I have so far delayed providing a post about teaching here at Nanjing University. Well, with one week behind me, I thought you might be interested in some early impressions.
Despite having heard a great deal from colleagues who have taught here before, and despite having visited the university previously and having met faculty and some students, I was nevertheless uncertain about what to expect—of myself and of my students. I had decided that, rather than choose a course from materials I had taught often and knew well (say, something on Russian history), I would teach a subject that I was presently very interested in, but had not taught much.
Upon arrival, I learned that, although I would be teaching twice a week as planned, it would take a somewhat different format than I had anticipated: Tuesday's class would be three hours and Friday's two hours (rather than the twice-a-week 90-minute classes I had imagined). My Nanjing colleagues assured me that I could alter this arrangement as seemed desirable, so, I tried not to fret about it as I readied myself for the first class. Meantime, my host in the Nanjing University Department of History (Liu Cheng) assured me that my classrooms (different rooms for the two days) would both be digitally-equipped so that I could use Powerpoint presentations (something I had long determined would be important to helping students absorb points I was making in verbal form). In addition, my colleague assigned a graduate student (Yang Yongzhen, a young man from Shantong Province) to me, both to take care of various classroom details (computer setup, photocopies, etc.), and to help Jill and me get to know a bit of Nanjing.
But none of this was a surprise; from what I had learned from previous Grinnell visitors, something like this arrangement was common at Nanjing, and I had prepared myself to lecture every day if it came to that. I had heard that Chinese students are often reluctant to engage in discussion, especially in English, afraid perhaps of mistakes that might make them seem foolish. Nevertheless, although I certainly enjoy lecturing and think that at least sometimes I'm not too bad at it, I thought that I might try to encourage a more interactive exchange. So, as an introduction to myself and the class, I had prepared a brief Powerpoint introduction that would tell them something about me, about Iowa, and about Grinnell College. That the college had so few students, that the town of Grinnell had so few people, indeed, that the entire state of Iowa had only about half as many people as lived in the city of Nanjing alone—all this proved interesting (not to say amusing) to the twenty-five or so students who appeared in class (along with two colleagues from the Department of History).
Although I did not use the entire three hours at my disposal, I was satisfied that I had introduced them to some of the main ideas I hoped to teach about, and that, so far as I could tell, they seemed to have followed me. Professor Liu, who quickly inventoried students afterward, confirmed that they had followed me well, but that they would like some readings to help them prepare.
I already had in mind a brief piece that I wanted them to read, so I was glad for their willingness to take on some additional work. In the meantime, I asked them to prepare a comment or question for Friday's class—any comment or question, I stressed. On Fridays we will be meeting in a room better suited for discussion, so I wanted them to come to class prepared with a few words in English as a way of helping smooth the transition to discussion. And it didn't go too badly—but I'll write more about that in my next post. Now I have to make sure that I'm ready for this week's lecture!