Campus Life faculty spotlight

A Passion for Teaching Chinese

Meet Kang Zhou, a Lecturer in Chinese

10317 kang zhou portrait
Kang Zhou is a Lecturer in Chinese
Photo courtesy of Kang Zhou

Hello! This is Faculty Spotlight, a new column that features MIT faculty members and lecturers from diverse disciplines. To begin this column, we have Lecturer Kang Zhou, a Chinese lecturer in the Global Languages department. 

Name and Title: Kang Zhou, Lecturer in Chinese 

Department: Global Languages 


This interview was originally conducted in Chinese and then translated into English.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Did you see yourself becoming a lecturer in Chinese growing up? If not, when did you become interested in this area? 

Growing up, I was interested in communications and media. In high school, I was obsessed with radio and TV broadcasting. It was as if I had forgotten everything else. But I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue communications because of my national college entrance results. I ended up attending another university [Xi’An International Studies University]. At that time in Shaanxi province, getting into a university that had a prestigious communications program was difficult. 

In college, I realized that I really liked studying Chinese language and culture, so I majored in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. I was in college from 2004 to 2008, and China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Lots of foreigners wanted to learn Chinese during this time, so a lot of colleges in China started this major. 

How did you become a Chinese language lecturer in U.S. colleges? 

After college, I pursued a master’s degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The university had a collaboration with Brown University, so after graduation, I was chosen to go to Brown to teach Chinese for a year. 

What challenges did you experience in your first year as a teacher in the U.S.? 

At that time, I didn’t have much teaching experience and this was my first year. I was 24 years old at the time. It was a whole new world, from Chinese pedagogy to the English language to the American education system. I was not prepared. 

I was so busy teaching classes and I stayed in the office late at night. I didn’t have the mental energy to miss home in my first year. I had doubts about whether I was suited for this job and if I should consider changing industries. At first, it felt like there was a wall between my students and me. I wondered when my students would enjoy my class and when the classroom environment would feel more natural. 

First of all, language was a major challenge. The students spoke English at a normal pace that was quick for me. After class, I was sad because I recalled questions students asked me that I didn’t understand. Every class felt like a test. I had no way of enjoying the class at the beginning. 

Another challenge was culture. In language class, you talk about culture. I was very unfamiliar with American culture, which made it difficult for me to relate with the students. Not knowing the culture made constructing example sentences that were relevant to the students’ lives hard. Ideally, you would like the sentences to be relatable for the students, or else learning Chinese isn’t as engaging. It’s not just knowing how to say and write, but also what makes the sentence meaningful. I don’t want to drill. 

But one memory that had a deep impression on me was when my colleagues surprised me on my birthday by bringing me cake at the meeting. It was around the first day of classes, and I was very touched and happy. 

How do you plan your lessons? What is your teaching philosophy? 

Everyone thinks language teachers are relaxed, but there’s a lot of planning. For instance, I want them to practice vocabulary and sentences. I also want students to understand the culture, which requires choosing online media sources.

When students do role-playing conversations and discussions, I have to keep listening to my students and hear what they say to check whether they have language difficulties. I want to make sure that they say the Chinese tones correctly and that the grammatical structure is correct. 

I also have to check whether the dialogue is culturally appropriate. If the student said this in another country, would this offend someone? Take body language as an example. It’s possible that the speech is correct linguistically but might make others feel uncomfortable. I need students to know how to talk to different people like their boss, elders, peers, etc. I need to keep observing what students say is okay and not okay. I need them to keep practicing under different situations so that when they see a Chinese native speaker it is natural.

Another thing is that students come from different backgrounds. I need to consider if the questions are considerate. I can’t assume all students are from the same background. I need to think if the question is appropriate or if it might make students feel uncomfortable to answer. 

Before class, I look at the students’ backgrounds and some may not want to discuss, so I can make adjustments. I look at their situation and context. I want them to be welcomed. I want to make an inclusive environment so students can express themselves openly and feel respected for their views. People may disagree but respect their views, which is not an easy thing to do. 

When I ask questions in class, I have to think through them and prepare. Students think I just ask questions spot on but I don’t want to ask as if it is a test. I want it to be natural, like a dialogue.

Of course, what is of the utmost importance is how to make the class interesting and use new technologies to help students learn. For instance, I used Padlet for reflections. Having students record their experiences is important so that I am aware of their feelings. This year, I am using Perusall for the spring calligraphy class so they can watch videos. 

For instance, I remember that students were anxious on the first day of writing calligraphy. On the second day, I had people talk about their feelings, and reflect on their homework assignment, so I could understand them better. By doing so, students can learn from one another. 

