A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Shanghai, Part Five: Teaching

The Campus

It's about a five minute walk through a street full of rather foul-smelling restaurants to get from the front door of my apartment to Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Main Gate, which some people refer to as "The Slipper" because, well, it looks vaguely like a slipper. Past the main gate there is a small parking lot, on the other side of which there is a small hill on which you can see SJTU's seal--an anvil with some books on top of it. To the left is the campus gift shop, where the shuttle to Xuhui picks up; to the right is a long row of bicycles and a small stand from which you can rent one. I have never seen as many bicycles as I have seen here. The campus is large and sprawling, with roads cutting through it every which way. In front of the seal is also where students and faculty can catch the free campus bus, which comes around about once every ten minutes on weekdays. Nonetheless, most days I walk.

It's a fifteen minute walk from the main gate to my office. Behind the seal is a small grassy field with a large statue of an eagle in the middle. Beyond that is a large pond with a small island that boasts a small pagoda. This is the most characteristically "Chinese" part of campus. Walking to my office in the morning, it is common to see old people doing Tai Chi in the grass by the pond. A tree-lined path takes you around the pond and to a road that passes numerous class buildings and dorms, two large cafeterias, and a pretty nice little cafe. The entire campus is impeccably landscaped; for how dense the city is, Shanghai in general has done a very good job of maintaining green space throughout the city. Every day you will see numerous landscapers, all wearing the familiar conical straw hat to keep the sun off their faces, sweeping up leaves, trimming branches, or cleaning up trash.

In many ways, the buildings are designed in the boxy, industrial aesthetic that characterizes mid-twentieth century architecture on so many campuses in the U.S.; it’s similar to brutalism, only the buildings here are made of red brick rather than concrete. More than anywhere else, the campus reminds me of Michigan State University. One positive difference, however: accommodating the warm weather, most buildings have outdoor hallways and stairways, with classrooms that feature large windows on both sides. It's a bright, sunny aesthetic befitting the climate.

Also, feral cats : SJTU :: squirrels : UM
Everything about the classrooms suggests that they were designed to enforce a top-down approach to teaching. Every classroom I've seen, even the small ones fitting only 30 students, has rows of desks that are bolted in place, forcing students to look forward at the instructor. The front of the classroom is raised on a small platform, on which there is a desk with a full A.V. setup. Each classroom has two CCTV cameras: one behind the instructor, looking out at the students, and one behind the students, facing the instructor. When I had my students read Foucault's "Panopticism" and asked them for examples of modern panopticons, they all laughingly pointed at the cameras without hesitation.

Class sessions run for 45 minutes, with ten minute breaks in between, though most classes run for double sessions--effectively, 100 minutes, though my lessons are budgeted for the UM standard of 80 minutes, and I find students are pretty fatigued after that, so I've had little qualms dismissing early most days. At the start and end of every 45 minute session, a loud bell will ring, a high schoolish condescension interrupting discussion at which students regularly roll their eyes.

The Joint Institute

Arrive at my building and you are greeted by the somewhat uncanny sight of The University of Michigan's familiar maize-and-blue M beside SJTU's seal. This is the Joint Institute. The Institute occupies three floors in what used to be the law school. The second and third floors house the administrative staff, tech support, copy machine, and full time faculty. The first floor boasts offices for graduate students and visiting faculty, including myself. Mine is an extremely large office with high ceilings and a large window with a view of the neighboring graduate school. I share it with Manuel, a Belgian computer scientist who actually teaches full time in Shanghai, but at a different university. Bill and Fred, the other two visiting faculty from UM, share the office next door.

Much like I would at UM, I spend much of the day in my office, writing lesson plans, answering emails, grading papers, feeling disappointed that students don't visit my office hours, checking Facebook, and watching crappy science fiction TV shows on Netflix.

