Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

More packing
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Well, the packing is 97% complete at this point. Both the big bags are packed and weighed, and in a fit of anxiety, I actually wrote down everything as it went into the bag. In the past I've made lists before I've packed, of course, but this list-while-I'm-packing is very helpful. If I want to switch items out, I know exactly what I have and where it is.

The next step will be to survey the list and make sure I have enough clothes for each season, and enough of the items I know I can't get there. I better take every pair of shoes I want, because I sure won't find any that fit me. Actually, that's not true: If I want athletic shoes or sport sandals, I can just buy mens' shoes and I'll be all set. But there's a trip to DSW in my very near future (read: tomorrow) because I need a pair of dressy shoes to wear with a skirt. I also need something blazer-like to dress up casual outfits but I think I'll get that there - they'll have some cool, drapey knit thing that will be just the ticket, I'm sure.

The office equipment might seem superfluous, but I assure you, it's not. First I should explain that from mid-July until the time I come home at the end of August, I'll be joined by eight other English teachers, and we will teach English at Harbin Institute of Technology in an intensive, three-week program. This will be the 4th year we've come over for that purpose, and on every trip, procuring office equipment to prepare material for class has been a hassle, one way or another. The program has us in class for six hours a day, and often out with students for lunch, dinner and on the weekends; we don't have a lot of time to spend on photocopying.

The first year, it took about a week, but eventually we got a printer in the dorm. We had to print things 2 days in advance - we'd give the printout to one of our students, who would do the copying for us, and bring the copies back the next day. This was hardly ideal.

The second year, we had a "teaching assistant" who came with us and who did the photocopying while we were in class. To do so, he had to go to a small office (by which I mean: large enough to hold one standalone copier and one tabletop copier and a desk with a computer) under the stairs in one of the classroom buildings, and give a flash drive to the woman working there, then show her what he needed to print (because it was in English, and she didn't read or speak English), then wait for her to print and copy the material. To use the copy shop, you need to have a campus account for billing, and only the teaching assistant was authorized to make copies for us (partly by my choice). Its hours were hardly convenient; we start teaching at 8:30 but they don't open until 9:00 and they, like the rest of the offices on campus, close down between 11:30 and 2:00 (which is when we had our break), and they closed at 5, which is when we got out of class.

Last year, we suffered through. We asked for very few copies of anything. If we wanted copies, we sent electronic versions to our student assistants, who took care of making the copies, again with a day or two delay.

The interesting thing to remember is that we're teaching at an institute of higher education - a very prestigious university, actually: it's a member of the newly-formed C9, which is China's answer to the Ivy League (among other honors, but now is not the time to list them). You would think that at a prestigious, well-funded (did I mention well-funded?) university that there would be copiers everywhere, not the old creaking, groaning things I saw in staff offices. In my department office, at a community college in the state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, we have 2 kick-ass copiers and at the beginning of the semester, they're running continually.

Which invites the question: Why don't professors in China make copies?

I don't know the complete answer to that question, but it points up the fact that teaching and learning in the university are very different there than here. You can see that immediately from the classroom furniture, which is large and awkward to move. The seats remind me of church pews. Clearly this is a place where if you're a student, you sit and listen. Maybe profs don't make copies of anything because they expect their students to take notes. Another interesting thing I've noticed - which may or may not be related to the copy situation - is that students are given their textbooks. Yes, that's right; on the first day of class, the prof brings the books and hands them out. The ones I saw were economics textbooks - paperback, about 8" by 5" (or whatever the corresponding width is to an 8-inch height) and about an inch thick, give or take a bit. (Chinese is the most compact written language in the world, I was told. I don't know if that's strictly true, but if you compare books written in Western languages with the same titles in Chinese, the Chinese texts are inevitably smaller and thinner.) When I asked the prof if the students ever bought books for their classes, she said, "No, they can't afford to buy books. Some of them come from very poor families." So maybe the profs figure that the books contain everything their students need.

All in all, it adds up to a completely different ecology of education. I'll have more to say about that, because obviously, the differences go far beyond the office equipment. But the physical environment of education and the attendant (mechanical, physical) processes that occur in that environment are shaped by and also shape what kind of teaching and learning can occur there.

I'm hoping to learn more about the Chinese processes this year, both because the differences are just darned interesting, and because the more I know about what our Chinese students expect in the classroom, the better we can be at fulfilling (and intentionally subverting) those expectations.

Okay. Now I have to go think about which knitting needles I'm going to bring. (Spoiler alert: Circulars in all sizes.)

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