Friday, October 26, 2007

Week Three Report

Just finished my third week of duties here. I feel pretty confident about how things are going: My students seem to be getting something out of the classses (although it's awfully hard to tell sometimes), and the lectures continue to be well-attended. That confidence serves as a welcome balance to the insecurity that comes from not being to understand what anyone around me is saying most of the time.

My third campuswide lecture was on the environmental movement in the United States. The turnout was down just a bit from my previous two SRO speeches -- the lecture hall wasn't quite filled -- but that was because I was competing with a presentation on the recently completed 17th Communist Party Congress that students were strongly encouraged to attend.

I had hoped the students might be engaged by this topic: I'd seen small signs that there was an inkling of an environmental consciousness here, although, as I've said, this is a hard country in which to practice green principles. However, when it came time for the Q&A, I had even more difficulty encouraging participation than before, especially getting the all-important first question (after the initial student sticks her neck out, subsequent ones are just a bit less reluctant). There are three factors working against me: a general shyness on the part of the students, a lack of confidence in their English-speaking ability, and a the fact that the traditional mode of instruction here doesn't seem to allow for much back-and-forth; the students are pretty much used to just being lectured to without asking questions or making comments in return.

However, I did eventually manage to get enough responses to fill out the half-hour I'd slotted for audience participation, mostly by wheedling and cajoling。I seem to be getting better at thinking on my feet in these situations: I came up with the idea of asking them what they would do to improve the environment if they were premier of China, which prompted some interesting if not-quite-spirited responses. And one girl actually brought up a point I'd meant to mention in my lecture but had forgotten: the disposable chopsticks you get in the dining hall and nearly everyplace else in China -- I could've hugged her!

As in previous weeks, though, after the lecture about a dozen students stuck around to engage me in conversation; they're far more willing to ask questions on a one-on-basis than to stand up in front of a crowd. One boy asked me the pointed question I'd been expecting and halfway hoping for: How can the United States ask China, as a developing country, to take expensive steps to reduce pollution that it hadn't made during its own development. I've already pondered this privately, and my response was heartfelt and genuine: True, it's absolutely unfair to expect China to limit coal-buring power plants and reduce auto emissions when the U.S. itself isn't even willing to take necessary actions in those areas. However, I love China, and I hate to see it making the same mistakes that America would have been far better off avoiding. And besides, I added, the pollution in Beijing is far worse than anything I've experienced in America (as the world is likely to see during the Olympics next year; perhaps I should have mentioned how much face the country is going to lose if the air quality is as bad as seems inevitable).

I don't think I have to worry about the turnout for my next lecture, which will be on American movies. Every time I mentioned the topic to my classes, and when I annouced it at the end of this week's talk, a huge collective "Ah!" went up (which is a delightful sound to hear). Obviously, the topic is close to my heart as well; I just have to remember that the students want to hear about Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, and not Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles.

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