Philosophy Faculty Publications

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The History Teacher


Recently, I was asked if I was interested in teaching a relatively short course on a topic of my choosing at Nanjing University in Nanjing, People's Republic of China. I agreed, and designed a course called "American Political Theory" to be taught three days a week for five weeks. Each class session would meet for two hours. China has changed a great deal over the last few decades, of course. That change continues, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. While I was in Nanjing, the government announced China's seventh consecutive quarter of double-digit GDP growth; soon after, PetroChina's IPO produced the world's largest company in market value, double that of the next-largest, Exxon-Mobil. Whether such growth can continue remains to be seen. Whether they can avoid, or even mitigate, their loom ing environmental disaster also remains to be seen. Facing a potentially perilous future, history becomes that much more vital, but the questions I addressed in the course raised a number of issues of relevance not just to historians, but also to those who teach humanities, particularly in a context so distinct from a more customary situation in the West.

The course I designed was intended to explore the philosophical background of what drove the North American colonists to declare their independence; what ideas informed the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; and what models competed in determining the state envisaged.

Although my professional training is in philosophy, I was teaching the course under the auspices of the History Department at Nanjing University. Nanjing University (known, almost exclusively in Nanjing, as "Nanda," an abbreviation of its full Chinese name) is generally regarded as one of the best universities in China, ranked just behind Beijing University and Shanghai Normal University by virtually everyone I talked to in both China and the United States. The students, I had been told, would speak English "well," and would be able to follow complex lectures in English. I was told, therefore, that I should not alter the content of the course; I should teach it just as I would in the United States. In fact, one of the reasons for inviting me, I was informed, was to help demonstrate what an "American teaching style" would look like. (I decided not to try to explain that, even more than most, my teaching was unrepresentative of whatever an "American teaching style" would look like, beyond meeting in a classroom and conducting the course in English.) I would be teaching a range of students, consisting of advanced undergraduates as well as some graduate students, all with substantial backgrounds in American history. Talking with others who had taught at Nanjing as well as at other highly regarded universities in the PRC, I learned that students would not talk in class, and that this would be their uniform expectation, as well as the instructor's. I walked into my classroom the first day knowing little more than this; I did not know the size of the class, I had no enrollment list, and I had not been given any expectations about what kind of assignments I should offer, how to grade the students, or even if I should grade the students.

Indeed, I was not entirely sure I would have chalk and a blackboard (I did). I also learned, fairly early, that my access to the Internet would be modest; it would be unlikely that I would be able to gain access to the library, and printing and copying materials would be, well, difficult. Almost as quickly, I learned that when I was told something was going to be "difficult," that was often a euphemism for "not going to happen." I was never quite sure if these details were typical for foreign teachers; perhaps I could have complained more and obtained some more help, but I decided simply to accept what was on hand and go on from there.

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