January 2017 Spotlight, Jin Li, Ph.D.

For the first spotlight in the new year, we are delighted to introduce Dr. Jin Li (Jin_Li@Brown.edu) in the Department of Education and Human Development at Brown University. Dr. Li originally came from China. She received her undergraduate degree in German from Guangzhou Institute of Foreign Languages in 1982 and taught German language and literature there. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1985, she studied first at the University of Vermont, then earned her Master’s degree in foreign language education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988. She received her second Master’s degree in administrative planning and social policy in 1991 and her doctoral degree in human development and psychology from Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1997. Dr. Li’s research focuses on learning models, children’s learning beliefs, and their socialization across different cultures and ethnic groups. Recently, she has been also studying Chinese immigrant children’s adaptation to American mainstream culture.


Personal Spotlight

We asked scholars to describe one of the following: a) what drew them to do work on Asians, Asian American children and youth, or another topic that is important to you now? b) who was an important mentor to them in this work, or an influential particular study in the field or in a related field? c) any particular advice or tips to someone starting out in the field who is doing work in their area.

When I first came to the US 30 years ago, I lived in Vermont for a year. Then, Vermont felt like a fairytale land with breathtakingly beautiful foliage but inhabited by only white people. I thought that I stepped in the wrong place, not that people were unfriendly to me (they were in fact very kind), but no one looked, spoke, or acted like me. Shortly after I went to the local high school to do my only day of substitute teaching in my whole life. I was shocked that those well-nourished and privileged white kids did not seem to care about learning. I didn’t know why someone like me, deprived of education while growing up in China, had so much desire to learn. But I wasn’t alone; virtually everyone I knew back home was like me, wanting to learn. I sensed that this difference has something to do with culture. I became interested in finding out how children develop learning beliefs under the influence of their cultural values. Later I had a chance to visit Augusta, Georgia and met a group of 5th and 6th generation Chinese Americans. When they told me what I talked about was how they teach their children and how such values enabled their ancestors to survive in the South, my interest in this research topic was cemented. Ever since, my research outlook always has included Asians and Asian Americans in comparison with European-heritage and other cultural and ethnic groups.

Reading research from Hong Kong and Taiwan early on helped me better understand psychology in Asian cultures while receiving graduate training in the field. I must say that getting through graduate school was not a straight marching exercise but navigating a bumpy road. More than once I thought about quitting, but each time, thanks to my great mentors, I gained more confidence that I would eventually finish my degree and enter the professoriate. No doubt, I was lucky with two superb mentors: Kurt Fischer and Howard Gardner. Kurt Fischer taught me how to study culturally defined concepts such as self-conscious emotions (e.g., shame in Chinese culture). Howard Gardner guided me in finding a research topic that has relevance to all children and families, but at the same time legitimate cultural distinction as well as personal meaning. I struggled hard but persisted. Studying how children develop learning beliefs across different cultures and ethnic groups did ultimately meet these goals. Howard Gardner was also instrumental in helping me learn how to write academic papers.

As an aspiring academic from an Asian/Asian American background, there are many common as well as unique obstacles. I will spare the common ones as other Asian Caucus scholars have already shared. I’d like to offer a few “tips” from the Asian/Asian American perspective. First, we as a pan-Asian group suffer from the stereotype that we are good only at technical things such as statistics. Early on, we must indicate to the mentors that we are capable of in-depth thinking and theory-building beyond any necessary skills for an academic career. One way to defy the stereotype is to openly challenge existing theories, not polemically but intellectually. This may be difficult for Asian/Asian American students, but in Western academia, it is necessary. Second, I would broaden my own thinking by familiarizing myself with other relevant disciplines of research; for example, for my interest, anthropological research is important, so are cognitive science and neuroscience. Third, keeping an open-mind is very beneficial. We may love our own ideas, but we also need to hear other perspectives sincerely and empathetically so that we can learn from those whose work may appear to be antithetical to ours. Finally, although we may feel isolated and discouraged, it is important to build a supportive social network with peers and those who have achieved career goals.

Research Spotlight

We also asked scholars to describe a particular recent finding, current study, or recent publication and what makes them excited about it.  Feel free to describe its importance from any one or more of these lenses: a) research contribution; b) our knowledge about Asian or Asian American populations; c) our knowledge about other understudied populations; d) practice or policy relevance.

A paper I published with Heidi Fung and others (Child Development, 2014) reported our study on European and Taiwanese mother-child conversations about learning with early elementary schoolchildren. Our goal was to look at a main source of children’s learning beliefs: parental socialization. Our empirical focus was to capture this process in detail and real time. We tracked each conversational turn and analyzed the data sequentially. We found that despite westernization over 150 years and currently deepening globalization, Taiwanese parental socialization for learning beliefs remains distinctly Confucian, that is, virtue-oriented (while European-American is more mind-oriented). This study sheds light on the enduring nature of the power of culture on childrearing. There are important implications for child development and education policy across Confucian-heritage cultures.

Experiences with Asian Caucus

I served as one of the Steering Committee members for founding the Asian Caucus. That was a great initiative. I feel honored to play a small role in that effort. I appreciate the generosity and dedication that the leadership teams have given. The Asian Caucus has grown strong and has become a home for our shared vision, creativity, and support for research. I am proud to be a member of this important Caucus.

Upcoming Talks/Presentations

I am currently on a 2-year sabbatical. Having spent a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, 2015-16, I am now at the Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, China 2016-17. My leave was funded by the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center. I am working on a book that sets the Western and East Asian self side by side for analysis. As part of this Fellowship, I will be giving two presentations. The first one will be at the Conference entitled “Human ‘beings’ or human ‘becomings?’ Transforming who we are into who we need to be,” Peking University, May 5-7, 2017. The second presentation will be at the conference entitled “The ends of human life, lessons from ancient India and Chinese thought for the contemporary age” at the Parekh Institute of India Thought, Center for the Study of Developing Societies, India, August 4-6, 2017.In addition, I have been giving public lectures on child development and my research in China via their new technology: “Wechat Lecture” where I can talk to a small local audience, but 7,000 or more people across China can login on their phone to watch the presentation. People can also pose questions, and a team working on the side can sort through questions to pick common themes for me to address. I had never experienced this kind of mass media until I came to China.

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