Shanghai Approaches, or I approach Shanghai


It’s getting down to the wire now. I have moved out of my house, in favor of subletters who are hopefully (A) very happy and (B) not breaking anything I like too much. I am down in the city of my birth visiting family, which is nice. My bags are (mostly) packed. It’s interesting to spend 3 weeks living out of the same suitcases I plan to live out of for the next 5 months.

Facing the Wind by Xu Hongfei

Facing the Wind by Xu Hongfei

It’s actually a great dry run. So far I’ve had almost everything I’ve needed, and while I’m still here in the states, I get the opportunity to buy things as needed still. Not that China doesn’t have things, but it is still rather amazing to me how comforting having my familiar lotion or preferred vitamin is. And seeing as how I am 5’9″ and not a small physical presence, I have tried to calculate not needing to buy clothes in China–it is difficult to find things in my size in anything other than shoes. (In spite of maybe my favorite piece of art that I saw in Shanghai, right).

Planning Classes

So that’s started. As I mentioned recently, I’m going to be teaching 3 courses–two sections of “Reading and Writing” for English majors in their third year, and one course of “Race, Class, and Power” to MA students. I’ve been working first on the Reading and Writing course. In spite of the amount of time I’ve spend teaching First-Year Writing, planning this course has been an interesting challenge. I have been trying to imagine the ways that it is and is not like a First-Year class. I’m sure it is similar, in that some topics in writing are perennial. My suspicion is also that, because for the first time in my teaching career, 100% of my students will not be native speakers of English, that this course will not be pitched precisely the way a course for American 3rd year English majors would be. I received a list of topics from the school that is supposed to serve as a guideline:

  • Summary and Synopsis
  • Argumentation
  • Cohesive Devices (Logical and Grammatical Cohesion and Lexical Cohesion)
  • Book Report
  • Formal Letters
  • Intercultural communication: Register Variation and Thought Patterns
  • Term Paper

Note the penultimate: Intercultural communication. It’s not something I’ve ever incorporated consciously into a writing course before, and honestly, now that I’ve seen it put so baldly, I think it’s not something I’ll ever omit again! What a great idea. It also feels to me like a luxury to get to teach this to English majors, so I can unashamedly, unabashedly, and freely use literature as my teaching tools. I am thinking of any one of a number of wonderful immigrant narratives for the Intercultural Communication unit. Mona in the Promised Land comes to mind, or Woman Warrior, or When I was Puerto Rican.

Even though I’m there to teach American literature, I can’t help but lean towards Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when thinking about letters. This course is shaping up, and while I was initially a bit disappointed to be teaching more writing (after all, most of us who get into the English PhD gig get into it to teach literature!), I have realized that doing it within the context of English majors puts a whole new spin on it. I am planning very much the course I wish had existed when I was an undergrad. Certainly, if a course such as this did exist, I never knew about it, and so I’ll be teaching to past-me in a way.

Race, Class, and Power

This course is exciting, not only because I’ll be teaching MA students, which has its own excitements, but because I’ll be teaching in a context where I absolutely cannot rely on understanding my students experiences of race, class, or power. I can expect that 100% of my students will be Chinese, that for them I will be a racial other, but, I imagine, in a very different way than it is true in the United States. For example, I can expect that few if any of them will ever have met a Puerto Rican, and that any associations they might have (and honestly I don’t expect they will have many!) with the idea of Puertorriqueñidad will be very different from ones I’m familiar with.

"China Girl"

Of course, talking about American perceptions of race in reference to the Chinese will be interesting… I took this picture in a restaurant in Shaoxing.

I’ll be teaching in a country where the majority race is not white, for the first time. There are many things about racial understanding in China I do not yet know. I recognize also that it is not my job to know them, only to teach about what I do know, America. Yet, I will not have, or at least I cannot count on having, common experience to draw on. Planning this is fascinating.

Talking about class will also be interesting. In the U.S., I have noticed that the two names that make college students roll their eyes fastest are Freud and Marx, both of whom dominant student wisdom seems to indicate are completely debunked. I’ve spent a fair amount of time working to de-debunk Freud. But Marx! Teaching Marxism in China! I’ll have more to say about this (no doubt), but for the time being my mind is still in the “boggle first” stage. Not that Marx is the only word on class, of course; it’s just that that’s the one word that is causing the most boggling. I am also thinking of Fanon, Moraga, Lorde…