Monday, February 28, 2011

Teaching Begins

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.
This choice had implications both positive and negative. On the one hand, I surmised that most young Chinese today are not so very interested in things Russian, so perhaps a topic of more general interest would have more appeal. Because short-courses like mine bear no credit or grade, and depend entirely upon the willingness of students to experiment with them, I might hope that a course with so broad a subject might attract a reasonable audience. On the other hand, by choosing to teach a course that I had never really taught previously, I obliged myself to work on generating that course, including considerable effort before we left Grinnell, when I might experiment with available materials, create some graphics for power point slides, and so on. Inasmuch as I did not have many other constraints on my time last fall and winter, this was not a big problem, but it did mean that I had less instant familiarity with course materials than I otherwise might have. A bigger issue, perhaps, concerned how well I might succeed in teaching some rather difficult issues to students who would have to absorb these issues through a language that was not their native language. The jury is still out on this last matter, but my experience of the first week makes me hopeful.

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.

The main Nanjing University campus (there are three campuses, including the third, now under construction) is divided into two main parts. Most residences (including ours and student dormitories), the student center, student cafeterias, and other student services occupy space south of Hankou Lu, which, something like 8th Avenue in Grinnell, bisects the campus.  North of Hankou Lu are the academic buildings (and the historical center of the campus that I wrote about in an earlier post). A very attractive, wide lane, shaded by ranks of trees, including long lines of plane (sycamore) trees, points to the north, at the head of which one finds what my colleagues told me is the Teaching Building. It's hard to make out from this photograph which reveals only the doorway, but the Teaching Building is a massive, institutional-looking structure whose designers seem not to have indulged too much imagination in its creation.  My teaching room could have passed for a university room of a certain vintage at any American university: the walls were painted an indistinct, institutional shade; there was a green chalkboard, 40 or 50 chairs, and a row of large windows opening to the south. The front of the room featured a presentation desk where I could connect my Mac to the overhead projector, and the desk itself sat atop a concrete slab raised about a foot above the floor of the room—a design clearly intended for lecturing and minimal student-teacher interaction.

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).
In addition to photos of the main campus buildings—academic as well as residential—I spent some time discussing how education at such a college might differ in method from some other colleges, and to that end spent a few minutes discussing the college's Mission Statement. I tried to make the point that encouraging intellectual clarity and polite criticism required practice, and that the classroom was an excellent place to try out these skills, often in interaction with the instructor. I warned them that I would ask them questions—and expect replies—but that I certainly understood that they would be speaking in a foreign language—for my benefit—and that they should try to overcome any anxiety or nervousness they might feel.   Furthermore, I tried to emphasize that the course we were embarking on was, I understood, not an easy one to appreciate even in one's native language, so that they were likely to encounter here not only new words but perhaps also some new concepts.

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!

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