The Joint Institute was established by an Engineering professor with appointments at both universities. Most of its full time faculty are Engineering professors, and its Engineering curriculum is both highly regarded and, I gather, in good sync with UM's. Only in the past couple of years have they begun to branch out and offer courses in Literature, Science, and the Arts. Most of those courses are 300-level electives that may fill a general distribution requirement, but that aren't prerequisite for anything else. Those are all taught by full professors who have taught the same course at UM before, and the grades consist primarily if not entirely of quizzes, a midterm, and a final. Consequently, professors enjoy a great deal of freedom in how they design the course, and the class can accept as many students as want to sign up without sacrificing much of anything. Bill teaches "The Biology of Sex," while Fred teaches a course on the history of Western thought. Both are primarily lecture-based courses, both were capped at 50 students, both filled at 50 students, and both have T.A.s to do the grading. This arrangement works well for the Institute because it requires no accommodations from them other than what they do in their Engineering courses.

Of course, humanities courses need to operate somewhat differently, especially introductory-level humanities courses, and especially writing courses. The Institute hasn't quite figured that out yet. I was hired to teach two courses--Vy125, which was intended to fill the requirement of English 125 at UM for students interested in study abroad, and which at UM would be capped at 18 students; and Vg501, a writing course for Master's students in the Engineering program who would be writing their thesis in the Fall, which I had intended to teach as a workshop similar to Vy125. Like Bill's and Fred's classes, both of my classes were capped at 50 students, and I was told I would receive a T.A. if over 25 students enrolled. On my first day of Vy125, 20 students showed up, but a surprising number of them had thought it was a technical writing course, and several others were intimidated by the reading and writing load, so by the end of the first week that class was down to 7 students. At the end of the second week, an eighth was a late addition. Vg501, meanwhile, had 33 students, which eventually went down to 30. The staff spent the first week of the semester trying to find me a T.A., but only one person applied for the position--a Chinese Engineering student who was enrolled in the course. I turned down the offer.


I would discover that the reason Vg501 was so large was because all second year Master's students were required to take it, and the course also fulfilled a technical writing requirement for Ph.D. students. Now, a total of 38 students across two classes is by no means unmanageable in terms of grading, etc., but 30 in one writing class drastically changes the classroom dynamic. It doesn't help that (a) the class meets on Wednesday and Friday night from 6:00 to 7:30, (b) the class is held in a lecture room with fixed desks, making both full class and group discussion extremely awkward, and (c) neither the students nor the instructor knew what the course was supposed to cover.

Now, another difference between a 300-level elective and an introductory-level required course is, professors will typically write their own course objectives for upper-level electives, while departments typically provide the learning goals for required courses, allowing for some standardization across sections (with a lot of wiggle room). I had not been provided with any course objectives and had never written any myself, but I had been given the impression by the instructor who taught here last year that Vg501 was a rather informal workshop of students' theses-in-progress. With that model in mind, I canceled class the first week in order to schedule individual conferences with all 33 students. At 15 minutes per conference, this took a substantial chunk of two days, and from the conferences I learned that most students had not begun writing, nor would they be prepared to begin writing until the Fall, as many were still running experiments. Their more immediate writing concern was not their theses, but their thesis proposals, which were due in July. When I asked them what was expected of them for their theses or their thesis proposals--how long they were, what sections they included, how they would be evaluated--not a single student could provide me with a straight answer. If the class size weren't enough to make my original, workshop-based approach impossible, this certainly was. Problems with language skills was one thing (and many have those in spades), but an utter inability to explain the genre in which they were writing was a complete surprise to me. And many of these were students who had presented at conferences or coauthored papers with their advisers.

It was only after the first week of the term that I realized these students did not need a class on "Writing a Thesis," the lofty title that this course had been given. What they needed was a general introduction to technical communication, built not on longer writing assignments and workshops but rather on shorter writing assignments, in-class activities, and quizzes. This was information that would have been useful two or three weeks before I arrived, not one week after I started teaching. It doesn't help that I have no experience teaching technical communication and that, even though I've identified their needs, I don't have the resources at my disposal here to meet them. So instead I've settled on a course structure that is built on (a) having them turn in short pieces of writing every week from whatever work they have in progress, be that their thesis, their proposal, or another paper, (b) lecturing on a technical writing concept for about half an hour--almost always a concept that I only just taught myself the day before (if not that same afternoon), and (c) having them workshop each other’s writing in small groups while I look over their shoulders and answer questions. Their final grades will be based on a portfolio of their writing and, as long as they show signs of effort and improvement, they will almost assuredly get an A. I sense the course is of little pedagogical value and that the students do not take it seriously in the least. But that’s okay because, from the way they organize things, neither does the Institute.


