This is an entry in a series of guest blog posts in which members share teaching strategies and reflect on classroom experiences. In the following post, Kevin DeLapp of Converse College shares his experiences using chinoiserie to prepare students for approaching Chinese philosophy. Find all of the posts in this series under the category In the Classroom.
When I teach classical Chinese philosophy, one of the pedagogical hurdles I encounter early in the semester is the fact that students often harbor a variety of assumptions which shade their first encounters with the primary sources. Many of these assumptions are recognizably “Orientalist”, in the sense popularized and critiqued by Edward Said.
It’s typically not the case that students are intentionally antagonistic toward classical China. They’re there voluntarily (it’s an elective course) and are genuinely excited to learn about the subject. But many of the assumptions they bring to the primary sources are drawn from random popular and contemporary depictions of ancient China. (And, at least at my institution, this course might be their one and only class on anything having to do with China, so there are few other mechanisms I can rely on to mitigate against such assumptions.) For this reason, initial interpretive efforts can easily slide into what Martha Nussbaum has dubbed the two “descriptive vices” of studying foreign cultures: chauvinism, which can play out in terms of viewing the Chinese material as primitive and pre-philosophical; and romanticism, a generally more receptive stance, but one that nevertheless projects upon the material a condescending innocence and exoticism.
How to confront these biases? Starting the class off by moralizing about Orientalism tends to be confrontational and alienating. And having them read a bunch of hermeneutic theory (such as Said or Nussbaum) is intimidating and diverts precious time from an already crowded syllabus. Instead, as a more engaging way of foregrounding these questions of cross-cultural interpretation, I’ve turned to artworks from Europe’s early modern encounter with China—a genre that certainly had its own share of chauvinism and romanticism. The orientalist biases evident in these artworks tend to strike students as obvious in a pedagogically useful way: once they recognize the cultural distortions at work in the art, they can better recognize and avoid their own hermeneutic pitfalls. In this way, the use of such artworks exercise helps instantiate Confucius’s advice to learn even from poor examples: “When walking with two other people, I will always find a teacher among them. I focus on those who are good and seek to emulate them, and focus on those who are bad in order to be reminded of what needs to be changed in myself” (Analects 7.22).
Toward this end, within the first week or two of the term, I devote part of a class period to showing them several different representatives of chinoiserie—a movement that swept the arts and fashions of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, and aimed at imitating what its European practitioners took to be “Chinese” aesthetics (“chinoiserie” is just French for “Chinese-y”). Much of this genre is innocent, even playful. (That’s another pedagogical advantage of the exercise: it’s visually fun and interactive.) The overwhelming majority of Europeans had very little direct knowledge of China, and so it became a convenient entity upon which to foist fantasias and idylls. Chinoiserie appealed to rich Europeans’ desire to present themselves as worldly, curious, and esoteric. At the same time, by monetizing and aestheticizing stereotypes about another culture, these artworks conditioned a damaging hermeneutic in which contemporary American students can still find themselves derivatively in the grip.
As an example, I have my class consider a variety of chinoiserie images such as these two vases, which decorated the rooms of Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, at Versailles.
The vases were designed by the French porcelain company Sèvres in the mid-1760s and are representative of the European craze for anything “oriental”. Authentic Chinese porcelain was exceedingly rare in Europe, and to keep up with the Joneses, aspirant bourgeois turned to cheaper knock-offs from the Netherlands, particularly those with the distinctive blue coloration from the city of Delft.
In addition to their aesthetic merits, these pieces give us insight into how Europeans viewed China in the eighteenth century... and also how they viewed themselves by comparison. To get at this, I have my students work together in small groups considering the following questions:
Students usually generate descriptions such as serene, peaceful, and relaxing. There is perceived to be a delicacy and fragility that students associate as feminine (even though there are no images of women). “Naturalness” is another apparent motif, expressed by out-of-doors settings and rustic, agricultural, and floral scenes. The students read the “Chinese-ness” of the imagery through the hairstyles, the pagoda, the cart, and the conical hats. The apparent take-home message—the “argument” that these decorative pieces would seem to be making—is that China is a charmingly simple and underdeveloped place whose effeminacy and pristineness is both an invitation to colonially-minded Europeans and a way of reinforcing European self-conceptions of being, by comparison, industrial, manly, and progressive.
