Modern Vietnamese Culture and Society is one of the most sought-after core courses of the undergraduate program at Fulbright University Vietnam, mostly because of the multidimensional approach to knowledge and vivid learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom. This course invites students into a wide array of ideas, issues, and perspectives encountered in modern Vietnam, ranging from socio-cultural, politico-economic aspects to questions of nationalism, international relations, and globalization when examining the country in its regional and global contexts.
Christopher K. Goscha, a leading Vietnam scholar at the University of Quebec at Montreal, sat as a panelist in a conference held by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center on May 9, 2017. During the one-hour event, the renowned historian discussed his latest book, Vietnam: A New History, which tells the full history of Vietnam from antiquity to the present day. Vietnam: A New History is the slightly revised American version of The Penguin History of Vietnam, widely acclaimed by international scholars as a brilliant account of Vietnam’s history, with an approach to the changes of Vietnam throughout centuries and the development of Vietnam in the Southeast Asian and regional contexts. The conference was filmed by American cable and satellite television network C-SPAN.
The conference along with Goscha’s book and two other books by British scholar Raymond Williams and researcher Chris Barker are the documents that first-year students at Fulbright were introduced to before the first class of this course. They were required to read around 50 pages of Goscha’s book and watch the conference before the first class.
But it was just a gentle warm-up.
Multidimensional approach to knowledge
Quach Minh Phat, a student of Class 2024, still remembers the “terrifying week” when he was required to read more than 80 pages of books before the session about colonialism. As the Modern Vietnamese Culture and Society course’s curriculum is mainly built based on discussions, research, field study trips and essays, the amount of references is much bigger than that of other courses.
The course will last through the Fall Semester, with 13 sessions covering 13 topics, each having different references, mostly books written by local and international scholars. To help students not to be overwhelmed by the huge amount of readings, the Instructor, Dr. Nguyen Nam, and four Teaching Assistants are always ready to guide students in the reading, writing, or lecture-note taking. Fulbright’s Learning Support Team also held a workshop on how to strategically read scientific papers written in English specifically for this course.
Discussions are always in focus, with significant time reserved both in weekly sections and interspersed among the lectures. In the evening before the next class, Phat and other members of his team joined an online discussion session with a teaching assistant to prepare for the class.
“Following the instructions from teaching assistants, we gathered until 1-2 a.m. to prepare for the next class in the morning. Late night gatherings like that have become memorable, not to say invaluable experiences for us. The fact that we spent so much time to prepare for classes means we are deeply engaged and got serious about the course. In return, we understand the lessons very well,” Phat said.
The course offers a wide range of diverse and updated materials. For each session, students will be introduced to three and more books written in both Vietnamese and English by leading Vietnamese and international scholars specializing in Vietnamese culture and history. For such topic as the history of the Nguyen Dynasty, students are also introduced to the Sino-language text translated into Vietnamese alphabet.
“We don’t want to miss any opportunity for our students to access the most authentic materials. The Vietnamese and English-language versions support each other; sometimes the Vietnamese version cannot express the full meaning, but the English version can, and sometimes students have to read the Vietnamese version carefully to deeply understand what has been lost in translation,” Dr. Nam explained.
According to Dr. Nam, students of this course will have the chance to work on “texts” broadly defined as not only written materials but also any “primary sources” exposed to them and requiring their “close-reading” and interpretation, such as social phenomena, museum exhibitions, or historical commemorations.
“When we talk about “texts,” we usually associate it with reading. But in this course, “texts” are broadly defined as not only written materials for “reading,” but also for perceiving and interpreting. How could the documents be perceived? It depends on the person who perceives it. As a matter of fact, their perceptions will be subjective. No interpretations are fully objective. Therefore, when you study history or culture, it is essential to respect different ideas; you cannot say only your ideas are correct or objective,” Dr. Nam explained.
In addition to primary and secondary sources employed as reading assignments, students are required to watch a number of feature films and documentaries with their final-project teams prior to going to class.
