Thursday, December 31, 2009

On teaching (part 1)

I’ve been reading, among other things, UMass’s Handbook for New Instructors, in preparation for spring semester. In thinking about teaching, I am reminded of how I survived the Great Purge of Modern Chinese History. Picture it: Social Sciences 108(?), a small room on the first floor of a gothic building on 59th Street, with arched, multi-paned windows overlooking the Midway through wintering ivy. The first day of class, and I suspect there were 25 or 30 of us packed in there. 艾恺 comes striding in, in his customary fashion (I knew him already from his Civ course). I suppose he assessed the room and decided that the class was too large. He then began to lecture, and through his sharp content-driven questioning, he proceeded to frighten 15 students into never again returning to class.

I did not deserve to be spared. Perhaps he remembered me from the previous fall. Of course, even had he humiliated me, I would still have returned to class on Wednesday, and so maybe he thought any effort expended there would be in vain. Or, possibly he liked me. As I said, I didn’t deserve the confidence. He asked me two things (I’m sure I looked like I was in severe pain, since I was waiting for the other shoe to drop through the whole class):
1) “Miriam, you know what feng shui is?" (geomancy) and
2) “You’ve seen The Last Emperor?" (I hadn’t. This requires some explanation. He must have remembered me since a conversation in the previous year had uncovered a mutual love of movies, and had touched upon both The Cardinal and Oliver Reed’s enforced weight loss.)

Tenacity has its rewards, and we remain friends. Often, when I’m teaching a large group, I like to pretend that I am 恺. This includes his way of striding around, his mannerisms in talking, his actorly presence. Of course, I would never do what I’ve described above—I haven’t the nerve, or the heart. In my experience of him as a warm, personable, human individual, this incident has always puzzled me a little. Whatever its meaning, it really brings me back to a moment in which I can really, viscerally, remember what college is like—internally. And what it is like is . . . terrifying.

Social Sciences classroom (mew)

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