When Tiina Airaksinen was working on her master’s thesis, her supervisor recommended changing its topic. According to the supervisor, nobody was interested in China, and any research focused on the country was old-fashioned.
Now, more than a decade later, Asian studies is a discipline of its own at the University of Helsinki. Airaksinen is a university lecturer in the discipline, a teacher with multiple awards to her name and a fellow of the Teachers’ Academy, a network of top-level teachers.
“Following the public discourse on Asia, I know I’m doing important work. Educating people in the history, languages and cultures of Asia as well as conducting related research ensures that there are people in companies, politics and the media that both understand Asia and are able to critically assess the continent.”
Airaksinen coordinates courses for students in cultural studies and history on, among other topics, the history and present situation of China, as well as Asian religions and politics.
Her topics are filled with stories about individuals and other details. Airaksinen considers familiarity with the past to be important for students so that they can later assess and discuss current life in Asia.
Even so, her courses put professional skills before course content. Among other things, she trains her students in project management skills as well as in duties related to various roles and assuming those roles.
Above all, Airaksinen perceives teaching from the perspectives of coaching and mentoring. In her courses, she explains to students what kind of career skills they are gaining by completing various assignments.
“My teaching philosophy has changed a lot in 15 years. Earlier, I used to focus much more on substance. Now, I’m focused on establishing a connection with my students. I try to determine who they are as individuals. For example, I think about their potential professional positions and the skills that could benefit them.”
Gaining professional skills by giving presentations
One of the working methods employed by Airaksinen and adaptable to professional life is giving presentations. Students get to give them in almost all of her courses, right from the start.
At first, they present their work in groups or pairs, moving on gradually to individual presentations.
“It’s not enough that students are able to write about their field. They must also be able to talk about it and convey their knowledge to others. Giving presentations is an important skill, since in professional life personal expertise, ideas and work must be marketed to others.”
Good experiences gained at the University help in making it through a performance at the workplace or during one's free time.
“In a tight spot, I recall my personal successes, drawing confidence in how I present myself.”
Airaksinen is also a trained teacher in speech communication, which is why she talks about anxiety and performance to her students, teaching them how to serve as opponents and assess the work of others in a critical but appropriate manner as well as how to receive feedback.
“No matter how talkative you are sitting among the rows of lecture hall seats, taking the stage removes a certain layer of aggressiveness from people. In front of an audience, you’re alone and not supported by your friends.”
Lectures must discuss topical events
Students’ attentiveness varies even at the lectures of skilled teachers, making it difficult to convey a scientific article of several pages regardless of the methods used. On such days, Airaksinen revamps her classes.
“I may, for instance, show a video or a topical piece of news and ask the students to analyse it.”
In any case, topical events are part and parcel of Airaksinen’s lecture courses. She does hand out a syllabus at the beginning of her courses, but she says she always modifies it if something substantial occurs.
In Airaksinen’s career, such occurrences have included revolutions, the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and Donald Trump’s election as the president of the United States.
“Students clearly need to talk about these issues and bring them up in class. The cultural sphere does not exist in a vacuum. Even though I spend half of my life in the archives, I still have to be able to process new and topical matters.”
Airaksinen takes the level of attentiveness of her students into account, but doesn’t give them too much slack.
News discussed in her courses can originate in the Chinese media or may be written from the viewpoint of a certain authority. This forces the students to independently judge what to take at face value. The lecturer does not provide them with a ready-made overview.
“For example, Falun Gong is described in a markedly different manner by students, Chinese officials and the Western media.”
A flexible teacher, headstrong students
As a teacher, Airaksinen relies on humour and flexibility. She perceives her students as individuals with personal inclinations and motivations for pursuing a university degree.
“You don’t study at the University for the sake of others, so you don’t have to compete. We help and support, but in the end the students themselves have to make choices suitable for their plans for the future.”
These days, Airaksinen takes a relaxed attitude to students dropping one of her courses. Her strictness, a characteristic that was recognisable in her at the early stages of her teaching career, is now nowhere to be seen.
And Airaksinen takes no offence if students disagree with her or call something into question.
“It's precisely the more demanding students who often inspire me. When I start to argue with them, I often get an insight myself. That propels me forward.”
A critical stance and challenges are features inherent to science.
“It’s good to keep in mind that feedback can also come from students.”
When Airaksinen was writing her master’s thesis, her choice of topic was challenged. Now she is herself supervising bachelor’s and master’s theses, debating perspectives with her students.
“It was only recently that I had to admit to a student that they had done a good job, even though I had totally disagreed with their chosen topic to begin with. The student didn’t back down and made a real effort in the thesis.”