Interdisciplinary by nature, this course also takes students out of the classroom through field study trips, enabling them to experience first-hand how society builds its present, reconstructs its past, and shapes its future.
Finding Vietnamese identity
Using online platforms, the course invites leading Vietnamese and international scholars to lecture on the topics of the course basedo on their own research works in an attempt to add vigor to the classroom.
In this Fall Semester, Dr. Nguyen Nam invited Prof. Bruce Lockhart from the National University of Singapore to lecture on the Southward Advance of Vietnamese people from the 11th century to the mid-19th century.
When students are exposed to a diverse world of ideas and viewpoints about Vietnamese culture, history and society, some of them admit they find some ideas and viewpoints of international scholars new, interesting, yet a bit strange to them. The main purpose of this course is to give students access to new layers of knowledge about Vietnamese culture, history and society, sometimes far beyond what they have learnt in high school, so that students can assess others’ interpretations with an open but critical mind.
“When students approach other perspectives from leading scholars in the world, it doesn’t mean they will be totally influenced by their views. If students just believe whatever these scholars say, they don’t have critical thinking. When students read the books by these scholars, I always remind them to find the points for criticisms. But what are the foundations for criticisms? They are the scientific basis on which students assess things in a multidimensional academic space and the acknowledgement of Vietnamese identity of each student. Students will realize where they are standing to enrich their knowledge and know more about the cultural and social settings in which they are living,” Dr. Nam explained.
As for Ta Thi Thuy Duyen of Class 2024, the fact that she has to “digest” hundreds of book pages is not as important as how to approach, assess, and potentially accept new ideas and views of each single matter.
“In this course, I have the chance to approach many interesting sources and materials on Vietnamese culture, history and society, but it doesn’t mean I will believe these sources immediately. Many things have grown on us after this course, such as the love for our country. The Vietnamese identity and cultural characteristics are analyzed systematically in this course. Thanks to it, I can put myself in the larger setting of the country and the world to realize that I am part of it, and I have a civic responsibility to my community and my society,” Duyen noted.
After having access to diverse ideas and views with an open yet critical mind, some students said they became bolder when they assess the facts and phenomena related to the culture, history and society of Vietnam in the past and present.
“I realize that my knowledge about Vietnamese culture and society needs to be challenged, as it is still limited. This course encourages me to seek new knowledge, new concepts. It broadens my capability of thinking and gives me new perspectives. At the same time, it helps me realize the national identity that defines Vietnamese people. It’s important to understand that national identity. I know where I come from, what is my origin. And I realize I won’t be lost in this modern world,” Phat said.
Le Minh Tu, a student of Class 2024, praises the course for provoking big thoughts and questions about the complex nature of social phenomena, saying she learnt a lot from the stories about the past.
“I don’t think this course changes my ideology, but it enriches my mind with multidimensional aspects of the culture, the history of my country and the lessons of the past,” she stressed.
As the summary of the course states, “at the end of this course, students will find that not only is there more than one way to study Vietnam, but that there may be more than one Vietnam to study.”
“For me, open-mindedness is the most important takeaway from this course. There are many diverse and complex aspects of history. The most important thing is to be open-minded to accept the diversity and complexity, not to frame yourself in any way of thinking or perceiving,” Duyen shared her thought.
Phat himself has grown special feelings for history-related contents in the course. The lectures, the debates and discussions constitute different ways to face the facts of history.
“What impresses me the most after all is the feelings left after I read the interpretations of historical stories from various sides and even stories told straight-forward. Behind these historical stories are the fates of human beings. I think a lot about historical figures and I feel deeply empathized with my country. I empathize with the pains that Vietnamese people suffered in the past, and I look at Vietnamese history with a more generous attitude. This course arouses the love for my country in such a natural, gentle yet intense way, and this kind of patriotism doesn’t need to be forced or be something of a cliché,” Phat concluded.
Xuan Linh – Doan Hang