Hunan University of Science and Technology strikes me as the Penn State of Xiangtan, minus the football. The Penn, the higher-ranked and better-funded Xiangtan University (alma mater of Chairman Mao, which may explain a lot), is in another part of the city that I haven’t seen yet. It’s the story of my life: once again I’ve landed on an enormous, sprawling campus some distance from civilization with a big emphasis on technical subjects. In my “Oral English for Postgraduates” class, required for students advanced in their fields but not necessarily in English, the majors are heavy on subjects like physics, electrical engineering and – very popular – geographical information systems. There’s a big stadium on campus, and the equivalent of Rec Hall. Sadly, there is no indoor Natatorium, only an outdoor pool quite near me that I’m told will open in the summer, whenever that begins. (For the last week, temperatures have hovered not far above freezing.) Agricultural fields dot the outskirts of campus. The apartment I’ve been assigned is on the South Campus, which I’m trying not to think of as East Halls, the newer but more remote section of Penn State in my time there. North Campus is the center of activity, and students have asked me, “But why do you live on South Campus?” Luckily, there’s an efficient shuttle bus, about 15 cents a ride, and South Campus is much closer to Restaurant Row.
Except for the postgrads, my students are English majors, and most of them are studying to be teachers of Chinese as a second language. I have four sections of a sophomore class in “Oral English,” which means one lesson taught four times during the week, and two back-to-back sections of “Advanced Audio-Visual and Speaking,” a lab class for juniors that, its textbook indicates, is meant to focus on argument and persuasive speech. It is, by the way, the only course that has a textbook; everything in the other two is up to me. I’ve also been asked to teach “Cultural Backgrounds of English-Speaking Countries,” timetable yet to be determined. Classes run an hour and 40 minutes: two 45-minute chunks with a 10-minute break, all signaled by bells. That makes lesson-planning fairly manageable.
For my opening number, all classes focused on getting acquainted. (At some point, someone will have to explain to me how I can possibly grade 160 students whose names I cannot read on the rosters. Well, most have adopted English names, and that should help.) For the New School ESL crowd: no, we didn’t do the ball toss. In the first 45 minutes, I asked the students to introduce themselves (which takes a fair amount of time when you have as many as 32 in a class), then simulated a press conference so they could ask me questions about myself. In the second half, I broke them into groups to do Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire, which asked introspective questions about themselves, then reconvened the class to report on their answers. (Here I managed to sneak in my first Sondheim of the semester, a snippet from “Into the Woods” that addressed one student’s idea of perfect happiness.) My third section of sophomores was so delightfully vocal that we didn’t even get as far as the Proust Questionnaire, which I promised they could do this week. They were, incidentally, enchanted by Vanity Fair’s March cover photo – a pre-Oscar shoot of nine young actresses, at least two of whom they recognized from “Twilight” – and the advertising. “Emma Watson!” one girl shrieked when she spotted Harry Potter’s Hermione in a Burberry ad.
The students are mostly girls – boys tend to favor technical majors – and, interestingly, many have at least one sibling, which makes me wonder whatever happened to the One-Child Policy. And “girls” they are; they seem so very young that even I have a hard time thinking of them as “women,” as we undergrads insisted on being called back in the days of the 1970s feminist movement. Though I’ve seen only one taking notes, they seem thrilled to be getting an education at this university. Many appear to be middle-class, with parents who are teachers and policemen, but at least one stated flat out that hers are “peasants,” which no doubt makes her education their great hope for the future.
Though they exclaim “It’s so cold!” they accept as normal the fact mind that neither the classrooms, off open courtyards, nor their dorms have heat. (I don’t, and rush to the shuttle as soon as classes are done for the day so I can spend the evening sitting in front of the heater. After six hours in class and a two-and-a-half-hour lunch break last Thursday with no heat, I pray for the 61 degrees forecast for this Thursday. ) Beside the lack of heat, the classrooms are entirely no-frills: they have seats, desks and blackboards, but no Internet connection except in the lab, and no means of projection or sound amplification. I miss the luxuries of Poland.
The students are very sweet, a little intimidated by a new foreign teacher (there are just eight of us on this campus of 35,000), yet expressing eagerness to be my friends. They wonder why I’ve come to Hunan; they want to hear about my past life in journalism and, like everyone else in the world, about New York. One has already asked my thoughts on her possible major if she does graduate work abroad. They insist on trading cellphone numbers, which I politely discourage, given my unrelenting detestation of cellphones and the more practical fact that mine doesn’t work all that well. They offer help with the little problems of life in a place where I don’t speak the language, like getting a money card for the canteen or a delivery of bottled water to my apartment. A boy is working on keeping me up to date on “Desperate Housewives” (one student thinks I sound like Bree) and “Grey’s Anatomy,” which pesky copyright laws prevent from streaming outside the United States.
But that’s for later. Now I have to go fabricate some lesson plans. This week, I’ve announced, we’ll focus on pronunciation. “The rain in Spain . . .”