Q&A with the Professor Zhang

CATEGORIES: December 2015

How did you decide to become a University professor?

It was not exactly a choice. By following my interests in language and education and by taking the opportunities I was provided, I arrived where I am as naturally as water in a stream flows to its destination. When I was in middle school and high school (1980s in rural China), my knowledge about professions was limited to a few examples, such as laborer, teacher, scientist, and writer. My father was the principal of a high school, and he often brought home journals about educational psychology, adolescent psychology, pedagogy, etc. Those journals became an important part of my reading materials. When I became a college student at a teachers’ university in China, knowing for sure that my future would be in the field of education seemed very natural. The next steps in my life all allowed me to follow my desire to become a better teacher and researcher. For two years after graduation from college I taught in a high school. Then I pursued an M.A. degree in the best foreign language education program at the best teachers’ college in China (Beijing Normal University), got an M.A. in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California, and earned my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology at Michigan State University.

What do you consider to be your most satisfying professional achievements?

I have always strived to do my best, but I seldom feel completely satisfied. I feel great about my research when I receive emails from teachers, whom I don’t know, telling me that they are going to use a pedagogical method that I have tested and published. Or when other researchers ask me for more materials so that they can conduct the same research in their own country. The moments when I feel best about my teaching are when I see my students enjoying learning and using what they have learned from me in their lives. It’s also a good feeling when my students come to me for advice to help them make important decisions in their lives. I love those moments.

What has been your most memorable international experience?

Right after graduation from college, I had an opportunity to be an English interpreter for a Chinese team in Bergen, Norway, for over a month. I had read English and American literature extensively in college, so I thought I knew a lot about Western culture. However, physically being in a different culture really impressed me. For example, it was somewhat hard to look at a large painting hanging on our hotel room wall (and my older female Chinese roommate had to cover it with her scarf, lol). At a formal dinner, each of us was given a big bowl of rich soup before the main course. We were almost full after finishing the soup, and we were very surprised to see so many more tasty things arriving at the table. (In China, soup is served either at the same time as the main dish or as the last thing to serve). I think that was the first time I started to understand the differences between the East and the West. (Oh, that’s also when I first saw two whales in the sea passing by!)

What is the last foreign country you visited? Is there a place in that country that you recommend anyone to visit?

Thanks to the ISU foreign travel grant (combined with another small grant), and a grant I received from the Chinese Language Teachers Association, I was able to go to China last summer to present papers at two different conferences and to visit four Chinese study abroad programs. The cities I visited included Anping (my hometown), Hengshui, Qinhuangdao, Beijing, Shanghai, Changchun, Hangzhou, and Hohhot. I highly recommend Hangzhou and Hohhot. Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang province, is famous for Xihu (West Lake). Xihu is so beautiful, especially in the drizzle of an early summer morning before the crowds of tourists arrive. Local people, surrounded by the water and blooming lotus of the lake, sing Beijing opera and classical songs and play accordion and traditional Chinese instruments during those early mornings. Each year, a great number of tourists come to visit Xihu. They are attracted not only by the scenic views, but also by the cultural heritage that is associated with the lake. For example, when scholar-bureaucrats such as Bai Juyi (772-846) and Su Shi (1037-1101) governed the region, they initiated many construction projects, such as bridges, banks, and pavilions, around the lake, and they left numerous poems and calligraphy works. Hohhot is the capital city of Inner Mongolia. It is a beautiful city, multi-ethnic and multi-religious, vibrant and full of history. The people there are very welcoming.


What has been the most interesting or unusual course you taught at ISU?

I like teaching all the courses I have taught and am now teaching, but the most interesting experience I have had at ISU was designing (and teaching) an online course (CI 407/507, Principles and Practices of Flexible and Distance Education) and a hybrid course (LAS/CHIN000). The process of designing these courses was time-consuming but fascinating. It was like building a big building, using the pedagogical theories I believe in as well as taking into consideration who the learners were, how to meet their different needs, how to make learning more efficient, and most importantly, how to make everything extremely organized so that students knew exactly what to do and how to do it… It was a wonderful, creative process.

What is your area of research? What project are you currently working on?

My research currently focuses on online/blended teaching, using technology in teaching and learning (including content curation, tandem learning, and language learning in multiple media), and reading. I usually combine my research with teaching to find a better way to improve students’ learning. For example, it is a big problem that there are very few reading materials for beginning-level Chinese learners to do extensive reading (as opposed to intensive reading). A book-writing project in my classes allows students, with enough assistance from me or the undergraduate TA, to write books on topics that interest them and in a language that is simple enough for beginning learners to understand. These books are later shared with the class and used as reading materials.


I am currently working on two projects. One is uses blended teaching models to teach culture in a language course. I have taken short clips from Chinese movies and edited them with annotations about culture. Then I have asked students to watch the clips on their own, discuss questions with their peers in small groups on line, and finally have a whole-class discussion in the classroom. The other project is tandem learning through Skype. Students were paired with college students in China so that they could speak in Chinese about their daily lives or about a cultural phenomenon via Skype/QQ/WeChat. This is an exploratory study to investigate what the students have learned, what the process was like, and what could be improved.