Teaching social work in P.R. China: Tales from the Front line

By Ed Saunders

Living and teaching in the People’s Republic of China this past fall semester was a “life changing” experience for me. For five months—with my spouse Jeanne (also a social work professor)—we taught social work to 80 undergraduate and seven graduate students at Wuhan University in east-central China. Most persons in the U.S. have never heard of Wuhan city, although it has a population of 7.5 million. Wuhan University has 50,000 students; until 2000, it was four separate colleges. Until this fall the Department of Sociology/Social Work (in which we taught) was located in the College of Law: they seceded from Law while we were in residence and became an independent program. “Departmental politics” are everywhere it seems! Our students had studied English language since middle school so they were quite proficient in reading and writing in English which made our job much easier than having to use translators. (Nonetheless, many students used their electronic translators frequently while we lectured to look up some of the more technical vocabulary we used.) Many of our students had good oral skills so they were often the “spokespersons” for classmates with lower oral proficiency. Collectively, Jeanne and I taught four social work courses: three to the undergraduate and grad students (including the first public health social work course taught in mainland China!) and one “advanced practice skill” course to the grad students. We were told by an official of the China Association for Social Work Education that we were the first social work faculty from the U.S. to teach semester-long courses in a mainland Chinese University.

Ed and Jeanne with Professor Xiang Deping, Chair of the Social Work Deparment at Wuhan University

Social work education is still very new in the People’s Republic of China: most of our students had been assigned to this major and few knew what it was. As much as our students were interested in knowing what social workers “do,” they were equally concerned about what jobs they would find after graduation because few “social work” jobs exist outside Beijing and Shanghai. Because social work education is so new, almost all students in social work training programs in China are now taught by former sociology professors. Consequently, students are very knowledgeable about social theories but have few “practice skills.” The lack of field placements for students to “practice” social work is another huge problem that current programs face in training the first cadre of social work students in the country. We visited two neighborhood social service centers in Wuhan that approximate the early settlement houses in the U.S.; neither was staffed by trained social workers.

In a city such as Wuhan—that sees few other Westerners—we were always a curiosity when we traveled by buses around the city and participated in the daily life of locals (going to markets, attending cultural events, swimming at the local pool, etc.). Most of our students had never spoken to a native-English speaker and—given their lack of travel to more Westernized cities in China (especially Shanghai) had never eaten in a western restaurant with a knife and fork. Part of our cultural exchange with our students was demonstrating the use of silverware, although we always surprised them with our adroit use of chop-sticks. We had many similar cultural exchanges during our five months on campus: it was often a mutual learning exchange. We’ve returned with a much better appreciation of the history, politics, culture and language of the Chinese people.

Public Health Social Work class at Wuhan University (in an unheated classroom in late November)
The social work program at Wuhan University started in 2000 and we were teaching the first seven MSW students who had started their social work training (as undergrads) in 2000. In general, our students were very respectful and very diligent in their studies. Chinese students face many more hardships than students in the U.S. and it was humbling to see their achievements, despite the many obstacles they face. Our students warmed to us and shared many of their daily events with us: this represented a considerable departure for them compared to their interactions with their Chinese professors. It was a unique opportunity for all of us: not to be forgotten! When people ask, “Would you go back?” (even considering some of the problems we faced in living and teaching in P.R. China), we always answer “in a heartbeat.”

The two pictures show: 1) Jeanne and me presenting a book on Iowa to the Chair of the Social Work Department at Wuhan U., Professor Xiang Deping; and 2) Students in my public health social work course in our unheated classroom in late November.