If “chief invigilator” sounds like Lord High Executioner to you, the sophomores would probably agree.

I added that title (which I’d never heard of before) to my resume on Tuesday during the final exam for “Survey of English-Speaking Countries.” It translates as proctor, and according to the official Jinan University paperwork for my sole closed-book exam this semester, I was the one to certify that there was no irregularity, no cheating. And there wasn’t. Even if I hadn’t meticulously watched over the room during the exam, I would have known from the test scores — at least 10 points below normal for this group, with only one student breaking 90.

“If one-third of the class flunked the final exam, does that mean I’m a lousy teacher?” I e-mailed my friend Janice, who has a doctorate in education and decades more classroom experience. “A lousy exam writer? Or just that they didn’t pay attention?” She assured me I was neither and they probably didn’t.

This semester, instead of teaching English as a second language (i.e., in an English-language environment), or even English as a foreign language (in a place like, say, China or Poland), my writ was to teach journalism. I had to focus on that, not correcting grammar or pronunciation. Critical thinking and storytelling were the focus, and often I had to let the English slide.

The sophomores on the last  day of class, in the de rigueur group selfie.
The sophomores on the last day of class, in the obligatory group selfie.

When I taught oral English in Hunan five years ago, finals were in-class presentations or, for one class, a five-minute one-on-one conversation with me. Here I could do that only with my freshmen “Oral English” class, and their final presentations were my first measure of teaching effectiveness. I saw major improvements since September. One of the better students, whose rapid-fire, exhortatory style made her sound like a Party stalwart with a megaphone at the height of the Cultural Revolution, had toned it down considerably and was now communicating with her audience instead of shouting at it. (“When you make a speech,” I had advised her after a speaking competition a few weeks before, “don’t make a speech.”) Even the boys, usually too shy to speak in front of the class, showed increased confidence and fluency. Everyone passed. At the end, the questions from the future journalism majors showed they already have principles.

The sophomores’ papers for two courses were due the next day. I opted to grade “International News Comparison and Analysis” first because I thought it would go faster: the class had only 18 students instead of 24, and I would be simply reading their papers, not editing. In many ways this had been the toughest course for me to teach; I couldn’t always tell if the students were getting anything out of it. Since a number of them said, “I’ve never done a paper like this before” — comparing coverage of a current issue in English-language media from various countries — I had no idea how they would perform.

I was pleasantly surprised. Topics ranged from the new two-child policy to corruption to President Xi’s recent visit to Britain, and the students demonstrated they had learned how to think about what they see and read in the media. Even some who seemed to have ignored assignments to read two New Yorker articles and analyze their structure applied just that type of analysis in their papers. They got the message.

“English News Writing and Gathering” seemed to be a different story. I had promised a full New York Times edit on these stories, which took 60 to 90 minutes each, and found I could get through no more than six a day. The first day was very disappointing; despite decent grades in classroom exercises, four students received failing grades, apparently having no clue what makes a story or how to tell it.

And yet. One magazine-length story that first day was near-publishable (as I might have predicted, knowing who wrote it). The next day, more failed, but more could have been published with additional reporting and professional editing. There were stories on homelessness in Guangzhou and primary-school care services and Chinese students’ experiences abroad. There were far too many on Singles’ Day, China’s Black Friday on Nov. 11, and all with the same fundamental flaw: the moment had passed. Students who had not necessarily distinguished themselves in class turned in good, solid work by, essentially, not biting off more than they could chew. That is, they chose to report on campus issues – a ban on takeout food, problems at the package delivery center, noise from a busy square that disturbs dorm residents upstairs – rather than big national stories like the two-child policy or the aftermath of the Tianjin explosions. “What are the stories we can do well?” I had been asking all semester in our weekly news meeting exercise. Some got that message, too.

And the ones who failed? I did what any decent editor would do: sent their stories back for rewrites, due Sunday.

I would love to have one last follow-up class to explain my grading, my editing, the lessons I had hoped they would learn. The best I can do is to use my comments on their papers as one last teaching opportunity. I haven’t stopped forwarding news stories related to their projects – on Uber’s pulling out of Germany, reports that Zhou Enlai might have been gay, a campus newspaper in West Virginia that’s being censored.

Though only one project concerned censorship, the topic is very much on the sophomores’ minds as they contemplate their future as Chinese journalists. These digital natives are aware of propaganda and restrictions on information flow in ways they say their parents aren’t and my Hunan students just five years ago didn’t seem to be. Some still can’t quite believe the freedom of expression Americans enjoy. On the closed-book final, I repeated a true/false question from the first exam: “Americans are free to say or publish anything they want, even if it isn’t true, and no one can prevent them.” (True, under the First Amendment.) After four months of my hammering the point at every opportunity, half the class still said false.

But on an essay question asking which of the countries we had studied — the United States, the U.K., Canada and Australia – they would prefer if offered their choice of postings, nearly all chose the U.S., and of those every single one named freedom of expression as a reason:

“I would like to work in a freer environment, meanwhile learning from Americans how they exercise their freedom of speech.”

“I will have more opportunities to express what I really think.”

“As a qualified journalist, my first loyalty is to the truth. We should always insist on truth, accuracy and fairness no matter under what circumstances. We need a free space where we can express ourselves and dig out the truth to the public freely.”

As I graded the exams, on my laptop Betty Buckley was singing “Only One,” the dying teacher’s song from William Finn’s Elegies. If she had only one student worth teaching, she sings, then her life’s work was worthwhile. Here at Jinan alone, I’ve found far more than one.

And for my next number? A year or two from now, when the sophomores are upperclassmen looking toward jobs and grad school, I see a course in our future: “English for the Media.”

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