Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Class

As some of you saw on Facebook, yesterday I taught my first class here in China. I’m teaching two classes this semester: one for undergraduates (Introduction to U.S. Politics) and one for graduates (U.S. State Politics); last night was the first meeting of my graduate class. Now, when I teach in the U.S., I am pretty much ready to go the first day of class. I have my syllabus ready, my class roster in hand, my semester planned out, and importantly, I know where to go and at what time.

But as of 4:00 pm last night, I had none of these things. Generally speaking, I’m pretty type-A, so normally, this would kill me. However, I had been told at my Fulbright orientations to expect this, so I’ve been trying to go with the flow. This approach has served me pretty well so far, but by last night, I was a bundle of nerves. Despite my almost complete lack of information, the first class meeting seemed to go pretty well, although I don’t feel like I have much more information now than I did at 4:000 p.m. last night. Yes – I did find out when and where my graduate class is meeting, but that’s about it. I don’t know how many students will be in the class, or how they’ll get the readings (I gave my student copy of the text to the chair who said she would have a student take care of it, but I don’t know if they’ll have the readings for next class). And I still don’t know when or where I’m teaching the undergraduates. I was told earlier that I would be teaching them on the new campus on Tuesday mornings. When I mentioned that to the department chair (who was kind enough to meet me and walk me over to class), she said – yes, but perhaps on Wednesday morning. Um – okay. I guess the problem stems from the fact that students here generally don’t have any free electives, as there’s no general education or idea of a liberal education. You take classes that are on the books, and they count for something. Since my classes are not on the books (they don’t offer them regularly), they don’t count. Therefore, the university is offering the classes for no credit, since if they were credit-bearing, students would have to pay – and they don’t want to pay for something that doesn’t count (understandably). Of course, this creates the problem that the class doesn’t count for anything, so no one wants to take it. Sigh.

Despite the fact that my class doesn’t count for anything, I had over 20 students attending last night. Who knows how many of them will end up showing up for the class regularly, but generally speaking, I was pretty impressed. Yes – their English was not perfect, but to me, that doesn’t matter. I mean – they’re taking a class in a language that’s not their native language. In the U.S., we typically reserve those sorts of classes for students who are majoring or minoring in a foreign language, not students who are majoring in something else. And even then, the students and teachers can fall back to their native English if need be. We can’t do that here. Given this constraint (and that I don’t know any important details like whether I’ll be assigning grades, what the semester calendar looks like, etc., etc.), I decided to spend last night’s class breaking the ice, which some funny results. First, I told the students about myself and my life in America. I told them about my academic background and a little about my personal life. There were noticeable gasps from the class when I showed pictures of my son Quinlan (who has long hair) – confirming our suspicion that the Chinese just don’t know what’s up with a boy with long hair – along with my house (even more gasps when I explained it was an average size house in the U.S.). Then, I gave them a chance to ask me questions; each student wrote down a question, put it in a hat, and then they took turns drawing the questions out of a hat. This allowed me to assess their English skills, but also allowed them to ask all sorts of questions they might be too embarrassed to ask. And let me tell you: they asked some doozies. Among the questions were:
  • How much did your house cost?
  • Describe your romantics with your husband.
  • You have two kids and are so beautiful. How do you do it?
  • How old are you? My response of 40 also drew audible gasps; they said it was because they thought I was MUCH younger. Suuure.
  • Who do you think is the most beautiful girl in the class, not including our teacher?
 Luckily, since the questions were anonymous, I couldn’t ask what they meant, so I interpreted them how I wanted. For instance, I described how I met Doug rather than interpreting my “romantics” with my husband to mean something else. I then spent some time getting to know them and in the process, committed my first two faux pas in class here in China. First, I asked them to pair up and interview each other; each student was then to introduce the other student to me, by presenting three facts about their partner. In giving them examples of what they could tell me, I noted they could talk about what kind of food they like, what they liked to do, or whether they had any brothers or sisters. Of course, China has had the one child policy for decades now, so the overwhelming majority of them had no siblings. Whoops. It was also during this process that I made my second mistake, as I asked them to tell me where their partner was from as one of the facts. I included a map of China in my PowerPoint presentation, so they could point out where in China that was. Without thinking, I grabbed what looked to me like a generic map of China off the internet, but while walking home, the department chair (who studies Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) noted that on my map, Taiwan was a different color than China (China sees Taiwan as part of China, while Taiwan sees itself as independent – this is one issue the Fulbright folks told us to avoid talking about in class). Whoops again.

Despite these faux pas and my continuing lack of knowledge about how the class is actually going to work, I’m excited to get to know these students over the course of the semester. They seem like good kids, and I know that I’ll probably learn as much from them as they learn from me. I’m supposed to be meeting with the chair and the dean of the school on Monday for lunch at which point I’m supposed to get more information to work with. I use the word “supposed” liberally here as every time I say to someone that I’ll see them on Monday, I get a kind of evasive – uh, yes – so who knows if that will really happen. Regardless, I’m going to continue trying to go with the flow as I teach these classes and see where this adventure takes me. To quote the movie Cool Runnings (a family favorite): Peace be the journey.


  1. Shannon-Your blogs are so interesting and informative! I can visualize myself sitting there listening to you telling this wonderful story! The best part of it for me is-you seem to always see the good side of the situation-and no matter what is thrown @ you-you are determined to make it work!! You go girl!!

  2. This is a great post, Shannon. I love these kinds of details! You and Doug miss nothing. It would also be interesting to hear more about what the place seems like from a kid perspective. What are they noticing that a taller person might miss? Best from the Windy City, Jay