“[F]olks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history…. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.”

—Barack Obama, remarks to GE Energy Waukesha Gas Engines Facility, Waukesha, Wisconsin, 30 January 2014

“It’s not just about looking at pretty pictures…. We ask hard questions of our students about the images and artifacts we show them. How can one painting or one small object conjure up a bygone culture or an entire political system? And these observational and interpretive skills can then be used by our students across the disciplines.”

—Dr. Ann Collins Johns, describing her email response to President Obama’s comments about art history


As the world has grown more connected over the last few decades, university professors have developed an increasing number of courses on both the social and political characteristics of different regions of the globe. Humanities departments offer courses on the religion and art of different groups, while political science professors teach about geo-strategic implications and the development of domestic institutions. These simultaneous efforts to develop an appreciation of culture while learning about political actors have increased in recent years—with particular attention given to Asia. Policymakers and businesses desire students who have broad knowledge of the region, though this fact contrasts with calls for more “practical” majors tied to vocational training and job placement made by no less than the former President of the United States (Obama 2014).

Young adults, themselves, have developed greater curiosity about Asia. The share of students studying there, in comparison to other regions, has increased from 6.8 percent in 2001 to roughly 12 percent in 2014 (Institute of International Education 2016). However, as much as individuals possess an interest in Asia, many obstacles limit a comprehensive understanding of the peoples, societies, and governments of the region.

This paper presents the results of a multi-year study on the use of reflection to teach about Asia to undergraduates at a southeastern liberal arts college. Students took courses in a general education program that encouraged them to learn about a “complex and changing world” in order to assess their competence in understanding and appreciating other cultures. Courses for this program were drawn from many different disciplines, including the Humanities and the Natural and Social Sciences. Some of these classes included content from specific regions of the world, including the History of Asian Art and Politics in China. Each course culminated in a reflective essay, graded by a team of faculty along a rubric following a common prompt to measure analysis, reflection, and cultural literacy.1

Scores on these reflective essays varied dramatically from discipline to discipline. Students in Humanities courses appeared to score consistently higher than those in Natural and Social Science classes. In the case of the Asia-themed courses, students learned about the cultural practices of the peoples of Asia, generally, and of China, specifically, from the perspectives of art history and political science. However, students in the political science courses scored lower than the benchmark in the assessment. The lesson learned from this discrepancy was that political science courses on Asia should borrow lessons from the humanities, particularly in the use of multimodal assignments. Given the broadly similar context of processes, history, and institutions across Asia, it would be straightforward to add lessons on, for example, propaganda posters, to complement the study of democratic political processes and forms of accountability. An initial effort was made to incorporate these assignments into a subsequent version of the political science classes.

Despite these efforts, the disparities in scores still appeared; students in art history courses consistently scored higher for reflection, analysis, and cultural understanding than students in political science courses. As a result, a new approach was taken. Rather than focusing on the content of art history in Asia (propaganda posters, religion), professors made an effort instead to focus on pedagogy. For example, students in art history courses were assigned tasks of creating sculptures and designing “sacred spaces,” but, most importantly, were also asked to reflect on the how and why of their compositions. Reflection, it turned out, resulted in deeper understanding than knowledge or creation alone.

This insight guided further alterations to the Politics in China and Politics in East Asia courses. Students were still taught about culture but were more directly asked about their process of learning. In one example, students were asked to reflect on what democracy meant to them before a “virtual exchange” with students in Hong Kong. Afterward, students would reflect, again, on democracy and how their views were reinforced, or altered, based on the readings and interactions with the Hong Kong students.

Using quantitative data and qualitative discussions of pedagogy, it appears that there are lessons for political science to borrow from art history, but these are not as simple as adding a reading, a project, or even a multimodal assignment. Instead, students gain greater insights into the culture and politics of Asia when asked to reflect on their learning at discrete points in the term and to draw their connections together in a summative assessment.

The Use of Reflection in Learning about Asia

A multitude of approaches to engaging cultures from around the world in ways not previously imagined have been made possible by the advancement of twenty-first century technology and communications (Pawlowski 2008). Asia, in particular, poses a problem to learners in the face of these increased connections. Students often have little connection to the continent and few examples of experiences with the cultures of Asia in their everyday lives (Bahree 1986). Teachers themselves are often unfamiliar with the subject matter given the time, distance, and expense of traveling to Asia for first-hand experience (Bahree, 31–32). In addition, the wide disparities in wealth and political freedoms across the region may make discussions of certain issues, such as democracy and human rights, uncomfortable for students. Furthermore, the heterogenous cultures of the region make isolating one particular topic or subject for study difficult. Interdisciplinary studies may best capture an understanding of the beliefs and behaviors of the peoples of Asia as completely as possible within an academic framework, though such an integrative approach is often met with resistance from administrators (40). It is left, then, to the teacher to make contacts with colleagues across Asia to help build authentic experiences to give students the proper context for their coursework without treating the study of Asia as a “problem” (Bahree, 34).

