'What we do matters'

Professor returns from 10-day trip to China with rekindled passion for research and teaching

Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, front center, a professor of education (language and literacy) in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, taught an Introduction to qualitative research class to top scholars at East China Normal University in Shanghai in May 2016. Credit: SubmittedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It took just 10 days in Shanghai in May 2016 for Vivian Yenika-Agbaw to learn that having a global impact on students can make a world of difference, particularly when a little over a year later one of her scholars opted to venture far to the west to a part of the academic world called Penn State.

A professor of language and literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in Penn State’s College of Education, Yenika-Agbaw was asked by a former classmate at Penn State and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University to teach an Introduction to Qualitative Research class to 15 of the top scholars in China at East China Normal University. At least another couple of dozen students joined the class in an audit-only capacity.

One of them was Rong Xiang, whose American name is Jessy. Xiang, who wants to be a university-level teacher upon her return to China, said her time in the United States will definitely aid that ambition.

“The (Penn State) College of Education is very powerful in the U.S. and I think I will get lots of knowledge from auditing the lectures and communicating with the professors,” Xiang said. “Research methodology and how to do real research is very important to me; I will benefit from the valuable experience.”

She said the benefit from auditing the class at East China Normal University in Shanghai was not only learning about qualitative research but also learning about Yenika-Agbaw as well.

“I think the thing that attracted me first and most is Vivian’s knowledge and lecturing style about qualitative research,” Xiang said. “I think she has great knowledge about this research method and has her own style to teach students, like connecting theory and practice very well.”

Yenika-Agbaw said educators in China are striving to convey a sense of research from a broad perspective and to get a sense of substantive research from a broad expanse. 

Among 18 key items she attempted to convey during her 10-day stint included knowing and recognizing features of qualitative design; recognizing threats to validity to each qualitative approach; understanding major steps of qualitative data collection; knowing the difference between individual and focus group interviews; and using code to create categories, themes and relationships among themes.

Xiang said that her research interests are similar to Yenika-Agbaw’s. “I think Vivian attracted me first and then Penn State,” Xiang said. “After checking online, I have found that the scholarship atmosphere at Penn State is quite good and the living environment is terrific; it’s really terrific,” said Xiang, who will be taking and auditing courses at Penn State through summer 2018. 

Xiang’s research topic is: "Cultural Identity of Middle School Mongolian English Teachers in China: A Case Study of Three Middle Schools in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region."

“I wanted to learn more about qualitative research,” said Xiang, who is sitting in on classes at Penn State on sociocultural theory, second language learning and Yenika-Agbaw’s critical content analysis research method class.

“Mongolian students are one of the minority groups of students in China and I’m focusing on the multicultural contexts of the Mongolian English students’ textbooks. I want to compare how the multicultural contents appear in the U.S. secondary students’ textbooks and compare our own China and Mongolian students.”

The trip to Shanghai was equally valuable for Yenika-Agbaw, who said the best students from across the nation of China were selected. “When I was looking at their research, I saw different ways of approaching the research and it was very fascinating,” she said. 

“The conversation is very rich and it makes you want to know more ... what else is out there ... how do we all work together to investigate on a topic? People are doing it in different ways and calling it different things," said Yenika-Agbaw.

That the students were performing that research with an eagerness and enthusiasm made it even better for Yenika-Agbaw. “We are coming from all different places and just the ability to adapt to our different accents ... global English — that was fascinating,” she said. “A colleague said we are preparing them for the world and preparing them to be leaders in the research field and whatever area they choose to investigate extensively. That way nothing stands in their way.”

That approach alone led Yenika-Agbaw to realize that what she was doing really mattered.

“That was very fulfilling on all fronts,” she said. “It rekindled my love for research. I’m rethinking some of the ways I approach research because I’m working with them and trying to look at some procedures again — concepts that maybe challenge them again — and thinking of different ways of making it accessible.

“I just love the approach, the philosophy of the program,” Yenika-Agbaw said. “It was very powerful to me when you have all these scholars from different parts of the globe coming to work with you. The world is a stage; it’s not just limited to Shanghai. Because of how intense the sessions were, you cannot be interacting with somebody seven or eight hours every day on a subject that’s so exciting and not connect with them ... you can’t.

“What we do matters. We just need somebody who might help us cultivate some discourse in a meaningful way and share findings in a global form,” she said.

Last Updated December 12, 2017