American Literature & Creative Writing in Taiwan

Written by  Wednesday, 19 April 2017 16:33
 
Introduction
I had the pleasure to serve as a Visiting Professor in the Foreign Languages and Literature Department at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan, 2015-2016. I taught undergraduate and graduate classes in creative writing and American literature, with a special focus on Asian American literature. 
My teaching in fall 2015 was rewarding, but also challenging. I did not keep a formal teaching log that term. In the hopes of becoming an increasingly effective classroom teacher, I committed to keeping a teaching log in spring 2016. After every class session, I typed up a short entry on what happened in the class that day—the texts we discussed, the strong points in discussion, what worked or didn’t work, areas for improvement, and so on. My primary aim was to reflect on how to work most effectively with East Asian students who are second language learners and, in many cases, largely unfamiliar with more nuanced aspects of U.S. history, culture, and society.
While edited for length and clarity, I tried to keep these reflections as unvarnished and “fresh” as possible, hopefully conveying a sense of my experience. Please note that this essay was submitted before the end of the semester, so this covers only a portion of spring 2016. Thank you for reading.
 
Teaching Log 
 
25 February 2016
 
Today was our second session in the Twentieth Century American Short Story grad class. I now have 7 students: 4 graduate students (one is an exchange student from mainland China) and 2 undergrads. Another undergrad is auditing. Because of an issue with the book order, we couldn’t start with Sherwood Anderson and had to start with Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green. This proved difficult as Welty is challenging even for native speakers. In the opening minutes of class, I was getting zero input, no responses to my questions. I asked what was up, and one student told me that the language was difficult. Fair enough. Much of Welty’s dialogue is written in the vernacular, with different spellings and idioms. And then there is the strangeness of the stories, the Southern Gothic and all the rest. Not the best starting point, but it is where we are. I lectured a bit on the Southern Gothic and modernism, and then essentially walked them through “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden” and “Why I Live at the P.O.” as representative examples of the Southern Gothic from the first half of the book. Then, we looked at “Lily Daw,” “The Whistle,” and part of “Petrified Man.” It was slow going, and I did most of the talking. The students did chime in and try, but it was clear that they were struggling.
At the end of the hour, Y., one of the brightest undergrads in the Foreign Languages and Literature Department(FLLD), asked why Welty was so deliberately difficult. Why didn’t she write in a simpler, more accessible style? It is a good question. I replied by framing Welty in the modernist tradition, much of which is deliberately challenging and also Welty’s regionalist emphasis on language & culture, much of which will seem foreign to these students. But I also emphasized that she is a tremendously rewarding writer to study, and of course has proven quite influential, especially in the short story format. We’ll see how it goes next week; hopefully, some of what they picked up today will make the second half of the book easier.
My Later American survey course is off to a challenging start if only because I am facing so many calendar troubles. The class is just twelve weeks to begin with, a shortened final semester for seniors. I will miss an entire week due to the Fulbright research conference in March. Last Tuesday, I gave up a two-hour session so students could discuss internships & scholarships with a sponsor of FLLD. And now I’ve just learned that additional classes will be cut due to a rescheduling of the Tomb-Sweeping festival! So now, we’re down to ten weeks, an academic quarter. Of course, each change means a delicate rewiring of the schedule.
Today, we discussed the first half of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I prepped the entire poem out yesterday: several hours of work, and even then, I felt like I was rushing it. There is just so much in this poem. I could spend two weeks on it, easily. But I am spending just two class hours. And so, I raced them through the first half, hitting some highlights. In this class, I have accepted that I am going to be doing a lot of lecturing. I have never been a big fan of small group work in a class this size though I know it has its positive features. I am simply going old school and lecturing a lot, asking a few questions here and there to keep things interesting, but mostly just lecturing. And I have to confess right here: I like it! After some thirteen years at Chico State, now in my fourteenth year of teaching at the college level full-time, I am a pretty seasoned teacher. I certainly know more now than I have ever known about American literature, and in this regard, teaching the early and later surveys has been a boon. Though I am no expert in the early lit, I can certainly do an ace job at the survey level. Moving into the later lit, where I am expert, there is lots to say and I can pick and choose what I need to convey, and there you have it. 
Whitman is so rich, it’s almost ridiculous. And so, on the one hand, it is a crying shame to race through “Song of Myself,” just cherry picking various threads and ideas, hitting a few lines here and there. It is all right because in my lecture, I can present an overview of the whole, the project Whitman is undertaking. There isn’t really another option given our time frame. And the students in that class are attentive. They are reading along, taking notes, on task. There is a good, if very quiet, atmosphere in that class.
 
