Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Adjusting to Coursework at the HNC

In the weeks leading up to my arrival at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, the thing that weighed on my mind the most was the worry of taking graduate level classes in Chinese. Never mind that this was what had attracted me to the program in the first place – that was back in 2015, when September 2016 felt very far away indeed. The problem of course being that not only did we have to listen to all the information in class, but we were expected to retain it and use it to write papers! In my heart of hearts, I had no idea how I was going to rise to the challenge.

Presenting on the use of Renewable Portfolio Standards in the U.S.
One of my first classes was Policy Instruments for Environmental and Resource Management, taught by Professor Liu Beibei of the Nanjing University School of the Environment. As soon as the seven of us sat down in the classroom, our energetic professor immediately started firing questions at us: what were the most important environmental issues facing the world today? What did we know about China’s environmental policies? What should the Chinese government do about combatting environmental challenges? It was terrifying, to say the least – I remember feeling as inarticulate as I have ever felt, as I stumbled over words and struggled to understand parts of her questions. Part of the problem was the vocabulary I lacked – in a Chinese language course or chatting at a bar with friends, carbon trading schemes, sulfur dioxide emissions or solar panels are not typical phrases one uses. But the even tougher part was that these questions are difficult to answer in English – they’re the challenges facing world leaders and policymakers today, which everyone is seeking the answers to.

I had to rise to the challenge- and fast! My first tool was Pleco – a fantastic Chinese dictionary app, invaluable in class as well as daily life in China. During class, I would look up words on it the professor used that I didn’t understand, and then add them to the vocabulary list I kept for each class. I used the website Memrise to create my own lists that I would then do online quizzes to help me learn these new words (they actually served as a nice break from my readings #gradstudentlife).

Speaking in class was a big challenge for me (I wanted to sound smart and thoughtful!) Something that helped when I was first doing this was to write out my comment in Chinese so I could get the grammar straight before putting my hand up to contribute. Once I felt more comfortable with the phrasing, I would just write the key words of my point down so that I had them to refer to, should I forget how to phrase something. This helped me to concentrate more on my tones and my argument, as opposed to searching for the correct grammar and vocabulary mid-comment.
 Field trip to visit areas of environmental policy interest in Suzhou

When writing my papers, I was sure to always plan extensively in English to ensure there were no gaps in my logic, which are easier to miss when written in Chinese. I also reached out to the fantastic Chinese students at the writing center for help proofing and explaining my grammatical mistakes. I always left feeling like I had learned more about writing in Chinese, and relieved I had them available to fix my errors! My roommate also helped in a pinch, and she was especially great when it came to economics, which is her major.

As the semester progressed in my ERE class, the combination of readings and class time boosted my environmental policy vocabulary (I ended up with 207 words and phrases on my vocab list) and through teaching, discussions and some soul searching, answering those huge questions became more achievable – though they stayed a little out of reach. That’s the magic of classes at the HNC – you’re asking huge questions about economics, politics, the law and the environment. You’re being asked to use all of your powers of analysis and insight on a daily basis and what’s more, in your target language. That’s what the brochures mean when they talk about graduate level classes – they’re not just full of readings and research papers (though those are certainly part of it), they’re requiring thinking on a whole new level that goes beyond the challenges of undergrad.

At the end of my year at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, I wasn’t magically transformed into a native level Chinese speaker who never messes up their tones and always arranges their sentences perfectly (more’s the pity), but I left with the confidence that I had conquered what I never would have believed I could – six graduate level classes in Chinese, countless papers and presentations discussing the big ideas and key challenges we face. I’ve carried it with me to SAIS DC and will continue to in my future endeavors, the knowledge that if I can do that, I can do whatever challenge I’m presented with next.

Written by Anna Woods, HNC Certificate/SAIS MA Student