Professor Emeritus of Biology Ken Christiansen (left) with Chinese graduate students Wu and Li. Grinnell College's longtime partnership with Nanjing University in China has proven beneficial for the students and faculty of both institutions. Although instituted in 1987, the program hearkens back to an older Grinnell-in-China program that started in 1916, through which Grinnellians taught at a missionary school in Shandong province. This exchange thrived until the Japanese occupation of the area in the 1930s made it impossible to continue.
In the late 1980s, the College was adding Chinese to the curriculum, and the decision to focus on China was both prescient and advantageous. Through the partnership with Nanjing University, Grinnell receives two research scholars from Nanjing each year, along with a visiting instructor of Chinese. Grinnell in return sends two of its faculty or staff each year to teach students in Nanjing.
Ken Christiansen, professor emeritus of biology, spent an entire semester there in 1990. His story is just one of many.
Caving and More
"I had been missing teaching very much," remembers Ken Christiansen. The professor emeritus of biology traveled to China in 1990 to spend half a year teaching at Nanjing University. "I've always been very interested in China," he adds.
The trip held its enticements and challenges. He was anxious to meet a student in Beijing working on Collembola, the group of arthropods that has been the focus of Christiansen's research and study. He spent a week with her, and even canceled a planned trip to see the Great Wall in order to spend more time working with her. "That was really stupid," he says regretfully.
At Nanjing, he taught Soil Biology to about 48 Chinese students. Few spoke good English, so Christiansen was forced to compose and print his lectures ahead of time so the students could read along with him as he read them. It was a teaching style he did not enjoy. Christiansen supervised the senior theses of three students and got to know them very well.
Among Christiansen's most positive experiences in China was collecting cave Collembola in various regions of China. "I was very interested in cave biology," Christiansen says.
In one such area, the inhabitants spoke a language unknown to all of Christiansen's party, save the government guide. "I was the first foreigner of any sort anyone had seen," he says. "If I'd stop, a crowd would gather around just to stare at me."
His wife, Phyllis, came to China for a month-long visit, and the pair traveled together to see some of China's sights. Although the train travel was rough -- especially the bathrooms ("They made army latrines look like a model of cleanliness") -- the Christiansens saw many wonderful things. "We had some lovely, very interesting times," Christiansen says. He remembers in particular a kite festival ("They had fantastic kites") and a lantern festival ("Spectacular"). The banquets, too, were lavish, though cultural differences can make eating interesting. Christiansen recalls some corned beef -- "I thought it was pretty tasty," he says. Then he found out that it wasn't actually beef -- it was dog. "I found it tasty, and later, when I spent a week at the Karst Laboratory in Guilin, I attempted to have it included in the banquet I gave for the staff at the end of my stay. However, the staff person who was my good friend and translator changed it to duck, since he said dog was not suitable for fo reigners.
"China has changed so much I wouldn't recognize it," Christiansen says. One of his best students in his many years of teaching, Hanghang Wang '07, came to Grinnell from her hometown near Nanjing, China. She's now in medical school at Dartmouth.
Christiansen continues to cooperate and collaborate with his friend and research colleague Chen and Chen's biology students.
Christiansen says of his time in China, "We had some wonderful experiences."
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2008