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.
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.