Given the unique challenges that the study of Asia presents for educators, it makes sense to draw on the lessons of reflective learning to support students’ understanding of cultures not their own, though this approach, too, is fraught with challenges. For one thing, the presentation of issues and topics about Asia by non-Asian teachers can run the risk of misunderstanding cultural differences and reinforcing stereotypes (Webb 2001), and teachers of all backgrounds walk a fine line in guiding students through sensitive topics while also not betraying too much of their own personal views. Indeed, the act of apparent impartiality on the part of the professor may produce an interest in viewpoints a student might not otherwise have considered (Hanson 1996). Reflecting on what one learns and integrating it into an ever-evolving worldview takes time, but is a crucial element for students in these courses.

Barrett (2005) and Schön (1983) advocate a reflective pedagogy and offer a path forward, but not without obstacles. On the one hand, the personalization of learning may afford a student the opportunity to shield himself in the face of different opinions, working at cross-purposes with the goals of global learning classes. On the other hand, the ability to offer students multiple viewpoints across a series of multimodal assignments can foster the critical thinking and creativity that may make them more receptive to lessons about other cultures (Parkes, et al 2013; Ramirez and Sanborn 2015).

Teaching about Asian Politics in the Core Curriculum

The study of comparative politics is often approached from three distinct dimensions: rational, structural, and cultural (Lichbach and Zuckerman 2009). Subscribers to the rational approach assume that individuals are utility-maximizers who continuously weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. One famous example of the rational approach is voting behavior. Democratic citizens attend the polls on election day when their opportunity cost is low and their chance of affecting the outcome of the election is high (Downs 1957).

Scholars who assume a structural approach observe the pervasive influence of formal governmental institutions and societal constructs on the behavior of individuals. Citizens are not utility-maximizers so much as conditioned and incentivized by the rules and norms that govern their everyday lives. A classic, modern example of the structural approach is Acemoglu et al’s (2000) work on the influence of colonial rule. Colonizers set up “extractive” institutions in areas where they themselves would not settle; a notable example would be of the Spanish in South America. This explains the robustness of accountable governments in moderate climates.

In contrast, a cultural approach to comparative politics focuses on the norms and practices of particular communities. Defining what constitutes a “unit” of culture remains difficult, however. Famously, Huntington (1993) named nine civilizations: Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, Orthodox, Sinic, sub-Saharan African, and Western. Other scholars note the variety of cultures within a given country or area, and the lack of comparability across these groups.

Professors who teach on comparative politics sometimes struggle to instruct students while employing these research frames, particularly in the study of democracy. A student may read a narrative on student protests in China one day and another piece on how local governance is often stifled by the bureaucratic norms and incentives that guide the behavior of government officials the next. Mixing lessons of culture with discussions of more technical analyses can prove confusing for students who are just learning about the country, without years of context that professors develop in conducting their research.

Further complicating matters is that the lessons of cultural practices and government institutions do not necessarily complement one another within this structural, rational, and cultural framework. A professor who teaches a course that includes a discussion on the politics of Japan must educate students not only on the Liberal Democratic Party and its near-continuous rule, but also on electoral politics and the absence, until recently, of meaningful party competition. In addition, many students who are not majoring in politics, or who have only recently begun their coursework, will not be familiar with parliamentary systems and how they differ from presidential systems, or how the transition from a single, non-transferable vote electoral system to a mixed-member majoritarian electoral system has reduced the fractionalization of the party system and changed the goals of koenkai, or candidate support organizations. Given that all this is crucial, though not exhaustive, information about governments in Asia, there is limited time to cover topics that set the choice of government or behavior of officials within a cultural context. Further complicating matters is that professors who teach on the comparative politics of East Asia sometimes attempt to apply lessons from the Japanese case to other countries in the region, such as Taiwan and South Korea. Simply put, there is not enough time to provide a thorough education on the processes and institutions of government while simultaneously placing those structures appropriately within the history and culture of a given country.

In the Politics in East Asia class referenced in this essay, four topics connect student learning across the region: Democracy and Governance, Security, Globalization and Culture, and Economics. Country-specifc lessons are followed by comparisons across countries. For example, students are presented data on the support for democracy in each of the states listed above, then note consistencies in the results across the region. Questions are often technical in nature. For example, is democracy supported to great degree? Yes. Is democracy development preferred to economic development? No.

