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What Chinese Students Told Me

posted: 3.28.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Flying in to Beijing from San Francisco, I wondered what I would encounter at Beihang University.  I had been invited to visit this large university in the fall of 2012 but had to postpone the trip because of back surgery.  I had hoped to learn a lot more about the university and its students in the months I gained by the postponement, but little information was forthcoming.  What I knew was that the College of Foreign Languages at Beihang has a new Department of Rhetoric and Communication and that the Dean, whose Ph.D. is in linguistics from Carnegie Mellon, wanted some U.S. scholars to visit to help establish the new department.  I was very excited about the visit, but also intimidated by the news that they wanted me to deliver two 2-hour lectures every day of the visit–and by the fact that I didn’t know my audience, a big problem to one who preaches the necessity of audience awareness!

Greeting me at the airport were two graduate students who shepherded me to the Beihang Training Center, the hotel on campus where I was staying.  Soon after, we joined a group for a quick supper in the dining hall, and then I was grateful to be able to go to bed.  The next day was my first lecture, this one to 600 first- and second-year students on why I believe rhetoric and argument are necessary to all of us today. 

I had not expected such a large audience, and I was worried that such a big crowd would have difficulty following me, so I got up early and made a series of Power Point slides to help guide the lecture:  and I was plenty nervous by the time we went to the lecture hall around 3:30 p.m. Beijing time, which felt to me like 12:30 a.m.  To my surprise, the students burst into applause when I came in, and my host gave me a most gracious introduction.  Then I was off, introducing rhetoric as a discipline and argumentation as one of its major tools–and tracing the Western tradition and its key terms for the group.  Along the way, I asked them questions, taking a chance that even in such a big group they would respond.  When I told them about Richard Weaver’s “god terms” and “devil terms” (In the 1950s, Weaver identified “progress” as America’s god term and “Communism” as the devil term), they immediately agreed that “economic development” was their god term. But they were stumped to come up with a devil term, eventually offering “being poor” as a possibility, though they didn’t embrace it wholeheartedly.  When I asked them to think of a time when they needed to come up with “really good arguments,” several said when they wanted to do something their parents didn’t want them to do (that certainly sounded familiar).

After the lecture, we spent half an hour in Q and A and I was impressed, first, with their linguistic abilities.  They had clearly understood everything I had said, and their sophisticated questions showed evidence of careful listening as well as of intellectual curiosity.   “Why is argument important if it so often fails?”  “If you believe in absolute right and wrong, is argument possible?” And my favorite, “Tell us about an argument you made that worked really well.”

Later that evening, I enjoyed my first Beijing Hot Pot with a group of teachers and graduate students from Beihang.  While we savored the many delicacies we got to plunge into our hot pots (mine was a very spicy broth), one of the teachers told us he had asked his students to play a game that afternoon:  “What if you could have three wishes,” he said.  “What would they be?”  The first student said, “I would wish first of all for my parents to be healthy and prosperous and have a good life and home; second, I would ask for my friends’ happiness; and third, I would ask for Professor Lunsford to continue with her successful travel and teaching.”

I sat there for the next five minutes or so thinking about this student and about what his wishes said about his values and about his culture.  I had known about the importance of family and so his wish for his parents seemed natural, and the wish for his friends’ happiness seemed appropriate too, though I had to wonder that he had not wished for something for himself.  But that his third wish should be for a stranger, someone he had only met that day, seemed remarkable to me, truly remarkable.  Would I have made those wishes?  And what would my own students have wished?

I plan to ask my students this question and to see what they have to say.  My guess is that they may surprise me, even as this young Chinese student surprised me.  Right now, I am just very grateful to have been able to spend a week with the students at Beihang University and to learn from them.  And while these lessons are in some sense unique, they remind me once more that such learning has been the story of my career:  I’ve been learning from students for over forty years now, and I am grateful for each new lesson.

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