The students reflect on the same questions in reference to The Chinese Garden (1742) by François Boucher.
The image depicts a scene of lounging tranquility—what Europeans of the time called, as a term of praise not abuse, a folly, i.e. a pleasant break from life’s ordeals. As above, themes of naturalness and delicacy are evident, and the same semiotics of hairstyle, clothing, fans, unfurled scrolls, and vases communicate the Chinese-ness of the scene. Students also quickly pick up on the fact that the central characters are lighter-skinned and feminine, and that the other darker-skinned peripheral figures seem to be attending to them. Boucher’s China was a fantastical vacation destination where innocent natives were eager to wait upon the whims of white tourists.
As a class, we reflect on ways in which similar stereotypes about China are still prevalent. The message can be brought home poignantly by having students also reflect on stereotypes they’ve encountered about their own culture. For example, the majority of my students are from the American South and respond with both bemusement and irritation to the ways in which Southern-ness (the accent, the customs, the socio-politics, etc.) is stereotypically depicted in national and popular media.
There are obviously additional ways to bring visual material into comparative philosophy curricula, viz. showing contemporaneous artworks from the source culture itself. This hermeneutic activity, however, is a fun and engaging way to preface the study of classical Chinese philosophy with concrete warnings about the dangers of cultural distortion, even when it is well intentioned and “artful”. When we move on to the actual primary sources themselves, we might not thereby be totally bias-free; but at least we have learned from the history of chinoiserie, as Confucius urges us to do from all poor examples, how incautious interpretation can say more about the interpreter than the interpreted.
 See Said’s Orientalism (1978). Vintage Books.
 See Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity (1997). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 113-147.
 Slingerland translation.
Dr. Harold E. Fleming Chair of Philosophy and Chair
Department of Religion and Philosophy, Converse College
This is the first in a series of guest blog posts in which members share teaching strategies and reflect on classroom experiences. In the following post, Malcolm Keating of Yale-NUS College shares his experiences using Classroom Salon while teaching Asian philosophy. Find all of the posts in this series under the category In the Classroom.
This semester at Yale-NUS College, I was a member of an instructional team responsible for teaching a course in our Common Curriculum: Philosophy and Political Thought (PPT). Perhaps unusually for many schools, the first exposure to philosophy that students have here at YNC is decidedly not Eurocentric. We begin with Chinese philosophy, move to Greek and Roman philosophy, and conclude with Indian philosophy. This course runs for two concurrent semesters: the first focuses on ancient and medieval thought, the second takes us up to the modern era. The instructional week begins with an opening lecture, which all first-year students attend, and then there are two seminar meetings, attended by smaller groups.
As one of the skills we focus on as a teaching team is close reading, I decided to assign students a weekly annotation. I used a platform which I’ve used before: Classroom Salon (CS). The CS platform is online and freely accessible, thanks to Carnegie-Mellon University. In this blog post, I’ll explain how CS works, how I use it for my class, and evaluate its pros and cons.
How CS Works
Students sign up for a free CS membership. This then lets them sign up for “salons” which are collections of videos, texts, and PDFs that they can annotate. In addition to the annotating ability, they also have the chance to comment on annotations. The idea is that this keeps the text (or video) central, unlike in discussion boards, but it allows students to engage with each other’s analysis. (See screen shots below.)
The platform allows instructors to download data for analysis into a spreadsheet, as well as to view analytics online. You can see, for instance, for a particular document, how often students are contributing, and who is contributing most. You can view conversations individually, rather than all of them at once next to the document. You can also look at analytics for a single student, such as which documents she’s contributed to most often, and how long her comments are, how many times she’s replied, and so on. This makes grading easier, if you decide to grade annotations (more on which later). It also gives you a sense of which students are really engaging with the texts.