In the Politics in China class, topics vary while the frame of reference, China, remains consistent. Students learn about social movements and the internal dynamics of student groups. They also learn about issues concerning the effectiveness of village elections and the challenges that authoritarian bureaucracies pose to the implementation of policies. As in the Politics in East Asia class, students are given lessons on culture and society, most recently through the book Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows, but also on pressing topics such as foreign policy, the environment, and economic growth. These lessons are necessary for a more complete understanding of China but require an approach to pedagogy that provides students a structure for how to evaluate the intersection of politics, economics, and culture.

An Evolution in Teaching about Asia

When Politics in East Asia was first included as a part of the general education program in 2011, the format of the assignments was largely essay-based. Students submitted responses to questions posed by the professor in the form of short papers. In an attempt to better prepare students to write their end-of-term reflective essay embedded within the required electronic portfolio, students were asked to blog about their thoughts on readings, class discussions, and current events. However, these assignments did not promote the deep learning and reflection about another culture that was intended of general education classes designed to promote familiarity with other cultures. As part of the assessment feedback loop, a team of faculty raters from across campus graded randomly-drawn reflective essays from all classes included in the general education program using a common rubric (detailed later and included in the appendix). The scores for the Asia politics class fell below benchmark, and it became clear that changes were needed to more effectively educate students about the practices and components of the civilizations and cultures of the world.

In the later iterations of the Politics in East Asia class, and in a new Politics in China class, a different approach was taken. With the help and guidance of the many humanities professors on campus, including those from the English, History, and Modern Language departments, assignments were adjusted to pique student interest and provide an opportunity for creative expression. For example, students were asked to complete creative projects rather than essay responses (Figure 1). These small assignments offered students a means to express their knowledge in as open-ended a venue as possible. Creative projects varied, ranging from propaganda posters for individual countries to platforms for “new” political parties. Students were also asked to file daily journals on the readings—300-word responses that detailed their thoughts. These journal entries did not need to be reflective; the intent of the assignment was to provide students the ability to discuss parts of the reading that most interested them to the degree and extent they felt comfortable. At the end of the semester, students still submitted a reflective essay following the common prompt for all classes included in the civilizations and cultures initiative.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Creative Project Prompt.

Initial Analysis

To determine the success of these assignments in promoting cultural understanding, reflective essays were scored by a process borrowed from the civilizations and cultures assessment developed for the college’s core curriculum. The prompt for the assignment asked students to complete this reflection on their work by the end of the semester using guidance provided from a core curriculum oversight committee. This guidance included prompts and an evolving rubric, which was used in the rating of the essays in this paper and is included in the appendix.

For the purposes of this analysis, essays were drawn from four classes—two political science courses (Politics in East Asia and Politics in China), and, for comparison, two humanities courses (History of Asian Art: India, China, and Japan, and Chinese Art & Culture). For many of these classes, all essays were reviewed. In the case of the Politics in China course, where multiple sections were taught at once, essays were drawn randomly to replicate the smaller representation of essays from the other classes.2

Two raters graded all of these essays, assigning a score from 1 to 5 for each of three categories: Cultural Understanding, Artifact Analysis, and Reflection on Learning. These scores were combined into an individual rating out of 15 points. If the two raters deviated in their rating by more than three points, the essay was reviewed again.3

One note of caution: As this study was conducted, the rubric that guided the rating of the essays along the specific culture scale was edited to focus less on “distinctiveness” and more on an understanding of cultural components of broader communities; one can see the difference between the two scales in the appendix. As students in 2013 completed these essays with different guidance on the culture scale than the student in 2014 and 2015, the scores may be difficult to compare. Therefore, we focus our analysis on the reflection scale. Full scoring for each scale is presented in the appendix.

In Table 1, one can see the disparity in scores between the essays graded in 2013. Art history essays received an average score of 7 (out of 10) points. For context, the benchmark score for essays submitted as part of the general education program described above was a total of 18 out of 30 points, or 6 points on each of the three scales. By contrast, essays drawn from the 2013 politics classes scored consistently below benchmark. While there was some variance in scores for the Politics in China essays (standard deviation equal to 2), both sets of scores were significantly below expectations.

Table 1

Reflection Scores for Art History and Political Science Reflective Essays, 2013.