 
3 March 2016
 
In Later American Lit, we discussed Henry James’s “The Real Thing,” which I substituted for “Daisy Miller” since there have been a few class hours cut for one reason or another, and I can only devote one hour to James. But I am not going to cut James from the class! Teaching & prepping “The Real Thing” for the first time was rough. James is hard to read—dense & slow, and the students, of course, needed a bit of background on the British class system, biases, etc. I think I did a serviceable job, but it was hard to read the class (as always) and as usual, I did a lot of lecturing and only got a few kids talking. 
In the grad class, we covered the second half of Welty’s Curtain of Green and discussed a very useful critical article on her story “Clytie.” Last week was rough; the students struggled with Welty and found her language difficult. Today was better. They were a bit quicker to pick up on what the stories were doing, but of course, the stories—especially the more challenging ones, like “Powerhouse”—were tough. Y. (who is only auditing) did a fine job presenting a summary of the critical article and gave us a useful discussion question. The discussion of “Clytie” that followed was one of our better discussions so far. Starting the term with Welty is difficult, but we made it through, and when we get to Ernest Hemingway, I expect smoother sailing.
 
 
15 March 2016
 
Today, I saw my senior lit class for the first time in two weeks. We covered Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wall-Paper” and Sui Sun Far’s “Mrs. Spring Fragrance.” Both went relatively well. I had my posse of half-dozen students answering questions, and everyone seemed dialed in. At the end of the hour, E. thanked me for “a good lesson.”
Of course, teaching Far’s “Spring Fragrance” was a special joy. As one of the earliest pieces of Asian American literature, it is nice to mark the beginnings of that tradition while teaching here. I didn’t expect the students to know much, if anything, about the Chinese Exclusion Act or Angel Island, so I happily lectured on that. I was surprised, however, that the students did not appear to know about the Boxer Rebellion! The irony of me lecturing Taiwanese students on this event was not lost on me. Again, I don’t exactly know if they are just being tight-lipped or genuinely don’t know the history. A colleague (a white male from the U.S. who has been teaching at Tunghai for many years) later assured me that it was the latter—what he called a kind of “cultural amnesia” that is pervasive among this generation. I don’t know if I agree with that; it is something I wish I had another year to contemplate. In some ways, you need at least two years on this kind of grant to really get to know a place!
 
 
17 March 2016
 
I am glad to report that the grad students were much more engaged with the first half of Hemingway’s In Our Time than they had been with Welty. I expected as much. Hemingway is much more readable. And I. brought in some strong discussion questions, so that helped guide things from a student angle. There are few texts I know better than Hemingway’s first book, and moving across the stories at this point is as close to “effortless” as it gets. When students are engaged, responding thoughtfully, there is good and sometimes great energy. 
The afternoon Later Lit class tackled Stephen Crane’s “Blue Hotel” and naturalism. Though I asked a lot of questions, today, I got few responses. Fell into default lecture mode, working efficiently through the story. The quietness of East Asian students in a big class like this, their unwillingness to speak up (though I know they have ideas, which they share with me in private discussion after class or in their papers) has remained one of the most challenging aspects for me, a teacher used to a much more dynamic give-and-take approach in the classroom.
 
