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Stewart, Piar Present In China

Published: September 16, 2013

Religious Studies Chair David Tabb Stewart knows where to look when he needs an emperor—China.

Stewart recently returned from the People’s Republic of China after his first sabbatical at CSULB that included four weeks hosting, along with Religious Studies’ Carlos Piar, workshops on university teaching and academic LARPs (live action role-playing games) to 350 scholars representing 41 campuses. They worked under the auspices of the Society for Values in Higher Education.

One of Stewart’s most successful teaching tools was “Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor” set during the Ming Dynasty in 1587. Candidates for the Dragon Throne included the grand-to-infinity-daughter of Confucius himself, participating as a representative of Qufu University in the city where Confucius was born.

“We were trying to expose future teachers and university faculty to different ways of teaching,” said Piar, who joined Religious Studies in 1990. “There is very much the Confucian tradition of a sage to whom the student listens respectfully. You really don’t question or challenge the authority of the teacher. As far as education goes, it’s really more authoritarian than traditional. What we were trying to do is expose them to student-centered learning. This way, students are more involved and engaged. They participate more. We used all kinds of techniques from seminar-type discussion to complex role-playing games such as `Reacting to the Past’ where students assume a role within a historical moment. The students must then argue for their position.”

A Ming Dynasty game such as “Wanli” needed Ming Dynasty experts and Stewart found two in his program, one from Guangzhou and another from Xi’an. “Participants were skeptical on Day One,” said Stewart, a member of the university since 2007. “By Day Two, they warmed up a little bit. By Day Four, they were saying we were the best thing since sliced bread. Their evaluations said things like ‘You are a breath of fresh air.’”

Piar felt new ideas were not always welcome. “Feedback was positive but not universally so,” he recalled. “Some loved it and some were a little wary. Some were skeptical and some were indignant. After all, who were these Americans to tell the Chinese about teaching? The vast majority of the participants were appreciative of what we were trying to do. They were welcoming and excited about the opportunity to talk about new ways to learn.”

Stewart and Piar visited China from mid-June to mid-July, arriving in Guangzhou at the Guangdong University of Business Studies. Their journey led them to the city of Wuhan and Hubei University’s School of International Studies followed by two more four-day workshops at Shanghai Normal University and Xi’an International Studies University.

“The workshops were for English-speaking faculty members with the goal of demonstrating active learning techniques,” recalled Stewart. “A directive from the Ministry of Education to China’s top 100 universities asked them to find out more about how to teach critical thinking, creativity and innovation. They don’t think they’ll catch up with the U.S. educationally unless they learn our secrets.”

This summer’s visit was Piar’s second to the Middle Kingdom. “I could see a great deal of difference between 1984 and now,” he said. “A lot of people were still wearing the green Mao uniforms in 1984. My visit was tightly controlled. I was given special tourist currency that could be redeemed only in the shops you were taken to. You were escorted everywhere. You couldn’t go on your own anywhere.”

This time around, however, Piar had complete freedom of movement. “I went on my own everywhere,” he recalled. “This time, there was no special currency, just one form in Hong Kong and another for the rest of China. As far as having the ability to travel around the country, it seemed a lot freer now.”

“Confucianism” introduces undergraduate students to Confucian thought, Stewart explained, and is set in the Hanlin Academy with its Grand Secretariat, the body of top-ranking advisers to the Wanli emperor. Some Grand Secretaries are Confucian “purists,” who hold that tradition obliges the emperor to name his first-born son as successor; others maintain that it is within the emperor’s right to choose his successor; and still others scrutinize Confucianism.

Piar, Stewart and Colleagues in Shanghai Museum
Carlos Piar (l) and David Tabb Stewart (r) with colleagues at Shanghai Museum.

Stewart and Piar played their Chinese counterparts in two other games. The first described the 1987 earthquake that devastated the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Next up was a taste of ancient Greece in “Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC.” The Athens game explored issues of reconciliation following the overthrow by Athens of 30 Spartan tyrants—the leaders set up by Sparta following the Peloponnesian War. “The game asks the question, how can societies reconcile? Of course, this is still a modern issue,” he said. “We reminded the participants it was an issue in South Africa and it was an issue in Rwanda. We didn’t have to mention it was an issue in China, too. They figured that out for themselves.”

Stewart believes gaming is the wave of the future for classroom instruction.

“Academic gaming offers live-action, role-playing games like Model U.N. but with more intentional learning objectives,” he said. “Humanities and social science education departments in 300 universities worldwide use gaming.”

In the course “Formation of Modern Christianity” (RST 472), Piar used gaming to teach the Protestant reformation. “The students signed up for different characters such as Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon and researched their characters’ positions on the issues,” said Piar. “Then they have a debate as if they were that person. It’s a way of getting them more interested in trying to think in the historical moment.”

Stewart taught at Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and San Francisco State University before joining CSULB. He earned his B.S. from the University of Oregon and his M.A. in Middle East Studies-Hebrew from the University of Utah. He earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.

Piar holds a M.Div. and a Th.M. from Talbot Theological Seminary plus his Ph.D. in religion/social ethics from USC. He published Jesus and Liberation: A Critical Analysis of the Christology of Latin American Liberation Theology in 1994.

Stewart felt their visit achieved three goals—showing Chinese scholars what participatory learning and student-centered learning looked like, demonstrating interactive learning techniques such as gaming, and inspiring scholars and reminding them that teaching is a growth process.

“All the time you are teaching, you are growing,” he explained. “We wanted them to think about gaming as a possibility. I wanted them to learn how to take a chapter from a textbook and work up a game for a class period.”

Piar thinks they made an impression on their Chinese audience.

“At the back of their minds is the concern about not offending the authorities,” Piar recalled. “When we were playing the Athens game and the game touched on democratic government, it got a little touchy. One student actually said of authoritarianism versus democracy that ‘This is like China today.’ One student who seemed to defend democracy began quoting Mao so she wouldn’t be criticized.”

Stewart feels changed by his journey. “All the people we met were just regular people,” he said. “They shared their concerns about wanting to be better teachers. We learned about what they taught and how they were trying to adapt. We had push back from some people who didn’t like what we did. We visited six provinces and four major cities, rode high-speed trains and saw the Chinese smog. I even learned a little Chinese and I need to learn more. We all do.”