Class n score std
History of Asian Art 20 7.1 1
Chinese Art & Culture 16 7.5 1.5
Art (pooled) 36 7.3 1.2
Politics in East Asia 14 4.1 1.2
Politics in China 17 5.1 2.1
Politics (pooled) 31 4.6 1.8

In other words, despite efforts to mimic the humanities through the use of multimodal assignments, the scores for student performance still underperformed expectations in 2013. This proved puzzling, as the benefits of multimodal assignments produced in a digital space for “digital natives” had been touted extensively by educational administrators and scholars (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005; Prensky 2009). These twenty-first century students, it was assumed, possessed possessed the facility to embrace technology and explore lessons from class in ways that even most professors might not readily intuit. For the political science classes, students were only ever given opportunities to express their viewpoints in written essays and tests, and so it was hoped that the chance to complete assignments with alternative media would tap into forms of expression with which these digital natives could innovatively demonstrate the knowledge they had developed in the course. That did not turn out to be the case.

Upon reflection, the limitations of the newer assignments became apparent. While students enjoyed the freedom of the creative projects, they focused less on the personal nature of the project and their connection to course lessons and more on creativity for creativity’s sake. One student, for example, pasted the pictures of several professors into a propaganda poster and offered only a tenuous connection to the course materials. Ideally, students would justify their work by making clear to which ideas from class they are referring. Without more directed guidance, student posters seemed unfocused, potentially hampering the retention of the lessons from the course and undermining the intent of the general education program.

To remedy this problem and encourage the reflection and deep learning that would give students a greater appreciation for the cultures of Asia, assignments were revised so that they resembled the humanities model less in type and more in structure. Students were given prompts that asked them not only to compose an assignment, but also to think, explicitly, about their process as they did so. In this way, political science courses that covered similar parts of the world began to borrow from art history courses, and, as seen in Table 1, produce higher levels of reflections from students. As Ramirez and Sanborn (2015) note, the teaching of art history allows for the exploration of complex topics and concepts through the use of metaphor and free expression: “Students not only develop the ability to engage with a work of art but also think about how their own responses, through various assignments and media, inform its meaning” (141). Furthermore, assignments were structured to allow students freedom of expression while encouraging them to connect their work to the academic lessons in class:

At the end of each unit, students completed assignments that asked them to summarize an object or image of their choice. These assignments allow for a variety of methods for students to demonstrate their learning, both visually and textually. For example, for the Role-Playing Sculpture Project, students put themselves in the context of an ancient sculptor and created an art object and a context for that object that connects with what they’ve learned about India, China, or Japan. For the Sacred Space Design Project, students used both critical and creative thinking to synthesize elements of two Asian religions studied in designing a physical space where practitioners of those faiths could cooperatively worship…. In analyzing the reflective essays, artifacts, and reflective tags from student eportfolios, the types of assignments and classroom activities that seemed to elicit the most reflection and deep understanding were hands-on, specific, artistic practices that seemed to create authentic, active learning through inquiry and reflection; while a student can demonstrate an understanding of religious concepts through research papers, a more flexible skill-set is necessary for the creative thinking required to design a physical space for practitioners of various religions to worship (142).

Modifications and Subsequent Analysis

Following the lessons gleaned from the art history courses included in this study, an effort was made to focus on the process of a student’s role in government. In this way, students could observe the structural, cultural, and rational motivations for the actions of citizens in Asia by thinking about their own inspirations for those same actions. Students would be challenged, “to think, read and write critically,” as Dr. Johns described to President Obama, based upon the pedagogy of reflection so prevalent in the study of art history (Mueller 2014). Assignments focused less on exploring the digital space for its own sake and more on the observation and self-awareness of process—in particular, the processes and activities in which the democratic citizen participates.

For example, during the Fall 2014 semester, students in the Politics in East Asia class engaged in a long-term project to evaluate their own democratic citizenship in comparison to the beliefs of individuals in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong. Students were first asked to post a response to a blog, responding to the following prompt: “Reflect on your own experiences with democracy in the United States, think on how it works, strengths and weaknesses, etc. but center around your own thoughts.” At the same time, students engaged in lessons on mixed-member electoral systems, democratic movements, and public opinion on liberal values and democratic institutions, including readings and class discussions. This segment of the course culminated in a “virtual exchange” between American and Hong Kong students, in which the students exchanged questions, comments, and thoughts about the nature of democratic citizenship through a Skype feed for roughly one hour. This exercise was centered on an informal Model United Nations–type seminar, where American students provided background on the hypothetical views of the Occupy Central movement in the U.S., P.R.C., and Japan, allowing Hong Kong students a chance to contextualize the movement across the major powers of Asia.

