Innovative educator uses Chinese storytelling techniques to transform the teaching of language.
By Mary Beth Erskine
USF.edu News Writer
Assistant Professor of Chinese
College of Arts and Sciences, Department of World Languages
Indispensible to the traditional Chinese storytelling art, kuaishu, or “fast tales,” are two flat, brass plates called yuanyang ban.
When Eric Shepherd holds the small crescent-shaped pieces between the fingers of one hand and taps them together gently and rhythmically, the melodic clinging transforms the naturally soft-spoken, modest professor.
With exaggerated gestures, vivid expressions and comical language – and in perfect Shandong dialect –Shepherd becomes a tiger, a young child, an old man. He creates drama and suspense, spinning a tale in rapid rhythms with skill that some say rivals that of Chinese storytellers.
Shandong kuaishu originated in the early 19th century, yet it continues to captivate Chinese audiences today. Shepherd dedicated a year of his life as an apprentice to learn the art form from one of its masters, Wu Yanguo. The training was based on intense memorization, imitation of the master, continuous performance and practice so fervent the ban would cause his fingers to bleed.
Shepherd became somewhat of a celebrity in China, performing on television and before audiences of thousands – the American whose Chinese is so authentic, he sounds like a native.
Fame was never Shepherd’s intention. Rather, he wanted to conduct fieldwork that would help him find new and innovative ways to teach American students Chinese. His study of kuaishu became the basis of his doctoral dissertation in Chinese language pedagogy.
In 2008, USF became the first university in Florida and the first major public research university in the Southeastern United States to establish a Confucius Institute. At that time, USF Associate Vice President Linda Whiteford contacted Shepherd who was teaching Chinese at Iowa State. “USF wanted me to build a Chinese language program,” said Shepherd. “With students eager to learn, a committed administration and the opportunity to develop a program from the ground up, it was the perfect opportunity.”
Two years later, USF’s Chinese Learning in the Culture Program within the Department of World Languages thrives. Currently, 183 students are taking Chinese representing a 221 percent increase in enrollment before Shepherd arrived. The College of Arts and Sciences recently approved a minor in Chinese, and a major in the language is under development.
Shepherd’s ground-breaking teaching methods are enabling USF students to become sophisticated speakers of Chinese – and culturally sensitive communicators – at record speeds. For example, after just four semesters of studying the language, USF student Victor Florez emerged as one of five first-place winners in a prestigious, world-wide Chinese language competition. The sole student from the United States to reach the finals, he competed against the world’s top Chinese language students who had been studying much longer in top-rated programs.
As a result, the Houston Consulate General – under whose jurisdiction USF’s Confucius Institute falls –recognized Shepherd as an “Outstanding Chinese Educator.” “In presenting the award, Education Consul Yan Guohua told a group of Chinese language educators that USF’s Chinese program is an example for others in the region to emulate,” said Shepherd.
Learning Chinese, and certainly teaching Chinese, were never on Shepherd’s radar. As an undergraduate at Ohio State University, he majored in political science and took Chinese solely to meet the undergraduate language requirement.
That all changed during his internship as a page at the Ohio state capitol. “Because I could speak a few words of Chinese, they sent me to facilitate whenever Chinese dignitaries visited,” he said. “I realized then how woefully deficient America was in its ability to understand Chinese.”
Shepherd benefited from Ohio State’s Chinese language approach that focused on role-playing and performance-based training. He wanted to move the pedagogy to a new level.
“It occurred to me that everything we do in life can be told as a story. So, the whole point behind the apprenticeship in kuaishu was to develop new information and pedagogy that could move students to advanced levels of proficiency by approaching the process through the learning of Chinese narratives. By becoming an apprentice, I actually became a guinea pig in my own experiment.”
According to Shepherd, one of the first foreigners ever hired by China to train its master teachers of Chinese as a foreign language, traditional approaches to second language instruction are textually based, emphasizing reading and writing first. His approach places culture first.
And that’s why from the first day a USF student steps into Shepherd’s class, the only language spoken is Chinese. Every lesson is embedded in Chinese culture and his students perform commonly encountered contexts found in Chinese culture – meeting a stranger, presenting a gift, ordering in a restaurant – again and again, until they internalize the language and associated behaviors and can apply them in real life. This approach places real world use at the forefront of instruction and fosters a student's ability to think in Chinese.
With travel abroad built into the curriculum, those real life situations take place in China as soon as a student completes the first year of study.
“Last summer, when I took second-year students to China, I interacted a lot with students from other universities. And it became abundantly clear to me that our program at USF is breaking new ground. What is happening here is not happening anywhere else in the United States. And as a result, USF students are operating on a very sophisticated level in a very short time.”
It’s a unique story to tell.
Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.