was promising to discuss one-to-one with students who hold so much determination and focus. They are, after all, China’s future. Such an attention to one’s own education is a deep concern of U.S. students as so many of us hear the term “slip through the cracks” in reference to our own high schools. As a group, we saw the results of wealth and of poverty, among other extremes. Traveling abroad to China was indeed a human experience. I feel as though I can take with me the lessons of humility, pride, and courage as I face my own career in the development of urban schools in the U.S.

Yue Ming Mei

With children at a “teaching point” in rural Hebei Province

Overall my experience on this trip is excellent. I had thought about moving, or working in China sometime in the future; however this trip made me realized that I do not really fit in as a Chinese, and China is not a suitable home for me. Although I was born in China, people there see me as a foreigner, calling me “lao wai.” China has many scenic and historical landmarks that attract many foreign visitors but the infrastructure, whether, cultural, social, economical, or political is inadequate and lead to many visitors feeling frustrated.

Rebecca Jane Pond

The impression I got from many of the girls is that they have set lofty goals for themselves and they know that school is their vehicle for success. I heard things like “we know that we must study hard and do well on the exam so we can get good jobs and have happy lives in the future.” This is the attitude of girls in the cities we visited. We visited one rural school in Shijiazhuang, No. 42 Middle School, where girls seemed a little more apprehensive about the future. This was the only school in which I heard that boys are still favored and girls will have a harder time in life. The girl who told me this believed that although this has been true, it is a changing phenomenon and in a few years, girls and boys will be afforded equal opportunities. Although girls in rural areas might struggle with future career opportunities than girls in cities, I found that girls’ attitudes about their education is positive and optimistic, and I think schools in China will only continue to provide girls with better opportunities.

Karin Elizabeth Thul

The girls I’ve interviewed are like worker bees. Their entire lives are centered on their education and they view it as their ticket to everything. They have little to no social lives and they actually seem socially underdeveloped. This style of living has, however, taught them to be goal oriented and all the girls seemed to set their sights very high. On the whole, these girls are more motivated than any American student I’ve encountered. Of course, it’s hard to make any generalizations about Chinese education because it varies so greatly between urban and rural settings as well as between the coed and girls schools. Females in China and America share many of the same sentiments, despite the radically different education systems. This trip came right before I started work and really served to refocus my life in a time where my perspective could have become warped. I don’t think I’ll be able to forget all the things that I’ve seen in China. The experiences have started to make me think of ways that I can help from this side of the world; I’ve become a less selfish person.

Research Abstract

The most significant research outcome from the study was the piloting of the photovoice methodology. Although our work is preliminary, we feel that the process is tremendously useful in allowing girls and young women to comfortably engage during interviews-from their own experiences. To prepare for talking with Chinese girls about the purpose of the photovoice process, which involves giving the “subjects” of research disposable cameras so they can record on their own terms various aspects of their lives, the student members of our research team were given cameras to record images about their own lives. The entire research team then met to have discussions surrounding the pictures members of the team took and why. Through this process, we realized how difficult our “assignment” for Chinese girls (taking pictures of whatever they liked that represented their lives at home, in society, and at school) would be, and we began to develop a protocol for how to talk with Chinese principals, teachers, and girls about the process and its significance.

Venues for Sharing

Mariah Contreras, double major in art and education, and Professor Heidi Ross will be continuing to analyze interview and photovoice “data” throughout the academic year. The visual images and analysis will form the core of Mariah Contreras’s honors thesis in Educational Studies, and it is our hope that the photographs taken during the trip, both by Mariah and by the girls in the photovoice project, will also become a visual display that Mariah designs for a web link to the Department of Educational Studies web site. Mariah will present her work at an Asian Studies bag luncheon and we hope at the ASIANetwork 2003 conference. If possible she will submit part of her honors thesis as an article to be published. Finally, Heidi Ross will be sharing her experiences piloting photovoice methodology at a workshop tentatively being planned at Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 2003. The focus of the workshop is the use of photovoice in comparative education.