As poorly as Vg501 has gone, Vy125 is going superbly. A big part of this is the class size. An eight person writing class affords one the luxury of engaging with each student on a personal level--we workshop every student’s rough draft as a full class, and when their final drafts roll around, I have the time to provide detailed written feedback that feels like a genuine conversation. When I was a lecturer last fall, I felt like a grading machine who could manage little more than the standard three sentence end comment. Students’ learning, and my evals, suffered as a result.

Even more important than the class size, I think, is the students themselves. They are an impeccable bunch. They are all in the sciences, but they show a tremendous faculty for humanistic thinking and a surprising knowledge of the Western canon. One student is obsessed with Jack Keruak and Allen Ginsberg. Another can quote long passages from The Count of Monte Cristo. Several students have admitted to me their wish that they could have majored in literature or another more humanistic field, but test scores and/or pressure from parents pushed them into the sciences.

The gaps in their knowledge are perhaps just as interesting. They all have read The Great Gatsby, for instance, and know it as “the great American novel,” but they hadn't heard of Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, or Edgar Alan Poe. They've all seen a fair number of American blockbusters, but none had seen any of this year’s big releases--not Godzilla, X-Men, or Captain America. They actually have more interest in American dramas. For instance, apparently several had taken a class last year that showed Twelve Years a Slave, and that is now an important touchstone for them in understanding American history.

They are also all men, which is strange, but not entirely unsurprising--while young women seem to have plenty of opportunities for education and advancement in China, it’s hard not to notice that they are underrepresented just about everywhere you look, and it's hard not to speculate how much of this is a result of sex-selected abortions.

The students have some difficulty with the English language, but far less than ESL students I have had in the U.S., and far less than my Vg501 students, who spend all of their time running engineering experiments. These Vy125 students are clearly practiced at spoken and written English. In the first week, they showed a bit more reticence than the average American student when it came to class discussion, but they quickly overcame that. Three have emerged as the real discussion leaders--I would be lucky to find three students who contribute this readily in a class of 18. Four others contribute regularly, and only one seems slightly more shy, I suspect due to confidence in his speaking skills, but even he chimes in at least once per class.

When we get past the nuts and bolts of writing and delve into more analytical concepts, they really start to shine. Last week I was assigning their “definition essay,” and I gave the example that I've given several times of a student who wrote her paper on the word “plastic.” This student only used a handful of examples--the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, the movies The Graduate and Mean Girls, and several personal anecdotes, but she wove them into a paper that traced how the word had shifted from meaning “malleable” (in the sense of “plasticity”) to connoting futurity (as in The Graduate) to signifying artificiality and homogeneity. Her argument tied all of this to capitalist ideology and the shifting values of American consumerism. When I give this paper to American students, they either don’t get it or their minds are blown. But my students here were unimpressed. One said, “Well, the argument that everyday language is tied to ideology--that’s fairly obvious, isn't it?” Marx would be proud.

I teach Vy125 four days a week, and there is at least one moment like that every class. The students hold themselves to a tremendously high standard of insight and analytical rigor, both in writing and in discussion. It’s probably my favorite part of the whole experience.

Sketch from one of my students.

The Walk Home

On Wednesdays and Fridays, I get home after dark from Vg501. At night, the campus is transformed. Mostly it’s quiet, but much like you would at UM, you will occasionally find student groups practicing dance numbers in the alcoves of campus buildings. And students are always playing basketball on the university basketball courts. The most striking sight, however, is all of the public displays of affection. Walking down the street, standing in front of dorm buildings, sitting along the pond where old people do Tai Chi in the mornings--in the evenings, everywhere you look you will find couples holding each other, stroking each other’s hair, kissing affectionately. I get the sense that, for their parents’ generation, this would have been a far less common sight. But it’s cute to see these kids who are clearly so smart and so driven just being hormonal kids.

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