Anne Meredith, Associate Editor for the SAIS Observer’s Nanjing Bureau, sits down with Dr. Cornelius Kubler, the new American Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, to learn about his goals for the future of the Center.
BY ANNE MEREDITH
NANJING, China — This fall, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center welcomes Dr. Cornelius Kubler as the new American Co-Director. Dr. Kubler comes to the Center with a background in linguistics and over 30 years of teaching experience. He speaks fluent, idiomatic Chinese and his former studies and work in greater China mean he has the ability to understand things from the perspective of the Center’s students.
Before coming to the Center, Dr. Kubler worked as a professor at Williams College, where he was founder and Chair of the Asian Studies Department. He has also worked as chair of the U.S. Department of State’s Department of Asian and African languages and as Co-Director of the Harvard-Beijing Academy at the Beijing Language and Culture University. He believes that the fact that both he and Chinese Co-Director He Chengzhou come from academic backgrounds bodes well for the future of the Center, since their experiences in academia mean that they both have a special understanding of and affection for academic issues.
One of the most interesting aspects of Dr. Kubler’s rich experience is the fact that, aside from a B.A., M.A., and PhD in linguistics from Cornell University, he also received an M.A. in Chinese Literature from a Taiwanese University where he was the only American in his program. As he describes it, “the first year there was a Canadian and a Frenchmen and two or three Japanese and Koreans, but by the second year I was the only Westerner left.” As an explanation for why he was the only one who was able to stick it out and finish the program, he says that, “I don’t think I’m smarter or a better language learner, but I do have probably more patience than a lot of other people I know.”
Dr. Kubler’s experience as a student in a Chinese university means he is uniquely positioned to sympathize with and help the Center’s students, who are undergoing a similar challenge. He plans to leverage his experience to help the students at the Center get the most out of their cross-cultural learning experience, and will start holding meetings with students in the coming weeks to help them address specific challenges related to studying in a foreign language.
Since coming on board as the new American Co-Director on August 1st, Dr. Kubler has been participating in what he calls a “baptism by fire,” attending a whirlwind of high-level meetings in various Chinese cities even as he tries to learn the ropes and get used to his new administrative duties at the Center.
In order to “enhance and improve” on the Center’s existing programs, Dr. Kubler’s plans for the coming year include a focus on recruitment and fundraising.
Recruiting for the Center on the international side is especially challenging because the demanding nature of the Center’s academic programs mean that it can only accept students with a very high level of Chinese ability. Even though the United States has seen a growing interest in the study of Chinese language in recent years, the increasing number of grade-school Chinese programs has not necessarily translated into an increased number of people with the high-level Chinese skills necessary to succeed at the Center. Therefore, identifying and recruiting suitable students who would benefit from participation in the Center’s programs remains a challenge. With his over three decades of teaching experience, Dr. Kubler, who has been sending his own students to the Center since the 1980s, is well positioned to help in the Center’s recruitment efforts. He plans to leverage his extensive contacts at prestigious Chinese language programs both in the U.S. and in China to make sure that eligible students are aware of the opportunities offered by the Center’s unique program.
As far as fundraising and development initiatives are concerned, Dr. Kubler plans to do more to involve the Center’s many alumni in fundraising efforts. Better fundraising also has the potential to help attract more talented students to the Center, as it may make more funds available to provide financial aid to deserving students.
Dr. Kubler has already taken the initiative to read the comments of former Center students, and, aside from his recruitment and fundraising efforts, plans to take steps to correct some of the problems which have bothered former students. While the Center is not a language program per se, many students come to the program with hopes of improving their Chinese ability while at the same time deepening their knowledge of a specific field of study. However, one common complaint among international students is that, while their listening comprehension skills as well as their reading and writing ability often improve dramatically during their time at the Center, many find that they do not experience much of an improvement in their spoken language skills, and some even find that their Chinese speaking ability gets worse during their time at the Center. This is because foreign students at the Center often speak English with each other and with their Chinese classmates, creating an environment which is not conducive to improvement of spoken Chinese. Dr. Kubler, who went for weeks at a time without speaking English as a Master’s student in Taiwan, hopes to make improvements in this area. He says that one of his aims is “to make sure that we realize the ideal of 50/50 [by ensuring that] each side is using their target language fully half of the time”.
Dr. Kubler’s rich experience, patience, passion for languages, and willingness to listen to student suggestions should help him work effectively with Chinese Co-Director He to ensure the SAIS Nanjing program continues to improve over the years to come.