 
31 March 2016
 
Today, my graduate class had a very strong discussion of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Things got off to a good start when P. brought in three strong discussions questions. The questions have, so far, been stronger this semester. I think the students have picked up on my feedback, and I was more clear and explicit about my expectations when I began the term. We had a great discussion of the “Godliness” stories, which are fascinating and an important sequence to discuss in terms of the Puritan-Yankee-pioneer ethos being transformed by modernization and modernity. We also spent a fair amount of time on the preface and then read the stories in light of Anderson’s theory of the grotesque.
Teaching a grad class at this pace (two weeks per book, in contrast to one book per week in the U.S.) has its distinct advantages. We can spend more time on individual stories, digging deeper and not rushing through things like I sometimes do in the States, assuming (often wrongly) that advanced students will “fill in the blanks.” This approach is partly because of the way I experienced grad classes; too often professors in the States consider cramming a class with readings as immersion in the field. There is an argument there, but I must say that teaching grad classes at this pace in Taiwan has made me rethink things. Originally, I slowed the pace down out of ESL concerns—totally relevant. But now, I am thinking it might work in the States for other reasons, too.
In my Later American class, we ended up spending two hours on Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I had originally budgeted an hour for this story and an hour for William Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily,” but I had also introduced handouts on both the Southern Gothic & Modernism, which I went over in detail. Consequently, the pace was off. This is the first time I am teaching this particular class, and so the common struggle of figuring out just how much time one needs to discuss X or Y is happening. 
With Faulkner, I found myself needing to contextualize the story and the culture of the South after the Civil War and Reconstruction in more detail than I anticipated. But, of course, the students’ appreciation of the story increased as a result.
With Hemingway, I confess to a lingering disregard for his later short fiction. As a twenty-something, I wrote this piece off for whatever reason. Every time I saw it in the Norton anthology I faulted the editors for choosing a second-rate story. Holy reassessment. It was a joy to re-read that story for the first time in over twenty years and discover that I was dead wrong. Even then, once I started teaching it, new insights and ideas kept popping into my head—e.g., it is a quintessential example of a certain version of modernism. We spent nearly two class hours on it—and even then, I felt I was skipping a lot. 
 
 
7 April 2016
 
In the grad class, we finished Winesburg, Ohio. E. gave another top-notch PowerPoint presentation on a critical article and brought in some good discussion questions. Of the seven students, five regularly participate. The conversations have been pretty good this semester, and the students certainly seem to understand Anderson. 
In Later American Lit, I managed to condense my planned one-hour discussion of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” to a brisk thirty minutes. Surprisingly, I think it worked fairly well. It’s not a terribly difficult poem though there is plenty to discuss. And I also covered two poems by Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” and “The Weary Blues.” Again, the pacing was brisk, but fairly thorough. We didn’t have time for the third poem of his I’d assigned, “Mulatto,” which is a little more complex and couldn’t be rushed. 
Next week is midterms already, so I’ll be giving them an exam. I am correcting their first papers, and already, I have found two cases of plagiarism. One is small, just one lifted sentence from a website. The other is more egregious, a full page—and probably the entire paper—from an online paper warehouse. The latter student will get a zero and likely fail the entire semester unless she does outstanding work (not likely). She also failed last fall due to attendance issues, so it looks like she’ll be repeating the entire year. What a waste.
The other student will, if she admits to what she’s done, get a failing grade on her paper, but it will be a “high fail” and she can otherwise continue and likely pass the class. 
In the States, I know exactly how to handle this situation and the cultural context. But as I thought things over, I realized I had no idea how plagiarism is regarded in Taiwan. I emailed my department chair and two other colleagues to get a sense of how they handle plagiarism. There is no Office of Student Judicial affairs, no one to report this to. I usually do that in the States though I know many faculty do not. I learned that plagiarism is a big problem in Taiwan, just as in the States. One colleague sent me a link to a news article about Taiwan’s Minister of Education being fired a few years ago after it was revealed that he’d plagiarized something like 60 academic papers! So it is an issue at all levels. 
 
 
14 April 2016
 
Today, we covered the first half of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find in the grad class. Having taught this book several times and some of the stories countless times, I walked in thinking this would be an easy one. I should have known better! As we talked I realized, again, just how deeply rooted O’Connor’s work is in her Catholic faith. But less than 4% of Taiwan is Christian, and while Tunghai has a historical connection to the Methodist missionaries who founded it, the school is now officially secular. 
As I have done so very many times here in Taiwan, I found myself needing to slow things down and build more context into the discussion—not that I am an expert on Roman Catholicism, but I know enough to put O’Connor into perspective. The student who brought in discussion questions shaped all four of her questions (only one is required) around Christian themes, so we talked about it a lot. For me, this was yet another good lesson. We spent nearly an hour discussing “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which is a story I usually breeze through. Taught it too many times. But I wanted to make sure the students understood the brief, but penetrating comments by the Misfit to make sure they understood that he is a villain, but that his questions are valid and deserve to be taken seriously.
“The Artificial Nigger” remains one of my favorite stories in the collection for its examination of racism and the subtlety of the portrait. Of course, it is a touchy subject, and the students already knew that “nigger” is a verboten term, but asked about “Negro.” So I had to explain the changing status of the various terms, African American, of course, being the preferred current term. This is a story that deserves to be discussed thoughtfully, and we ran well over the allotted time. I usually release class on time at noon, but we went until 12:20, and everybody was into it.
 