People ask me, “Why are you busy even if you are teaching the same class?” It’s because education is always changing, and the classes have different students. 

Students who take my class get a lot out of it. Some of the students who stayed with me for many years still contact me. I receive cards. One of them said that they didn’t know how they would have survived junior year without Chinese class because of how hard junior year was. Chinese class is a space to express these emotions and foster exchange. 

Were there any insights you gained from teaching remotely during Zoom?

An interesting realization I had was that some students said that online teaching made them more willing to express themselves and relax because no one saw them. They didn’t have to feel judged. They could turn off cameras. 

Then I wondered if my current class caused stress. Like if a student says the word incorrectly, they get stressed. This ignited a spark inside of me. How do we reduce these anxieties? 

When I ask questions nowadays, I have students first do a small group discussion instead of answering me directly. We have to consider different teaching styles. 

What has your teaching experience at MIT been like? How is it different from earlier experiences? 

I have been at MIT for 8 years. Before MIT, I still felt like I was learning from others how to teach. Now I have the energy to think about what is most suited for MIT students, which is a huge difference. Before, I felt like a new person and just thought of older people. But now I think about MIT students' needs and how I can help students grow over the four years and have a good experience. 

For instance, we know that MIT students have a lot of stress, so Gao Laoshi (Panpan Gao) and I started the Chinese meditation videos project during COVID-19. This was not a thing in other colleges. 

The IAP Chinese calligraphy class was unthought of. We didn’t know if MIT students would like this class. The class turned out to be a success and students enjoyed art. From this class, I don’t only want them to understand calligraphy. I encourage students to bring in their knowledge from other classes to calligraphy, like computer science and apply it to calligraphy.

The video projects students made were very inspiring, especially the time a student made a website that converts text to unique calligraphy fonts that the student made. The intersection of applied MIT knowledge and calligraphy captivated me. This year, a student bought a bone from a butcher shop and carved oracle bone script characters, then went to the lab and burned the bone. This is what is so special about MIT students. They are hands-on. They dare to think and do it. 

The current spring semester students said that they want to make paper, ink, and other things. They really want to apply their thoughts to real life. I like the mind and hand (mens et manus) culture at MIT, as this philosophy has guided me in Chinese class. It reminds me of the Chinese idiom 知行合一 (zhi xing he yi). You can know things, but can you apply them? 

Public service is also important to me. In Streamlined Chinese III (21G.109), we made an MIT insider tour website. A lot of Chinese tourists visit MIT, but they don’t know what to see. They just take a picture at Killian Court. On the website, we have Chinese and English descriptions. We had people share different places in MIT like the Banana Lounge and explain why it has MIT’s energy and spirit. 

This project not only helps students practice the language, but it’s also very practical. We put it online and now tourists can read the website. In the future, we can expand and do more things, like introducing a club, event, or research.

We want to have a connection with a culture and society. Using the language to do something meaningful and valuable is what I care about more and more. By doing so, students will think that the language they are learning is useful. 

What recommendations do you have for people who want to study Chinese independently? What resources do you suggest? 

Independent learning is possible. There are some good online resources. For instance, Liao Laoshi (Haohsiang Liao) has an MITx class with lots of students. The class is a great way to learn, especially for those who don’t have the opportunity to step into the classroom, but still have an interest in the language. Liao Laoshi’s online teaching style allows students from around the world to benefit, which is very good.

It is possible to learn independently, but learning a language requires teachers and classmates for feedback and interaction. This is the only way to improve more quickly. The online classes need to think of a community to promote dialogue. They have their own benefits, but there are some things they can work on and improve. 

For MIT students, my office is open. If you want to understand and learn Chinese, I welcome you. For my current Chinese calligraphy class, in April there will be an activity. I used the Mind Hand Heart innovation fund for students to build community. I will have each student invite two people who have no experience with calligraphy, even those who don’t know how to speak Chinese. They can come and drink tea. I call it ‘the fragrance of tea and ink.’ I want to open up my classroom so students have opportunities if they are interested. We want to attract more students. 

What have you learned from your students? What would you say to your younger self? 

My students are very outstanding and hard-working. They are curious not only about STEM, but also humanities like Chinese language and culture. They ask interesting questions. The projects they made were things I never thought of. It’s eye-opening. Their curiosity motivates me to provide a better education for them so they can display their talent. A teacher inspires students, and students inspire a teacher. 

If I could say anything to my younger self, I would tell him the world is quite fascinating and not to be scared. I would also tell this to my students and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone. I would also tell my past self to teach students with true intentions and know their stories. This is very important. At first, I was very scared of saying the wrong thing and making mistakes because my background was very different and removed from theirs. But having these heartfelt conversations and trying to understand each other is important.