Research and Teaching: Bringing Energy into the Classroom

By Therese Boyd, ’79

This story was originally featured in Penn State Altoona’s online research magazine, Research & Teaching at Penn State Altoona, which highlights the research, teaching, scholarship, and creative activity of the college’s faculty, students, staff, and alumni. For more stories, visit the website.

In June 2016 Brian Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona, was an invited speaker at an international conference titled “Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature: Donald Worster and Environmental History” in Beijing and then remained to teach a summer course at Renmin University. R&T editor Therese Boyd met with Black to talk about his experience.

TDB: How did you end up teaching a course in China when you were only planning on the conference?

BCB: The conference was held in honor of my graduate advisor, Donald Worster [Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas and a founder of and leader in the environmental history field]. Because I was going to be there for that, they said, ‘It would be great if you could teach in our summer program when you’re here.” So I said I would.

Black with TA
Brian Black, with one of his TAs, Lee, who is a graduate student in environmental history.

TDB: Do you speak Chinese?

BCB: No, I don’t, but my son Ben had majored in Asian studies and had just finished applying to Asian think-tanks in DC. I figured he could help me with the language; he was there the first two weeks. Classes are all in English in the International Summer School, so I expected there to be no language problem. And the school has “international” students in it, so all your students might be American. However, as it turned out all forty students in each of my two classes were Chinese and, unfortunately, I had no idea how poor their comfort with English would be. It was a big challenge!

TDB: That sounds like a large class with that many students. How did it go?

BCB: I taught two classes, one an intro to American Studies, the other World History of Energy, with a TA for each class. The students came from various academic levels, including graduate. In terms of both classes, the teaching style was a major thing to get used to. It was not what I expected going in. They expect to be taught to—to be lectured at. There was real discomfort in discussions for the first two days. When I first began walking away from the lectern and into the seating area, they were kind of surprised. But by the end of it we had formed great relationships and I think that they particularly enjoyed having the opportunity for more class discussion.

TDB: Was there anything in particular you found difficult that surprised you?

BCB: For me, the names were a real challenge; a lot of them had American names, named after characters in video games or movies. Many of them lined up to speak with me after class and specifically wanted to tell me their American names. When it came to grading, though, everything was through their Chinese names. So I had no chance and needed to resort to student ID numbers—which is not my desired approach, that is for sure!

Classroom at Renmin University
Classroom at Renmin University

TDB: How did they like the subject matter you chose?

BCB: The history of energy students were super eager to know about energy in a very general sense. I was prepared to teach a pretty high-level of energy history; however, they wanted to know basics—such as how a solar panel works. I had to really adjust my subject matter and to approach it much more like I was teaching a high school class on energy and society. Again, because of the language difficulty, most of the English readings that I had brought along were well above their level of comprehension, so I had to regroup quite a bit.

In the American history class, we came up to the present and it was contemporary issues that interested them most. They were very enthused to try to understand the American presidential election. One of the other topics I had chosen was gun violence. They had clear stereotypes that Americans tolerated and even celebrated guns, because of our experience with the Western US. That was in stark difference to the experience in China, which is a very controlled society in most ways—including ownership of guns. We extensively discussed the concept of a “free society” in general. Most of the students represent a fairly affluent, younger generation who is very interested in making their own country more open—but only to a point.

Overall, I think I was most surprised to hear the concept of “GDP” talked about more than I have anywhere else. These students discussed it almost like the weather. Clearly, making the “GDP” grow was seen as a mark of national success and as citizens of China that was their goal in a very competitive way.

TDB: What did you learn from the teaching experience?

BCB: I was particularly enthused with the energy class because energy is such an important, emerging part of China’s story right now. Unexpectedly, they possess a very progressive attitude toward energy development and a strong commitment to adopting more sustainable methods in the future. This surprised me and made me really interested in continuing my relationship with them.

In the class, we studied world history from 1500 to the present and we particularly discussed industrialization. This, of course, leads to the consideration of climate change and big concepts such as the “Anthropocene” concept, which argues that human impact has risen to a planetary level. They knew very few details about these ideas; however, they were very receptive to them, particularly since China’s leader had just agreed to new regulations on carbon emissions.

We discussed China’s very interesting approach to energy development: quite openly, the government has relied too heavily on coal while China’s industry “caught up” to other, more developed countries. Now, just as openly, they are shifting toward sustainable methods. For the Chinese, one of the most significant reasons for this change is the incredible pollution in cities such as Beijing, where I taught.

In my class, we agreed that one can see a scenario where the twenty-first century is defined by countries that diversify the methods from which we acquire the energy that we require. With that scenario in mind, you can make an argument that countries like China are going to be able to change their policies more quickly than can nations such as the US that have more of a free market.

Black with son in China
Brian Black with his son Ben on the Great Wall. Ben is a senior at University Park majoring in Asian studies.

Interestingly, none of the students discussed their prospective occupations with me. I guess that was because I was an outsider. At any rate, the result was one of the most idealistic classrooms that I’ve been in in a long time. They were willing to go down those intellectual paths with me, and that was a big surprise.

TDB: Were the students knowledgeable about the rest of the world?

BCB: In China, there is no free market; everything is controlled. Maybe the most obvious example of this is the control of information. I felt that there was a vast gulf between the older and the younger generations. The students were eager to know about the Western world. They’d get excited about a concept like civil rights and teaching them about Martin Luther King Jr. For instance, showing them the “I Have a Dream” speech was an experience that I will never forget. However, they still openly questioned why the government didn’t just force everyone to adhere to the law. Often, we Americans take our free society for granted. My students in China, quite simply, couldn’t even fully imagine a society where dissent and discussion was tolerated and even fostered.

TDB: So was this a positive experience? Do you think—despite the language hurdles—you’d like to do it again?

BCB: This experience was life altering. I will probably keep doing it. I feel a bit like a missionary who has been given an opportunity to introduce ideas and approaches to a group of students who are starving for them. Next time, though, I will watch what I eat a bit more carefully!