Afterward, the American students were asked to reflect on democracy as before, only now they were asked to do so as a citizen of East Asia. They did not have to base their views solely on the virtual exchange and could think more broadly, considering the course readings and class discussions on countries such as Japan and South Korea (though most did mention Hong Kong). Subsequently, students were asked to re-read their blogs and trace what was different between their views of democracy in the first post and the views they gained about East Asian democracy by the second.

This same procedure was largely followed in a Spring 2015 Politics in China course, centered around another virtual exchange. This time, students were given a more formal structure for their participation, focusing on the concept of accountability (Figure 2). Again, students debated and engaged with one another in ways they had not done in previous versions of the course.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Politics in China Virtual Exchange 2015: Before and After.

To determine if there were any changes in scores given this approach, summative reflective essays drawn from these two courses were graded as described earlier; the average scores for these assignments are presented in Table 2. In contrast to the previous iterations of the Politics in East Asia and Politics in China classes, scores were significantly higher after the addition of assignments that promoted reflection and student consideration of his/her own role in the democratic process. Both sets of scores exceeded the general education program benchmark, almost equaling those of the art history courses. These scores were also significantly higher than the ratings for the 2013 classes, with a p-value below .05, despite the small sample size.

Table 2

Reflection Scores for Political Science Reflective Essays, 2014–2015.

Class n score std p-value of difference
Politics in East Asia 15 7.0 1.8 0.000
Politics in China 15 6.7 1.5 0.011
Politics (pooled) 30 6.8 1.6 0.000
  • Note: difference of means significance test reported in final column in comparison to essays from 2013 iterations of the same class.


“I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

Barack Obama, in response to Dr. Ann Collins Johns

As any regular reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education knows, the Humanities have come under repeated fire from policymakers and administrators alike. This essay attempts to explain the use of the lessons from these courses in not only developing an appreciation for the arts, but in assisting scholars from departments outside the Humanities as they teach complex lessons about the world. The data analysis above illustrates that the adoption of reflective practices, embedded implicitly and explicitly in art history courses, can produce greater reflection and deeper learning in students in classes where these practices are not common.

There are, of course, a number of other explanations for the rise in student essay scores. First, the political science courses had been through several revisions, and the professor could make adjustments in later sections after learning what had worked (and not worked) in earlier sections. In addition, the nature of the guidance provided to students was more strict in later courses. Students reflected more often because they were instructed to do so quite deliberately.

At the same time, the students’ response to this increased attention to reflection and democratic process often produced insightful and self-aware comments on the nature of government and how it varied across the world. As one student noted in a reflective essay,

In the first part [of the course] I saw freedoms as the most vital part to living in a democracy and living my life. By looking at East Asia through a different lens I saw that I am not the only one who enjoys these freedoms but some have to continue to fight for theirs while I do not…. They felt as if they were being denied something I held most dear and the cultural gap began to fade away.

These efforts to improve student education about Asia, particularly using democracy as a thematic concept, have the potential to give students an entrée to a foreign world through a common frame of reference through the use of reflection and an awareness of process.

Additional Files

The Additional files for this article can be found as follows:

Additional file S1

AN 2017 Data Replication Files. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/ane.246.s1

Additional file S2

Revised C&C Rubric. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/ane.246.s2

Additional file S3

Spring 2013 Syllabus. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/ane.246.s3


  1. The essays included in the analysis were submitted for this assessment. However, only a handful were selected for inclusion in this program; the essays below were graded by two faculty members as detailed in the analysis section. [^]
  2. For example, two sections of Politics in China were taught during the Spring 2015 semester, with 15 students in each section. Essays were drawn by listing the essays in alphabetical order for each section and taking every other student’s essay. [^]
  3. For the initial 67 essays drawn from classes in 2013, scores differed by more than 3 points seven times (10.5 percent). For the 2014 Politics in East Asia essays, no essays varied by more than three points, while for the 2015 Politics in China essays, four essays needed re-scoring. [^]


This work was completed, in part, through the generous support of a Faculty Development Leave by the VMI Dean’s Office and Faculty Development Committee.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Author Information

Howard Sanborn is Associate Professor of International Studies and Political Science at the Virginia Military Institute, where he teaches courses on democracy and the comparative politics of East Asia. He has published his research in a number of journals, including the British Journal of Political Science, Political Behavior, Political Research Quarterly, and the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics. He served as Director of the VMI ePortfolio Project from 2012–2014.

Jenny Ramirez is an Adjunct Professor of Art History at James Madison University and Mary Baldwin University. She teaches introductory art history and art appreciation classes as well as upper-level courses in Asian art, photography, nineteenth-century art, and East-West interactions in art. She has published several chapters and essays on women and art, as well as on pedagogy and global learning.


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