Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Teaching, 2

I forgot to mention in the previous post the most surprising moment in my first class—at the very end of class, after I had given them an assignment for Friday and thanked them...the students applauded!  OK, it wasn't what Soviet sources used to call "stormy applause" that allegedly greeted the words of Stalin, let's say, but still...applause.  This is, I presume, the habit here, so I shall try not to let it swell my head. No doubt the applause is connected to the status difference evident here between student and professor, but the applause reminded me that in China today, where rigorous examinations govern admission to university, for many students—including several in my class, who told me that they had been born in rural China—higher education is more than an entitlement.

Anyway, after that first class I had a few days to prepare for Friday, intended to serve as a "discussion section." This class convened in a different building, the Humanities Building where the History Department, among others, is headquartered. I do not know when the building was put up, but it is clearly newer than the Teaching Building, if no more inspired architecturally.
Our class gathered in a seminar room on the fifth floor in a room facing this view.  Several students who had been present on Tuesday did not appear on Friday, but some 15 or so did, and they were gathered around a large seminar table when I came in.
A few latecomers appeared after I snapped this picture (there's another thing I noticed: the latecomers, announcing that they were late, apologized), but this was, I thought, a good-sized group for a discussion class. Since I had asked each student to come with a question or comment, I simply began at one end of the table and gradually made my way around the table until everyone had had a say. Their questions or comments were sometimes a bit stilted, but I will say that each one reflected familiarity with at least some aspect of the lecture I had given Tuesday. As might be expected, some spoke with more freedom and skill than others, but the only person who generated any laughter was...me!

Since I did not yet have a class list (I asked for and subsequently received one, although it was written entirely in characters, so I asked my son to translate the names into Pinyin for me), I asked them all to begin their comments or questions by telling me their names, which I then tried to pronounce after them. My attempts at their names proved to be a source of great hilarity, especially for some names which, it seems, I totally destroyed.  I took comfort from having reproduced a few of the names reasonably well, and regretted that I did not do better with everyone's name. But, on reflection, I wonder whether my having inadvertently given them some reason to relax didn't serve to embolden them a bit, and perhaps encourage them to participate more?  I am not sure, but I thought that the first hour or so—devoted entirely to their comments and questions—passed pretty well. To be sure, this was not a "discussion" in the sense that we usually use that term in an American classroom; I recall only one occasion from Friday's class when one student remarked upon another student's remark. But most everyone seemed to attend carefully to what others said and how I responded—that is, they proved themselves to be conscientious listeners—which is surely an important element in a good discussion.

I mentioned in a previous post that students had asked for some reading to help them prepare better for class; this was a subject that I had thought about a great deal when I was still in Grinnell, and I had accordingly set aside a few possible assignments, from which I hoped to be able to choose something brief and appropriate, if it seemed desirable. After that first class, therefore, I returned to our room, and flipped through the photocopies I had brought along. I wanted something that was short, easy to read, and addressed some of the basic issues of the course as I had outlined them on Tuesday. At length I settled on the "Introduction" to Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May. Despite being brief—only about five pages—the introduction is not an easy read, in part because the issues (historical fact, subjectivity, and writers' voice) are not easy to think about, even in one's native language. But the introduction also employs many metaphors, complicating its reading for students whose English might not have concentrated upon literature.  I decided, therefore (after crossing out the very end when Hampl and May reference the essays gathered together in this book), to underline words I thought might prove difficult, so that their photocopies would also underline various words; then I would use part of Friday's class to identify and explain them. Again relying upon Powerpoint, I generated a slide show that featured all the underlined terms. Although the task seemed, at some level, something of a betrayal to a course in "history," it surprised me by its utility. I found that discussing these terms not only made the reading a bit easier, but also allowed me to help students think about a subject that cannot easily be reduced to the indicative mood and declarative sentences.
Before I knew it, the two hours had expired, and so had my first week of teaching. I had broken no records (despite Monday's applause), but I felt that I hadn't done too badly and that I had reason to hope that most of the students would read the Hampl and May article, and that they would return to class on Tuesday to continue our conversation about how historians might think about memory and autobiography.

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