How I've Used CS
In my class, I assigned my students a shorter section of our text each week that they had to annotate. Initially, the assignments were very open, and then we talked about what kinds of annotations they were making. The requirements were simply that they made three comments, asked three questions, and then gave replies to two of their classmates’ comments and two of their classmates’ questions. In addition, there was a thematic question each week that they replied to in a few sentences. As the semester went on, the students set these questions to prepare the class for the short discussions they each had to lead.
Depending on what the focus of their papers were (there were three course-wide paper assessments, each focusing on a different skillset), I adjusted the kinds of annotations they were required to perform. For instance, when we began to focus on argumentation, I asked them to identify reasons for claims, ask questions about how reasons were related to each other. The annotation process became pedagogically valuable when we came to reading some Indian commentaries on the Bhagavad Gītā—they were already familiar with the ways in which one might analyze a text, and they could understand what the commentators were doing.
Their last paper focuses on evaluation of arguments, with the possibility for some comparison between philosophers and traditions. I am asking them to select one text to annotate from the last three readings, based on which they will write their paper on. The goal is for them to see how writing a paper evaluating arguments from a text still begins with the close reading skills they learned early in the course.
The CS annotations have allowed me to do a number of things with in-class time. First, I sometimes have students talk about a conversation thread that occurs on the Salon. We can assess both the text and its arguments as well as the discussion students have about it. Second, I can see where students are having confusion—CS constructs a heatmap to show where the most comments are on a text. If there is a widespread misunderstanding, I can decide how to address it before seminar begins. Third, I have assigned in-class short writing assignments which extend the work they’ve done on CS.
Pros and Cons of CS
I will definitely use CS for one more semester, since I think it will take a few trials to work out all of the bugs in my use of it in the class. It has had some tangible benefits for me and the students. It has allowed the quieter students to feel confident about their voices. A few students have expressed to me that knowing others also have questions helps make them feel less worried about not knowing. CS is not only an incentive for them to do their reading, but it gives me confidence that they have read a section closely. I can see the kinds of reading they are doing and see where there are common misunderstandings—for instance, students all using “circular argument” in a certain (incorrect) manner, and agreeing among themselves that a philosopher is committing this fallacy.
The downside of CS is that it is labor-intensive. While the platform has a a lot of analytics you can use for assessment, it has some limitations. There’s no way that I can see for it to be automatically plugged into Canvas or Blackboard to generate a score. The raw data can be overwhelming if you aren’t comfortable with spreadsheet manipulation, and sometimes the breakouts of individual students and document analytics are unclear. There were times when the count of replies listed on the summary didn’t seem to match the count from the data download. Finally, students also cannot see the answers they write to the thematic question, which I found limiting for sparking conversation.
Too, while the students sometimes enjoy the experience of annotating, as the semester goes on it becomes more a task to be completed perfunctorily. To my mind, six annotations of one’s own and four on other annotations is not a lot—especially since in the course of reading, students ought to have formulated at least six responses to the text internally. However, not all students share this feeling. Next semester we will have more conversation about how many questions good readers have as they go along. Finally, as you might suspect, setting up the assignment with points per annotation requires me to do a significant amount of grading weekly.
Revised Approach to CS
Next semester’s plan is to tie the annotations more closely to writing assignments and class time. This takes into account some of the feedback I got from students about the platform (I gave them a survey tailored specifically to CS). While most of them rated the use of CS highly, some saying that it “revolutionized” their reading, and it impacted how they approached reading in other classes, quite a few of them found it disconnected from the classroom. While it is inevitable that, in a class with significant reading, not all of the reading will be discussed in class, I think I can use the CS annotations more skillfully. Here’s my plan:
Note: My use of Classroom Salon began in fall 2014 after I attended the AAPT/APA Graduate Student Seminar on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy in August of 2014. At that seminar I learned a lot from Stephen Bloch-Schulman on teaching reading, David Concepción on metacognition and reading, Andrew Mills on social annotation, and Donna Engelmann on self-assessment.
More Resources on Social Annotation and Teaching Reading
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Yale-NUS College, Singapore