Chinese Word of the Day: 学期
(xue2 qi1) term or semester
We took Pat in to Shanghai on Friday, had another heart warming dinner with Lv Min and Simon, our students from six years ago in Weihai, stayed in our favourite hotel over night, took Pat for a walk through the matchmaker market in People’s Square, then for a tour bus ride around central Shanghai, and finally by subway to the maglev station where we said goodbye and sent her off to Canada. Pat must be home in Saskatoon now, because I’m getting forwarded jokes again.
First Week of Classes
We missed our orientation meeting on Saturday because it’s normally held on Sunday before a term starts, but we picked up our packages of books and course information on Sunday morning. Then we hit the decks a’running for our first classes on Monday.
For the next nine weeks we’ll be teaching a seminar course. We’re still trying to sort out what exactly this course will entail, but I take it the emphasis will be on group discussion and analysis of information. To that end I began the classes with a discussion about what seminars are all about, how they differ from conferences, and the difference between passive acceptance of information and active critical assessment.
I’m gamefying the classes again this term. That works so well for my public speaking course last year that I’m glad to have a chance to do it again. The biggest problem with Chinese students is that they have been trained to be passive learners, to sit politely and absorb whatever wisdom the teacher imparts so that they can regurgitate that wisdom on an exam. This doesn’t work very well for language learning. My classes are inspired by the very popular computer games, which students will play for hours, putting out effort and thinking and solving problems with no awareness that they are actually doing work. Such games have psychological hooks that make participation easy. There’s an overall goal – save the prince/princess, capture the sword of power, defeat all the enemies – and levels of difficulty with rewards all along the way. So i explain to my students that before schools were invented in Europe there were guilds and an apprentice system. A child might start by sweeping the floor and emptying the garbage. After several years they would become an apprentice, and be given selected parts of the work to do. A few years of making parts and they became a journeyman, allowed to make the whole product. After several years as a journeyman, they make their “masterpiece” and become a master of their craft.
My students start as floor sweepers. Their symbol is a broom. When they have twenty points they will become apprentices. Their symbol is a hammer. At forty points they become journeymen, and get a badge. At sixty points they become masters, are appointed to the king, and get to display a crown on their products.
Students get points by participating, by asking or answering questions, by volunteering for activities. Anything that contributes to the class can be worth a point.
When I did this last year, the results were magical. By the end of the term, students were waving their arms and demanding attention. A far cry from the passive students I’d been accustomed to teach here.
Revisiting the Nanjing Professor
I tell my students about Li Yinhe, the Chinese sociologist with an interest in sex education and modernizing China’s attitudes toward sexual activity, LGBT rights and other social issues. Some years ago, she proposed that the law in China against sex parties was archaic and authoritarian and should be abolished. Nobody had been charged for twenty years, and she felt the law made China look bad to the developed world, since none of the developed countries have similar laws on the books.
The reaction in China was harsh. She was roundly criticized in the press, call a slut, vilified as a person bent on the destruction of Chinese culture and society. Very similar to arguments in the West that allowing same sex marriage will destroy the country. Only this is China, and the authorities took the matter seriously. They decided that she was right. Nobody had been charged for 20 years. Obviously they weren’t doing their job. So they found Ma Yaohai, a university professor in Nanjing who had been in a bad marriage, was lonely, started investigating swinger groups on the Internet and eventually began to host and organize sex parties. All for mature, consenting adults in private settings. The professor was charged and sentenced to three and a half years in jail.
“Well-known Chinese sociologist and sex expert Li Yinhe said the crime itself should be abolished because it is outdated and the practice only challenges morality.” -OneIndia News.
I took a poll of my students, asking them whether they felt the professor should be in jail. The results varied, from a majority feeling that he should be a free man to a consensus that he belongs in the slammer.
This is the most liberal class I have experienced in taking this poll. A sign that China is changing?
This class initially voted 10 to 6 in favour of jailing the professor, but after the discussion started one student told me he hadn’t understood the question and changed his vote – in favour of jail.
That was interesting. If anything, I’d been expecting votes to change in favour of freedom, but no… The professor deserved what he got. And below is the vote by my most authoritarian class.
I asked them to justify this opinion and they gave me three reasons: sex parties are harmful to society (but they couldn’t tell me in what way, or what harm was being done), the man was a university professor (but they didn’t agree that sex parties would be okay if the man had been a shop keeper or a street sweeper) and the majority makes the laws and we don’t like sex parties.
So, according to these students, if you don’t share the majority opinion in China you are just out of luck. Don’t expect us to tolerate deviant behaviour.
I explain to my students that I am forbidden by my contract from interfering with Chinese politics. So please don’t misunderstand me. Please don’t run home and tell your parents that your teacher thinks sex parties are okay. This is your country, and the way you run it is up to the Chinese people. But part of my job is to explain how foreigners think and feel about things, and we find a law against sex parties to be totally unjustified. We expect laws to protect the weak from the strong, to prevent us from being victimized and hurt by others. We had a prime minister once, Pierre Trudeau, who famously said that “the government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” and we generally agree with that.
I don’t think my students will change their minds. But we do have interesting discussions. I like these kids. Don’t much like the way they want to run their country though.
Update: When I posted this I still had one more class to teach that would include this discussion. And in that class a student offered the most interesting reason for putting the professor in jail: “He might commit a crime.”
Your comments are always welcome.