A few years ago, I had a weekly column in China Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s English Language newspaper, in which I gently poked fun at a number of things that I saw in everyday life here in Tianjin. At the time I was lecturing in English at Tianjin Medical University, a tier two university which paid badly, and treated its foreign staff like a case of plague. Fortunately, on the strength of these columns, I was head hunted by Tianjin University, a tier one university less than a hundred metres away, had my salary increased by fifty percent on the spot, and my teaching hours cut.
My first semester was spent teaching nothing terribly difficult – just some speaking and listening classes – and I thought that all my boats had come in.
When the Deputy Head of the English Department sidled up to me at an event I was hosting for visiting authors, I knew something terrible might happen. Not being known for her subtlety or people skills, her opening remark, “You’re a bit of a writer” was rather tame.
“No”, I replied, “I’m not a bit of a writer. That’s like saying someone’s a bit pregnant.”
With that, I was rescued from any further interrogation by Eshkol Nevo, who dragged me away to try and sort out a student’s question. I didn’t think any more about the exchange until a couple of months later, when my timetable turned up for the next semester. I’d been slotted in for two writing lessons a week – one for the English Majors, the other for the so called “Dual Majors”, a motley group of Engineering, Law and Liberal Arts students who wanted to gain a diploma in English to go with their main degrees.
Each week I was expecting nearly sixty students to come, but I was lucky if I ever saw half that number. The main obstacle to attendance was having classes at 18:30 on a Wednesday night, when most students had a lecture in their major to attend.
Of course, even when teaching English Majors, nothing is simple. I was to have half the class on alternate weeks, for a grand total of “maybe seven” classes each over the course of the semester. I don’t know how much writing anyone can expect to get done in ten and a half hours, but it was never going to be a lot. Writing in China is very goal focused, and is usually targeted directly at knowing exactly what will be required to pass an exam. Unfortunately, I’m neither Chinese, nor terribly focused. I hate being trapped in dreary lecture halls, watching students pretend to work on the task I’ve given them, whilst they try to do their homework for another subject.
So I got around the problem of confinement by getting my students to turn up at different locations on campus each week, and getting them to write about the things they saw or heard around them. Tianjin University’s campus is unusual in that it is built around several large “lakes” (imagine a medium sized farm dam with a wall around it), and a generous helping of grassed areas, which provided ample space for students to find a spot and work alone. I’d set a cut off time for them to come and find me at a spot nearby, where I’d read until the first works got turned in, then start marking them.
This unusual tactic led to an increase in the quality of the students’ work. At first I thought it might have been because they were using their phones to plagiarise things, but that turned out not to be the case. They simply wrote better because they felt less restricted.
I’ve often heard Chinese students being described as “lacking in imagination”, but that just might not really be the case. I think it’s more that they’re given such a narrow field to work in – almost told exactly what to write – rather than an absence of creativity. Telling them to “Go off and write about something that interests you” isn’t something that will ever turn up on an exam paper, but it does give them a chance to flex their mental muscles.
Writing in English is a huge challenge for my students, because they’ve come to it so late in life. When someone’s over twenty, and has the writing skill set of a mid-primary student, you begin to wonder what the education system’s been doing all those years. I try to fix the errors that are most common, but the work is quite often undone by the next lesson, as textbook-based Chinese teacher of English will simply drag them back to making the mistake because “that’s the way it is in the book”. Couple that with “the way it is in the book” being “the way it is in the exam”… Well, it’s beginning to make me wonder if I even know how English works at all!
The biggest downside to teaching writing is marking the work. In any given week I may have up to seventy pieces of composition to work through, hit with the red pen, rewrite slabs of, and generally want to put to the torch. Yet I get to see students improve over the semester and grow more confident – and that balances it all out.
Teaching anything is never going to be easy, and teaching in a non-native language doubly so, but sometimes you can spark a passion in a student that even the most oppressive educational system can’t grind out of them.
Stuart Beaton lives and works at Tianjin University in Northern China. Originally from Adelaide, he’s married to Ellen Chen Xin, and is slowly accumulating the fixtures and fittings for a large kitchen – only it’s all stuck in a small one. Stuart has written for publications both in Australia and overseas, “mucked about” on radio, and runs “The Small Picture Podcasts” at http://rastous.podomatic.com, mostly so he can talk to people in English from time to time. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org