The fall 2009 semester at Beida has already come and gone: most of my students are still scrambling, I’m sure, to finish their term papers, which are officially due this Saturday. A handful of students, however, turned theirs in shockingly early, even as much as a month ahead of time. I think that the prolific finals schedule here, which has most students taking at least 7-8 finals, encourages better time budgeting than American university students are known for. For those on a more American schedule, Saturday’s record snowfall and temperatures as cold as Cixi’s black heart are no doubt providing amble incentive to stay inside and work. The freakish cold weather of the last few days seems to have up an unexpectedly large cramp in the city’s usual feverish activity. A trip out to a bar in Wudaokou 五道口 on Sunday night found the streets nearly deserted, with few daring to brave the five inches of dirty slush coating the roads; 博哥 and I were unable to get a cab and had to walk most of the way back. A two-inch hard-packed layer of icy snow on all of the pathways in Beida has made my trusty bike all but useless for the past few days. Rest assured, though, the university has already mobilized a small army of temporary workers to clear the walkways by hand. This afternoon I saw them moving in teams, slowly scraping the hard snow off the pavement with metal shovels and pushing it aside with brooms. The whole campus should be clear in another day.
I have recently started preparing my lectures for next semester’s class: having given weekly lectures for a semester now I am more or less used to it, but I admit that I was really nervous on my maiden voyage. I knew that I would be responsible for all of the history department’s incoming freshmen, but I was still not quite mentally prepared to walk into the classroom and find over fifty pairs of eyes eyeing me expectantly. At most, I knew, these kids were only four years younger than me. I did my best, however, to stifle my nerves and plug through the classroom formalities. An audible gasp swept the room at the mention of my alma mater: Harvard’s star power remains as disproportionately high in China as ever.
While I cannot say for certain how representative my own class is of classroom dynamics in Chinese universities, my own certainly has some interesting particularities. For example, from the first day I noticed that, in a classroom of over 50 and with fairly even division of genders, the first three rows were entirely female. Over the next few weeks it would become clear that all of the most proactive students, those who frequently approached me after class and during breaks and including the few with the nerves to answer questions in class, were girls. As a whole they tended to be more confident with their English-speaking and writing ability, while the majority of the boys in the class have proven to be less comfortable with their language abilities and less willing to seek out help. I have been told by my undergraduate friends that this is typical of all of the humanities/social science classes at Beida. Even in the hard sciences, where more of the more-qualified male students get placed, they still tend to be less aggressive participants in class and to only really make an effort on written work. I think that they used to pay attention to the lectures, but by the end of the semester it was hard not to notice more eyes in the back of the room watching laptops (and, according to a friend who sat in on one of my lectures, playing games) than watching me.