Feeling at Home in the Classroom

First-year English majors at Dalian Nationalities University (DNU)

First-year English majors at Dalian Nationalities University (DNU)

I’ve found that when traveling in the U.S., I tend to feel right “at home” when visiting a university campus. I can always quickly find the cheap eats, the good bookstores, the coffee houses, the best places to print/copy… and I guess it’s fair to say that my general interests and priorities seem not to have changed all that much over the years.

Well, my experience in China offered a similar lesson about my comfort in university culture. While touring Beijing was certainly fun, I don’t think I really felt at ease until we arrived at Dalian Nationalities University. Of course our hosts there were extremely generous and kind and welcomed our large delegation of 13 faculty (many, many thanks to Prof. Mark Zhang and all of our faculty contacts at DNU for their incredible hospitality). And I immediately found comfort in the familiar university atmosphere even though we were in northeast China, in a city and region I had never visited before. There were the departmental offices (e.g., English language and literature), the library, the cheap eats, the campus dining halls, the small market on campus, the inexpensive printing/photocopying places (which I used about once a day). . .  And perhaps most familiar of all, there were the classrooms–with anxious, hardworking, talented, friendly, and sometimes distracted students (sound familiar?), lecture-style seating (not my favorite but very familiar), and standard classroom computer technology using outdated software. Yup, I felt right at home!

Many of us were invited to give presentations or teach a class, and once I stepped into the classroom and greeted the students and struggled with the computer technology (in this case also trying to navigate MS Windows in Chinese!), I really felt right at home! I gave a formal presentation to about 100 first-year English majors on “Cultural Pluralism on U.S. College Campuses,” and a more literary presentation to about 25 advanced English majors on “Late Twentieth-Century U.S. Multicultural Literature.” While it was a considerable amount of work to prepare and give these presentations, this was probably the most enjoyable, inspirational part of my trip. I guess I really do love to teach! The second presentation was particularly enjoyable because I was able to assign a short reading prior to the class as an example of a certain development in multicultural literature.  I selected Helena Viramontes’ short story, “The Cariboo Cafe.”

Prof. Lina Fan introducing me to her students

Prof. Lina Fan introducing me to her students

So I delivered the first lecture at my usual pace (i.e., close to how I speak to U.S. first-year students, and I think I typically speak at about a medium speed–not especially fast or slow), but I learned afterward that it was quite challenging for my audience members to keep up and that they perceived the lecture as being extremely fast-paced. So for the second presentation I really slowed things down and saw the improved results right away. The classroom body language of Chinese students is quite different from American students, however, and it was not easy for me to interpret their responses to particular moments in my presentations–e.g., whether certain points were entirely clear to them, whether the literary passages were provocative, whether key ideas resonated with their bodies of knowledge, experiences, etc. I’m sure this would all become easier for me to read with more experience teaching in the Chinese classroom.

Here are some pics of me and Zubair at Dalian Nationalities University (DNU), and also some pics of Olga and Steven at Dalian University of Technology (DUT). Olga and Sandra gave a series of presentations and workshops at DUT.

Zubair and Prof. Tracy Wu discussing curriculum, life, and our plans for the week at DNU

Zubair and Prof. Tracy Wu discussing curriculum, life, and our plans for the week at DNU

Wilson speaking to first-year English majors at DNU

Wilson speaking to first-year English majors at DNU

Wilson speaking to first-year English majors at DNU

Wilson speaking to first-year English majors at DNU

Olga being introduced at Dalian University of Technology (DUT)

Olga being introduced at Dalian University of Technology (DUT)

Olga, Steven, and I pose for a picture with DUT faculty after Olga's presentation

Olga, Steven, and I with DUT English language faculty after Olga’s presentation


3 Responses to “Feeling at Home in the Classroom”

  1. 1 butterflydoc
    May 30, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    In a way, I feel jealous of those of you who were communicating with English learners. I had a very different experience going in front of science classrooms… these were students who were learning the language of science, but were learning it primarily in their native tongue, while it seems that much of the rest of the world learns to communicate science in English (this comes from having visited several countries in Europe and interacting with those from countries to our south). Most of them were taking English, yes (but not all of them), but their English and science classes were independent — they would learn everyday English, but not the English of the science lab. I even struggled in communicating with my contact — he was far more comfortable in Mandarin, to the extent that I was being talked around far more than I was comfortable with in my dealings. And to give a concrete example, there is a chance of research collaboration, but I cannot even begin to judge whether I would be able to be of assistance, as he needs someone who can work with an “insect” — of which the world has millions of kinds, separated into 26-30 orders, about which I am aware, but I am better equipped to assist with some groups than others. But his English vocabulary only gave him that one word, “insect”, and no other useful information.

    It was actually quite frustrating… I actually felt that it would have been very useful to have had a translator, but none was offered.

  2. May 30, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks for the informative comments, Cheryl. This does sound like a pretty huge barrier in the sciences. I wonder if courses like “English for Scientific Purposes” would be a solution to the problem you describe, and if they could be offered at the undergrad level even. Re your contact, I wish you had an interpreter! But of course it would probably require a very specific kind of interpreter, one well-versed in scientific discourse.

  3. May 31, 2013 at 4:11 am

    Olga and I had a very different experience with students at DUT and DNU. Many of the English majors had taken a semester of linguistics. I had a great chat with one young man who could even pick up that my accent was not American! He plans on doing an MA in linguistics and wants to teach English. Another plans to study pragmatics at grad.school. They were both impressive. In another class where I gave a presentation, they were very interested in my talk on differences between American and British/Australian English, and asked good questions. I wished that someone had briefed me on the fact that they knew some linguistics – i could have given them a more in-depth lecture!

    I also observed two classes of English for International Business, which was an elective taken by third year students from various disciplines including Math and science. I thought the teachers were very competent, and the students seemed fluent speaking English, and for the most part, well-engaged with the lessons. I did not get a chance to see their writing, which might have told a different story.

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