 
19 April 2016
 
The Later American Lit class began Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire today. I think I last read it in high school. Maybe early in college. Whatever. It’s like I never read it before, a real re-discovery. And the amazing thing for me is Blanche; she is so layered and complex. A true work of genius. The mix of her self-centered vanity and vulnerability and strength and defiance—and then, finally, her defeat. It is so rich. How can any writer read this and not feel joy? And a little envy. But mostly joy.
Teaching it for the first time, I am naturally feeling out where to go. There is so much there, so many corners to paint. Today, I spent two hours on the first five scenes, but it felt a bit jumbled and rushed. I could have gone even slower. This is the joy and special frustration of teaching something for the first time.
I had only budgeted three hours for the entire play, and I still have six scenes to go! I will come in Thursday with a better sense of where to head, but it is obvious that the play can easily take four class hours.
After class today, I had to confront the two students about plagiarism in their papers. One 
student lifted her entire paper from an online storehouse, and while she quickly confessed, she is one of the students whose grade was lowered last fall due to excessive absence. Her commitment level in the year-long class, in other words, simply hasn’t been there. Lifting an entire paper is, of course, egregious; I have no choice but to give her a flat zero on the assignment. The question is whether to give her a second chance. The chair of FLLD suggested that this second mistake, following her avoidable errors last term, might rule that out. I decided to follow that advice. Technically, the student can still pass if she basically aces all the remaining work, but that’s not going to happen. I will be watching both of these students carefully from here on out. 
 
 
21 April 2016
 
Today, the grad students worked on the second half of O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. We had ample time to go over “Good Country People” and “The Displaced Person” in great detail. That part was gratifying though the energy level seemed a bit off today—the follow-up to mid-terms, I suppose. My auditing student was absent. One grad student skipped the second half of class, no explanation. And the student tasked with offering a short presentation and discussion questions on our assigned journal article basically fumbled. She didn’t offer the required summary, and her discussions were sophomoric and unfocused. I am guessing that she didn’t devote enough time to reading the article. But I kept it cool in class; she’ll see my written comments and her low grade when I return her work next week. 
In Later American, the one-hour lecture on Williams’s Streetcar went well. The pacing of the second half of the play really picks up, and I had plotted out a clearer line of attack; we moved quickly, but effectively through scenes 6-9. Note to future teaching self: budget for three scenes per hour max. This play requires four teaching hours.
 
 
26 April 2016
 
I spent today finishing Streetcar with the senior lit students, looking carefully at the final two scenes in the play—very difficult scenes, as they deal with Stanley’s rape of Blanche and then her sister’s plan to send Blanche off to a mental home. The more I work on it, the more I see how everything about this play is more nuanced and layered than I initially thought. It really is true that if you truly want to understand a work of art, you should teach it. No matter how much I occasionally complain about the burdens of teaching, the fact that I am able to dig so deeply into so many texts, always going back to certain ones and often moving onto new things like Streetcar—come on, this is a great joy. Would I ever had read the play and picked it apart like this if I weren’t teaching it? 
 
 
28 April 2016
 
The grad students covered the first half of James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. Y., an undergrad from Indonesia who is only auditing the class, rocked it with the discussion questions. Funny how sometimes the students with the least amount invested on the surface dig deepest, deeper certainly than some of the grad students. As we unpacked these stories, I felt pretty certain that the students were getting it. Baldwin is so smart about race, but also issues of male authority and privilege. There’s just so much to talk about, and the sheer beauty & grace of the prose is not the least of it.
Ironically, due to some juggling of the schedule in my Later American Lit class, I lectured on the story “Going to Meet the Man” for an hour in the afternoon—so, four teaching hours on Baldwin today. As I have done so often this year, I spent a good chunk of time simply putting everything in context. Where had the civil rights movement been in the Fifties? Where did it arrive in the Sixties? And in ’65, one year after MLK’s assassination and with the wheels already turning, Baldwin pens this masterpiece about a dying order. A most remarkable accomplishment, getting inside the head of a racist white sheriff in the South, and making him not a caricature or a flat, one-dimensional demon, but a complex man. Still, in the end, a despicable man, but we understand a bit more about what Baldwin is showing us—that the character wasn’t born a racist, he was taught to be one. Traumatized by the violence and hatred, in his own way, just as much as any black person. It’s extraordinary.
 
