I've been here over a week and have hardly had time to even think about blogging. It turns out that getting my class, "Confucianism in America," up and running has been a lot more time-consuming than I realized. The central challenge is adapting my methods and expectations to this particular context.
My students, all Chinese, are bright and hard working. Their English is good. But almost all of them are undergraduates; only one graduate student. Indeed, 26 of the 30 students have just finished their first year in college. Some of the readings I had originally selected would be difficult for junior and senior American students operating in their first language. So, I had to scramble to cut back on some readings and find some new ones so as not to overwhelm them.
Another challenge is the time intensity. I teach double sessions, 8:00-9:30, 10:00-11:30 on Monday and Wednesday mornings. I've never done such schedule and I did not really think it through. I've had to rethink readings and topics and class room time in light of this. I think I have it worked out now.
This week we read English translations of The Analects and Mencius. The students are obviously familiar with these thinkers. They have read selections from these texts. But most of them have not read the texts in their entirety, have not worked with the ideas in English, nor thought systematically about how ideas from these texts might relate to other philosophic or political concepts (universality, deontolgy, consequentialism, legitimate authority, etc.). We spent three hours on each text, reading passages, talking about them. I went in with a list of ideas to work on, but on neither day did I get through them all. As is the case with all my teaching I followed along where their questions and comments pointed. We ranged about, hit upon some interesting comparisons, and generally had a good time.
I'm not sure what they think of it yet. Some are very engaged, eyes bright, reacting to my attempts at humor, asking good questions, making apt points. Others seem a bit detached, processing perhaps, and trying to figure out just what I am saying and doing. It could seem a bit strange: a foreigner talking to them about how their ancient culture is understood (they might think misunderstood) by Americans. Is an "American Confucianism" still Confucianism?
I have instituted "question time" at the start of class, when they can ask me any question at all about America. Today a young woman asked: why would Americans ever be interested in Confucianism, since the strong tradition and culture of individualism in the US seems so contrary to the more collectivist ethic of Confucianism? Great question. I responded (and I'm still thinking about this) that even though individualism is deeply rooted in American identity, it is all that there is to that identity. Notions of "public service" and "civic mindedness" (Tocqueville comes to mind...) and a willingness to volunteer to help others with no expectation of personal reward are also important parts of the story.
On Monday, another asked if Americans still held to the "American Dream." I imagine that the question was prompted by the current rhetoric here on the "China Dream." But I told her that, for the most part, we don't talk much or explicitly about the "American Dream" these days. It was more a symbol of the early post-WWII era. The 1960s injected a more critical element into the national discourse. Maybe I'm wrong about that (this piece, which I found after class, suggests otherwise), but I don't really think about it myself. The world seems so differnent now than the 1950s, the possibilities for mobility narrowed and transformed by globalization.
What's starting to happen is that they are making me think about my culture and society as I make them think about an element of their ancient culture in a new context. For them it is a question of whether Confucianism in America is still Confucianism; for me it's a question of whether Confucianim in America can be American. We'll probably meet somewhere in the middle.
It's going to be a great July!
Confucius Statue on Renda campus