Tuesday, April 8, 2008

King PITA Plays Professor

It is true that King PITA’s primary mission here in China is to teach. But, we’ve been having such a grand time questing around different parts of China that I’ve neglected to report a bit on the happenings in the classroom. Mind you, I have not been neglecting the classroom. I’m teaching more sections here in Nanjing than I have anywhere else. It seems that everyone wants a glimpse of PITA, so they have me teaching at least one hour each week in all ten class sections. Then, I have two sections that I teach fully. And, I’ve taken over half of two other sections. So, each week, I’m spending 16 to 20 hours in the classroom alone (some days, I’m lecturing six hours straight). And, this is not counting the hours spent preparing for class, grading papers, leading faculty meetings, talking with students, and leading the English Tornado (also known as English Corner or English Café in which I spend time helping students practice their conversational English). Needless to say, PITA is a busy little professor.

Teaching is indeed a pleasure here, but it is not easy. Obviously, there is a language barrier. We are trying to train these students to be successful students in an American university, so all of the NYIT courses are taught in English. However, the students are not yet fully proficient in English. They read and write moderately well, but their speaking and listening skills still need a lot of work. This experience has actually made me a more self-conscious lecturer. I’m much more aware of the language and phrases I use, as I often must stop to define or explain words and idiomatic expressions I usually take for granted. Also, I’ve become a bit of an actor as well—if you can’t explain something in words, act it out! That seems to work well, and the students get a kick out of seeing their foreign professor use charades to explain an academic topic. I have also prepared many lecture notes and put them online for the students to download. This way, they can read along as I’m speaking.

I was immediately impressed by the way students treat their professors here in China. Teachers and professors are highly respected in this culture, and that is something I could really get used to!! The students are very polite to their teachers and extremely helpful. On the first day of class this semester, I joked with a student about her having tea but not bringing any for me. The next day, she tracked me down and gave me a box of green tea! The students are divided into sections, and they take all of their classes together. Each section has a section leader, and if you ever want to get a message to the students, all you need to do is contact the student leaders and within a few minutes, each student gets the message. Also, each class has a technology assistant who comes to class early, opens up the computer cabinet, turns on the computer, lowers the screen, and erases the board. He basically prepares the classroom for the class period, and he does it without being told each time. Very nice. When you ask a student a question, he/she stands up to answer! I’m still trying to get used to that. And, if a student arrives to class late, he/she will open the door and wait outside until you give permission to enter. Students also show appreciation for your class by clapping. That really surprised me the first time it happened; I ended a lecture and bid them goodbye, and the class erupted into applause. (It could be they were ecstatic that I finally shut up, but I’m choosing to believe they happened to like that lecture…)

For the most part, these are really good students. We have some slackers, as do all colleges, but these students have worked very hard to get into our program, and their parents are paying a lot of money (much more than if they were going to a Chinese university). Basically, these students are getting two full undergraduate degrees in only four years. It is Chinese law that an undergraduate program be only four years long. So, these students are taking courses all day long—their schedules are grueling. When they finish, they will have a degree from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications as well as a degree from NYIT. I really don’t see how they do it. Yet, even with this demanding schedule, students are students. They don’t always finish their work, sometimes they are falling asleep in class, and some of the male students play waaaay too many computer games instead of studying. I caught one student reading a World of Warcraft strategy book in the back of the classroom. I thought maybe he was doing homework for a different class, but when I took the book and saw it was a WoW book, PITA became royally peeved. My classes are on the fifth floor of the main building, and there is a wonderful courtyard in the middle with a garden. So, I took his WoW book, opened the door and tossed it over the banister down into the courtyard. It made a delightful fluttering sound on the way down before smacking onto the ground. That got everyone’s attention. The students were quite attentive for the rest of the period. In another class, a young woman was flipping through a fashion magazine instead of paying attention. That one (the magazine, not the student) sailed out over the balcony and landed on the street below. (One side of the room opens to the courtyard and the other side opens to a balcony).

These instances aside, the students are hard workers, and they are very bright and capable. Of course, they are struggling because of language issues, but they are very smart. It really is a joy teaching them, and I think I am becoming a better teacher for these experiences. So far, the students like my classes, and they enjoy talking to me during lunch and dinner. Some other Chinese students (who are not in our joint program) are sitting in a few of my classes, as they want to learn more about English literature. I guess I’m a bit of a novelty. You don’t see too many foreigners teaching here, so I really stand out. Also, I strike a silly, if not memorable, image riding across campus on my small Chinese bike (that happens to be a girl’s bike) with the seat raised way up, sometimes with a guitar on my back. So, word gets around about the strange American literature professor. And, now that I’m teaching some karate classes for the campus karate club, I look even sillier zipping to the gym in my white gi (karate uniform) on my girlie bike.

Ah, the life of a barbarian professor in China.