 
3 May 2016
 
I paired up Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo” and “In the Waiting Room” with Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead.” Suffice it to say, this was a pleasant two hours, and by now (with all of two weeks left in this class), I can anticipate more fully where and when I need to pause for cultural and historical context (e.g., U.S. use of napalm in Vietnam war in Bishop, or the Little Rock Nine in Lowell). This was a very targeted, brisk but thorough two hours. Still, we only covered three poems and got halfway through Bishop’s “Waiting Room,” which I’ll conclude on Thursday. Like nearly every class in this American survey, straight lecture. Can I just say that, some days, I leave there feeling totally energized and excited. It may not be the mode du jour, but it is one mode. It is the mode most common here. And I know my students were picking up on a lot of it, maybe all of it. Discussing “Union Dead” and showing images of the Little Rock Nine—they were fully attentive. It was a powerful hour.
 
 
5 May 2016
 
The graduate students had a long and somber class reading the second half of Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. They also had to read a long and somewhat complicated Queer studies essay on homoerotic desire and paternalism—probably the most difficult scholarly article I have assigned in Taiwan. Discussion questions have varied in quality this term, just as last term. Short of pouncing on the students in class, I don’t quite know what to do. My written feedback is clear, I believe, but few students follow up with questions. I can count one hand the number of times students have visited my office hours. (I had been warned about that.) Occasionally, a student will pull me aside outside of class, and we’ll chat there. But it seems to me that students do not frequently visit professors even when I “strongly encourage” them. Perhaps, I should require one-on-one conferences. I would certainly have time for that in the grad class since my undergrad class is wrapping up. I’ll consider it though I hate requiring a nervous student to sit before me one-on-one. I want them to want to be there.
Today, we spent a full ninety minutes on the critical article and Baldwin’s eponymous story. It is difficult material, at times, shocking. We also had shorter but focused discussions of the other two long stories in the second half of the book. Overall, my impression is that the students understand some of what Baldwin is getting at, but again, as I dip into explanations about the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Little Rock Nine, I am reminded how foreign this is for them. Many are the reasons that some are quiet in class.
With the undergraduates, we finished the remainder of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” and then did a tightly scripted reading of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” a story I’ve taught many times in the past (mostly in grad school), but this time, I did more work to frame it in light of the Black Arts Movement, which I think really helps. Students in America are at least familiar with the idea of African Americans using African names and dress and some of the history. Students in Taiwan have no clue! And why should they? They don’t see it, hear it, read about it. When I think about the extra hours I’ve spent this year on socio-cultural context, it is amazing. And there is more I feel I could do. But I’ve learned a valuable lesson about cross-cultural teaching generally and developed some presentations, handouts, and lectures that I will take with me back to the States and use there.
 
 
12 May 2016
 
The grad class discussed the first half of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About today. The discussion questions were presented by A., my exchange student from mainland China, a young woman who has hardly spoken a word this term, but thank goodness her questions were spot on. What followed was a pretty good discussion though again, I could sense that the students were quiet or perhaps struggling with some of the material. Every student participated at one point or another, so that is a very good sign. They are engaging, responding to the work. But What We Talk About is a difficult book in a lot of ways—hard stories of suffering people. (But in exquisite, beautiful prose!) I spent a considerable amount of time discussing Carver’s aesthetic—what “minimalism” means (more on that next week when we discuss the assigned scholarly article), and how Carver can be read as both a realist and a postmodernist. My detailed handouts on Moodle are helpful for them, and we went over several points from them. I think they got it. Overall, it was a solid start, and we’ll conclude the book next week.
 
Today was my final lecture for the senior Later American Lit students. We covered Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons,” “Eating Alone,” and “Eating Together.” Of course they understand themes of filial piety and obedience to one’s elders. Nice to be able to end with Asian American literature. I think it all connected pretty quickly and pretty deeply. Then, I was all but mobbed by students with cameras. They all wanted pictures! I was a little taken aback. Some of these students literally never said one word in class, yet they were warmly telling me how much they appreciated the class, what a great teacher I was, etc. I was not prepared for this, but it was lovely. Thank god I shaved this morning. A nice final session. 

 

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