Bringing students to China helped demystify process of field research, Oi says

Sometimes doing field research involves dodging cow pies in an actual field. At least, that was the case for a group of Jean C. Oi's students.

Oi discussed the importance of taking students beyond the classroom in a March 6 talk titled "Cow Pies and Democracy: Teaching in the Field," presented as part of the Center for Teaching and Learning's "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" lecture series.

Michele Marincovich, associate vice provost of undergraduate education and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, introduced Oi, calling "Cow Pies and Democracy" the "most colorful title" in the lecture series.

Oi, the William Haas Professor in Chinese Politics, began her talk by laughingly apologizing for her word choice. "I still can't believe I chose that title, but I think it aptly describes what I do with my students," she said.

Oi teaches courses on political change in China, and much of her research has focused on village elections. Though China has been a single-party state since the Communist Party took control in 1949, the country has held direct elections for village officials since the 1980s, a move that has been greeted by some as a possible first step toward a more democratic state.

In 2001, Oi taught a course about village elections for Sophomore College, a three-week summer seminar for incoming sophomores.

Although the class was "very successful," her students kept saying, "I wish we could do this in China," Oi recalled. She agreed.

Without leaving Stanford's campus, "I think it's difficult to convey the different world [the Chinese] are living in," Oi added.

The year after she first taught Sophomore College, Oi had the chance to take students abroad for a class as part of the Overseas Seminar Program.

They spent two weeks at Peking University learning about village elections and China's political situation. They heard guest speakers from the country's Ministry of Civil Affairs, and the students designed research projects requiring them to interview villagers and village officials.

In the third week of the program, Oi and her students took a bus to Heilonjiang, a northeastern province on China's border with Russia. As the bus approached the village, the road became blocked by a long line of carts delivering corn to the local dairy farm. Oi had all the students get off the bus, and they walked through fields and pastures to get the rest of the way to the village.

"This is where we had to dodge the cow pies," Oi explained.

Oi characterized what she did with her students as "demystifying" the process of doing research. Students learned how to interview people in the field.

"When we got to the village, I said, 'OK! Go!' and they all just scattered," Oi said. "If you set your expectations high, students are going to produce."

Oi's students got to witness a village election. Villagers lined up to mark paper ballots to elect a village committee head. The votes were tallied on a chalkboard, and the winner got 509 votes, just a few more than the runner-up.

Many of the villagers that greeted the students had never seen Americans before, Oi said. "Russians were the only foreigners they had ever seen," she said.

One student was a 6-foot-7-inch Olympic gymnast who drew crowds wherever he went.

"I've seen them on TV, but I'd never seen a real one," one awestruck observer said, marveling at the tall athlete.

Oi said her students felt like they had earned "bragging rights" after their trip to China. "They felt like they had done something none of their peers had done," she said.

One even changed her career plans after the seminar.

"Her parents were very worried about what would happen to her in China, and maybe they should have been," Oi quipped. The student had been planning to go to medical school, but she instead decided to declare a major in political science and study rural China.

"I think I did change some student lives," Oi said.

Oi is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the director of the Stanford China Program.