Each year, Shanghai University run an ‘International Semester’ in June, when students completing their first year of study have the chance to pick short courses across a range of disciplines that are designed and taught by academics from outside China. In June this year, I was lucky enough to be one of those 60 or so teachers myself, and offered a course based upon material both from my last book, Good, Brave Causes: Literature of the 1950s, and my experience on teaching one of LJMU English’s first year modules, Literature in Context. I stayed on campus – which, as SU has just under 40,000 students, is like a town within the city, with canteens, sports facilities, and supermarkets, and dormitories sleeping four undergraduates to a room.
My class consisted of 32 students studying a wide variety of subjects, from engineering to… well, English. Though all of the students had studied the English language since primary school, not all of them had practice in literary criticism, so in the work we did I tried to balance our analysis of prose, poetry and a few lyrics with a wider attention to the history and culture of Britain during the period. In the plane on the way out I’d had a wobble (it’s a LONG flight) – why should Chinese students, with their own wealth of national history, be interested in one past decade in the life of a small island thousands of miles away? It turned out, though, that the topics I’d picked – in particular, consumerism and teenage culture – found real resonance with members of the class.
Perhaps our best session began with the ‘Teen-age Bill of Rights’, published in the New York Times in 1945, and one of the first recorded usages of the word ‘teenager’. After discussing the 10 rights chosen by young people in postwar USA, I asked the class to nominate the freedoms they considered to be most
valuable in their own experience of life in contemporary China: these could be rights that they already held, or wished to hold in the future. ‘The right to Google’ was a (brave!) one-off, but the students’ answers frequently focused upon their right to make their own choices – over courses to study, future careers, and friends and partners – as well as the right to make mistakes in those choices, and learn from them.
Teaching abroad is a challenging and exhilarating experience, as it makes you reconsider all the assumptions you take for granted back home. My SU class taught me a great deal about how similar our nations and aspirations are, and they also made me understand the difference it makes as a visitor to be welcomed and valued for your differences.