Cambridge Linyi Summer School 2012 – Part Four – Teaching in Linyi

Tuesday 14th August

When it rains in this part of the world, you certainly know about it. The skies turned black during breakfast and I was left feeling grateful for my trusty UKMT- issue umbrella. By the end of the day, however, there was no sign of any respite, and the way onto the campus resembled a river more than a road. We were invited to lunch with the Vice-President of the university at a nearby hotel. This proves a truly surreal experience. The selection of dishes is far more eclectic than anything we’ve seen so far. The fried cicadas were surprisingly nice. The sauce made all the difference. The slabs of tofu were less of a success, being more reminiscent of scouring pads than anything edible. The quantities were astonishing. Just when we thought we were making progress, we were each brought a pork tenderloin, served with a single segment of orange. A sequence of toasts was made: for each one the call of ‘gan bei’ demanded that we down our beers. Fortunately the glasses were small, but plans to write lectures and examples sheets in the afternoon had to be rearranged hastily! The Vice-President was very keen for everyone to say something in Chinese, especially the girls present, with mixed success. The few hours spent watching ‘Growing up with Chinese’ finally earned some reward. Tomorrow the raison d’etre of the trip begins, with the first lectures of our courses. I think everyone feels reasonably prepared, but also aware that we have no real idea what we should expect.

Wednesday 15th August

In the end, my first lecture went rather better than I could have expected. I had sat in on Robin’s first session in the morning, on basic statistical theory, and was surprised to chat to the students near the back and learn that some of them were not even science students. I guess their timid responses to relatively straightforward questions were understandable for English majors. My group, however, were all Linyi mathematics students and they seemed to have an excellent grasp of basic probability, so we made reasonably fast progress through the prerequisites, despite the language barrier, and so we should be ready to start the course (mine is on Markov chains) proper tomorrow. In many ways, this summer school is not so much about imparting knowledge of particular new subjects. Rather the focus is instead on promoting a Cambridge style of learning mathematics in Linyi, where the majority of learning seems to be via rote. To that end, today was actually a great success. I think choosing slightly easier material for the first lecture made the students feel more comfortable about answering questions in class and going up to the board to attempt various problems. Hopefully this promising trend will continue through the next five days! Meanwhile, as ever after teaching sessions, I cannot believe how tired I feel. Will be having an early night as soon as I have chosen some problems for tomorrow’s examples sheet.

Thursday 16th August

In the morning I give an examples class, in which we go through some exercises consolidating the material introduced yesterday, and then start another two hours of lectures after lunch. I am confused as to why the audience members are rather different to yesterday, but it seems that flexibility is the order of the day. Anyway, we made it through some of the elementary theory of memoryless random variables and Markov chains, with a view to starting work on ‘real’ examples tomorrow.

In other news, my table tennis skills have improved to the point where I was able to beat one of my students. My chopstick technique has enjoyed a similar transformation. The question of why a proud and technologically advanced nation continues to insist that a pair of glorified needles constitutes the best way to manipulate food is a mystery, but if these are the only route to fullness, you’ve rather got to man up and master them. Rice, fried eggs and chickpeas have provided excellent practice to raise one’s ability to the level required for the twice-daily dessert, banana, pear and tomato fruit salad. Meanwhile, our enthusiasm to spend our Yuan has devastated the campus shop’s supply of ice-creams.

Friday 17th August

My afternoon lecture was rather frustrating. We were talking about n-step transition probabilities, and had worked through the case of the general Markov chain with two states. All subsequent problems could be reduced to this, but it was an impossible task to persuade the students to use the general result which had taken us twenty minutes to develop and which was still sitting on the blackboard, rather than diving into another specific eigenvalue search. The problem is surely cultural. Here, great value is placed on being able to perform difficult computations competently, and this lessens the impact of theory which removes the need for repeated calculation. I’m unsure how to resolve the problem, except by continuing to give examples which are increasingly unyielding to ‘brute force’ methods. Tomorrow is a rest day, so there are plans afoot to examine the nightlife in the city centre with some other foreign residents in our building. I am exhausted by the combination of unrelenting heat and mathematics, so opt instead to join the group watching Groundhog Day in the kitchen. Although my feeling of ennui has declined sharply since the teaching began, aspects of the film feel dangerously similar to two weeks of maths at Linyi University.

Saturday 18th August

We have a day off to mark the halfway point of the teaching week. There is some consternation to learn that the main door to our accommodation, which also serves as the fire exit, is closed with a bike lock overnight. Conversely, our hosts have learned about last night’s club trip, and are apparently ‘very concerned’ for our safety. Hopefully some form of entente will be reached very soon. After lunch a group heads into the city once again, for a taste of ‘real’ life in China. Standards of public hygiene are, well, different. Everyone spits everywhere, and on the bus a mother holds out her little girl to pee all over the floor. Georgios is horrified – such indelicacy would be inconceivable in Athens. Our first stop is an enormous bookshop. Sections are devoted to, amongst others, poultry, adhesive science, and mushroom cultivation. Sadly mathematics does not feature. Jonas is amused to see an aisle devoted to Bildungsroman. This turns out to feature a collection of children’s adventures, all of whose characters appear to be Aryan. I retire to the piano music section. It is clear why the stereotype of prodigious young Chinese pianists exists. The majority of the available repertoire is etudes. That is an unhealthy quantity of Czerny and Burgmuller. I find some Debussy, Schoenberg and the complete Prokofiev sonatas in reasonable editions for a ridiculously low price. The joys of capitalist consumerism

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