This Spring Semester the Staff English Class began a Book Club, reading Peter Hessler’s “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”. Meeting every other Thursday during lunch, our group consists of SUSTech Staff members who enjoy English literature, and who value the notion of constructive dialogue as it applies to both cultural and educational frameworks. The Book Club consists of 17 students as well as myself, acting as a facilitator, reading three chapters (about 100 pages) every two weeks, coming prepared with issues which we both agree and disagree with, along with questions and concerns about the writing. As active and engaged readers, the Staff Students take notes during their readings, highlighting and underlining important passages which speak to their own experiences. Challenging ideas while understanding context allows for the discussion of different viewpoints, learning that when combined, our individual realities form a cohesive bond.
River Town follows the path of Peter Hessler from 1996-1998 while he was a Peace Corps. Volunteer at Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan Province. Much like my own current set of circumstances in 2017 Shenzhen, he taught English and culture in a university setting, writing about many of the challenges and opportunities which I too encounter on a daily basis. For our Staff English Class, this seemed like an ideal book to study, as even though it describes events from 20 years ago, in a number of respects, it mirrors the complexities which both myself as well as my students face in modern day China. Development may improve infrastructure and access to foreign capital but cultures change less rapidly, providing learning opportunities to explore our differences in opinions. Whether along the Yangtze River or the South China Sea, there is no right answer, rather a combination of ideas which encourage discussion and ultimately lead to compromise. Literature reflecting life!
To underscore our understanding of the book, I reached out to the author to see if he would be interested in speaking with us directly about his experiences in China, discussing with our Book Club via videoconference. Peter Hessler still writes, most notably for The New Yorker, and his articles continue to delve past the surface limitations of image and into the greater depth of substance. To our delight, he agreed to set up a time to talk with us, allowing a refined definition of the words we are reading, told by the author some 20 years later. It is these expanded opportunities for learning – stretching beyond language into culture – which emphasizes the true nature of global education.
The SUSTech English Book Club is another example of the creative ideas for learning which are being fostered by those who understand the value of authentic educational models. Twenty years ago, students in Fuling learned new ways of approaching common ideas by being introduced to an American teacher who brought with him a different perspective. Today, as I work with motivated staff students in Shenzhen, I too am looking for innovative approaches to teaching about English and culture as well. Reading River Town in our Book Club provides us with such an opportunity, where we reach beyond the traditional classroom, beyond our own circumstances, and beyond time and place, only to arrive at a new understanding painted by differing viewpoints which allows reflection as we continue to move downstream.