Prof Chen Hon-fai, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Policy, received this year’s Teaching Excellence Awards in recognition of his ability to make theoretical concepts come to life for today’s students.
For many Hong Kong students, the prospect of studying the abstract theories of sociology may be more of a challenge than they are willing to undertake. After all, what possible relevance could 19th century European thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim have for them?
Prof Chen has taken on this challenge by bringing the ideas of these influential thinkers alive through the use of real-life examples – the reason why he was chosen for the Teaching Excellence Awards this year.
Employed full time at Lingnan University since 2012, Prof Chen teaches both contemporary and classical sociological theory. In addition to focusing on the principles of classical sociology, he also looks to contemporary social thinkers not necessarily related to the field, such as Michel Foucault.
“It’s a way for us to not alienate our students,” says Prof Chen. “I want them to go outside the tradition of sociology and broaden their horizons, not just stay within the confines of our discipline.”
At the same time, he thinks it is important for students to learn about theory, not because theory is itself absolute but rather because it is a good opportunity to convert students from the standardised way of thinking they learned in secondary school to something more critical, more in-depth.
“The original purpose of liberal studies education is to teach students to think openly about any issue,” he says. “I challenge them to think more critically, more analytically and, most importantly, to rethink their thinking habits.”
Making sociology relevant
By attempting to strike a balance between contemporary relevance and disciplinary core, Prof Chen makes theory relevant to the everyday lives of students. “This is what sociology is all about,” he says. “How did the classical sociologists think, how did they define what is relevant, what topics are important for sociology students to tackle today?”
For example, instead of having students read several hundred pages of Das Kapital by Karl Marx, he will ask them to relate Marxism to today’s social justice concerns, such as the environmental movement or feminism, both of which can be read as critiques of capitalism.
“In this way I will help them relate Marx, a towering figure but a ghost from the past, to the issues of today’s world. This will help them to understand what was so unique about Karl Marx’s own day and put his theory in a historical context.”
Prof Chen also mentions the example of Max Weber, who examined the influence of the Protestant work ethic on the rise of capitalism. However, to give his theories a local context, instead of looking at western business leaders of the time, he will ask students to consider the rise of capitalism in a Chinese context through the Confucian work ethic.
As an exercise he will have students gather biographical materials on the great industrialists of Chinese society today and see whether they have been influenced by Confucian ethics and how that might be related to capitalism in a Chinese context. Prof Chen says, “We can not only show how a sociologist would tackle the issue of capitalism and the work ethic in the spirit of Max Weber, but also show how Confucian ethics and the spirit of capitalism are not something just in a book.”
The impact of sociology on today’s issues
One of the main advantages of Lingnan University, Prof Chen believes, is its small size and focus on service-learning. He points out that Lingnan has a closer relationship with students, and that when they have personal problems they are more willing to turn to teachers.
Prof Chen says that he still keeps in touch with some of his former students after they have graduated. “I am proud of them,” says Prof Chen. “They apply the sociological knowledge they have learned from me and other teachers, even unconsciously, to contemporary issues. They are disseminating high level academic knowledge to a broader audience.”
One of the most memorable experiences of how academic thinking can be applied to contemporary issues came about during the time of the umbrella movement in 2014. Prof Chen recognised that many students and social science teachers were confused about the protests and even the future of Hong Kong society.
“We initiated a forum not only on the subject of the umbrella movement but also the implications for Hong Kong. We wanted to do it in a non-confrontational, less provocative way, from the perspective of social science,” he says.
According to Prof Chen, the forum was very well received with about 200 students, professors and alumni taking part. “We were not trying to impose our view on students or our colleagues. We created a very open, free atmosphere, in which everyone was eager to speak.”
Prof Chen believes that this is the right way for teachers to cultivate a more rational attitude in students and that in such an instance, it’s not about how to change society all at once but to diagnose its deepest problems and investigate solutions to address the root causes.
“You have to adopt a rational perspective, especially on controversial subjects such as this,” Prof Chen says. “We as teachers need to be involved from our hearts but at the same time detached in our minds.”