I guess this post should serve as an introduction for what I’m doing and why I want to write this blog. For the past semester I have been teaching an undergraduate history course at Peking University ( Beijing Daxue北京大学, or, affectionately, Beida). I am 22 years old, having just received a bachelors (which, only coincidentally, was in History) last spring—though I have been told that officially this makes me unqualified by the university’s official regulations, which require at least a master’s to teach an undergrad course. I really hope that starting this blog won’t make extra trouble for myself, because I thought it would be of some value to keep record of my experiences, if only because I think that the experience is a rather unique one and should at least provide some interesting anecdotes on life at China’s purported best university—I cannot say whether or not my experiences are representative, but thus far at least they have differed greatly from my understanding of the typical American college experience. Hopefully someone will find that interesting to read about. I’ve been here teaching for a semester so far, though a combination of laziness and inability to think of a catchy domain name (which I finally just gave up on) kept me from starting this sooner. Though the semester is actually ending soon, I will probably write about more of my experiences from the first semester before I start to write about current stuff.
I came about this gig in the first place in a rather roundabout way, which I suppose is the only way that strange occurrences like this take place. For my last two undergrad years I was involved with a student-run organization at Harvard called project IMUSE (Initiating Mutual Understanding through Student Exchange, http://www.projectimuse.org), which with the help of some corporate funding from Air China and the Lenovo corporation has been able to run a number of two-week conferences for Chinese and American students, in both the US and Beijing. In the summer of ’08 we ran a two-week program in Beijing and were looking for guest speakers when one of our Chinese student volunteers, a history major at Beida, put us in contact with a professor of hers, Prof. Wang (names changed to protect the innocent). Wang’s presentation to our small delegation of American students, to our surprise, turned out to focus entirely on what he identified as the glaring inadequacy of the Beida history program’s Western history program. Wang passionately declared that, in failing to adequately educate its undergrads about life and culture in the West, it was failing to prepare them for the realities of a globalized world. Even more to my surprise, after the talk concluded Prof. Wang offered both me and 凯利, the other white American director of Project IMUSE, a job teaching American history the following year. The offer was presented entirely casually, almost offhandedly, but seemed genuine. We exchanged emails, and when I contacted Wang again from the US several weeks later he confirmed the offer’s existence.
Over the following year, harried as I was with work on my senior thesis, I continued with some regularity to contact Wang in hopes of getting more details about the offer. In the spring of ’09, as my looming unemployment became more imminent, Wang’s responses to me remained tantalizing but unsubstantial. Long gaps preceded his responses to me, and my broad open-ended questions about the details of the course elicited only minimalistic responses. Luckily, in April I obtained a travel fellowship through Harvard that would pay for my travel expenses and room and board at Beida regardless, but by graduation I still had only a vague notion of the class’s existence. Most of the summer passed without any more word from Wang, though I continued to send him periodic emails.
Not until I arrived in Beijing in August, once again to help manage another student conference with IMUSE, did I get a response from him again. This time he gave me the name of a textbook (Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization: A Brief History, Third Edition) but no more details about the course itself. A return email which requested a time and a place when I could meet him to discuss the course in person received no answer: only by once again contacting my Chinese friend who had had a course with him was I able to get his cell phone number and, through more aggressive means of communication, arrange a face-to-face meeting.
Even this face-to-face meeting proved less informative than I had hoped. Rather than arranging to meet me individually, he asked me to come join him and another American friend of his for dinner. Wanting to be polite but hungry for more information, I waited through half of the meal before finally giving up and peppering him with questions about the details of the course. Though as usual his answers were minimalistic, what I did learn was quite surprising. The course, it turns out, wasn’t some elective but a required class for incoming freshmen to the history department, intended as both a challenging advanced English class and an introductory survey to Western history. I would be responsible for not just a handful of upper-level students interested in Europe, but the entire crop of incoming freshmen, over 40 students. What’s more, I was expected to teach the entire textbook in one semester: a full survey of Western history, from the Sumerians through the Cold War, in one semester. I don’t think there’s a single American college in the country that doesn’t teach Western Civ as a two-semester cycle and break somewhere around the Middle Ages. And lastly, I was fully on my own to design a course syllabus and determine the pace of the class.
I’ve reflected a lot on the process by which I came to be an official visiting lecture at this university—at the very least the process is puzzling by American standards; coming from an institution which values pedigree in its instructors and ceremony in their appointment as much as Harvard does, the process was nothing short of ludicrous. I recounted the hiring process to an undergrad friend at Columbia who was nothing short of flabbergasted that I could be hired at a major university without some sort of official teaching certification or some recognition from the higher administration. But no more red tape was required. In fact, when I showed up at the history department’s office the next week to confirm the class’s meeting time and place, I discovered that my name was already listed in the course catalog, with no further questions asked. The department secretary seemed unconcerned that someone as young as me should be trusted with this course. I cannot say for certain to what extent my hiring process is representative of the university and to what extent it simply reflects the idiosyncrasies of one influential professor in the department. At the very least though this is hardly a revelation to anyone who has spent time in China, the rules are very different here for foreigners. To the best that I can discern, Wang is the only professor in the department with extensive experience abroad, and the only professor who speaks fluent English. From talking with older students who took this survey course in years past, I have gathered that he has brought a number of other English-speaking academics, though not necessarily historians, to Beida to teach the course in the past. The only qualification seems to be fluency in English, and Wang seems to be given full rein to invite English speakers without any other oversight from the department or from the higher administration. This semester there is one other American here teaching a sophomore-level world history survey, who was offered the job through an equally informal exchange. He met the head of the Beida history department, who speaks, he informed me, decent but timid English, at a conference in the United States. While the American professor (who is actually qualified for this position and, I have been told, is a fantastic lecturer) initially was offered the job by another Chinese professor, most of the logistics of his stay in Beijing have also been managed by Wang. I think this other professor was a little bit miffed, justifiably so, to discover that a young punk with a bachelors had managed to land the same gig that he had.