Engaging with Difficult Material

I closed out last week with a post on Harmony in English Language Teaching. I’ve decided to start this week with some more personal musings that are centered around my concerns about sowing disharmony in the classroom. Allow me to begin by giving some background.

I’m in the process of preparing for my fall humanities seminar Language, Identity, and World Englishes. To do my part in preventing plagiarism, I’ve changed the novels that I’m working with. Last year, my students and I examined the use of local varieties of English in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Ha Jin’s The Bridegroom. This year, we’re working with different novels by the same authors, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea and Nanjing Requiem respectively. Now, this is a sophomore-level class at an American-style university, and I have American-style academic freedom to engage with challenging topics and difficult materials. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t stay at NYU Shanghai.

Now going into it, I knew that Nanjing Requiem dealt with an uncomfortable topic and, for some, a controversial one—specifically, the Japanese occupation and destruction of the city of Nanjing during World War II. However, I consider the average NYU Shanghai student mature enough to handle this kind of text. Now that I’m reading Nanjing Requiem, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve made a misstep. It’s not gratuitous in its portrayal of the atrocities that occurred from the winter of 1937 to the winter of 1938. But, it does paint a vivid picture of the brutalities of war and of the excess of the invading Japanese army, which would go on to kill between 50,000 and 300,000 citizens of Nanjing and the surrounding area. It is a frank and honest portrayal of the horrors of war and the execution of atrocious war crimes by an invading army. When I first read this text, I was a bit taken aback and began to wonder if I should quickly change my textbook order.

There are a few reasons that I considered changing my order. First, I’m up for reappointment this year. I’ve had not luck in securing a well-paying job in the U.S. in the past two years, and—speaking frankly—have no reason to hope that this year will be any different. All of which is fine because I enjoy my job in China and I like living in Shanghai. Take these three things together, and I pray for reappointment. There’s a part of me that’s worried that to assign a novel about such a tumultuous and ruinous time in Chinese history—certainly the nadir of Sino-Japanese relations—could end up risking my reappointment. The other reason is the student make-up of the class. Currently, it’s split about 50/50 American and Chinese students. However, there are two Japanese students on my waiting list. Given increasing nationalism across the globe, and this includes in the younger generation in China and in Japan, I have reason to worry that it will cause classroom strife and hardship for some of the students.

However, the university exists to engage with difficult topics and to learn how to do so in a mature manner that is respectful to all individuals, even if you fundamentally disagree with their opinions. The classroom is also the place where we learn how to separate our views of a person’s beliefs from our views of them as individuals. I may have to, unlike in previous years, give in and give some form of a trigger warning—I dislike that phrase so much—but I may still need to do so just to give students a preview of what’s inside the text. In doing so, I can also prime them for how I want them to engage with the text, which is to look for unique markers of China English.

Also, I feel to have changed textbooks would be doing a dishonor to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. Certainly, my Chinese students will have learned about this in school. But, in most American history classes, we focus so much on the Holocaust in Europe, because Western history is more accessible through traditional media and documentaries. However, World War II was a global war with terrible acts by all parties involved, even the “heroic” Americans. I feel my American students, in particular, should learn more about just how far reaching that horror was. I also feel that we should, as members of a Sino-American university, remember the victims of Nanjing and honor their memory. I just may have to play peacemaker more this semester than in previous ones. But, that’s what the teacher is there for. To guide students through difficult conversations and to model respectful dialogue and disagreement.

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