Why I came to teach at Duke Kunshan

Speech by Scott MacEachern at Thank you dinner and scholarship celebration on Nov.8, 2018, at Duke Kunshan University.

Thank you for the invitation to this celebration, and for the chance to meet the wonderful donors who do so much to make DKU possible. I’ve come to DKU after more than two decades teaching at Bowdoin College, one of the American selective liberal arts colleges that DKU compares itself to and has drawn inspiration from. I left Bowdoin and came to work at DKU mostly because the challenges and opportunities posed by this new university were too much to resist, with the possibility of helping to create an innovative liberal arts curriculum from the ground up, in this extraordinary setting in China.

I came as well for the chance to pursue my research as an Africanist archaeologist in China, a country that is now central to development efforts across Africa. I’ve worked for the last three decades to protect the cultural heritage of African countries, and I am looking forward to involving Chinese colleagues and students in that work.

I came primarily, though, because I like to teach, and because I was fascinated by the prospect of teaching students from China and across the world – particularly students who have the courage and the sense of exploration needed to embark on university life at an entirely new, and very different, university like DKU. I am a first-generation university student myself, and I know in my bones how the chance to study at DKU will change the lives of the students who come here.

And that’s what you will be most interested in, the students who have come to DKU and who you have supported in so many ways. All I need to say on that account is that you have nothing to worry about at all.

Because these are great students, easily as impressive as any class of first-year students that I encountered at Bowdoin in the 23 years I taught there. I knew that DKU students would have courage, but the students that I have had in my classes, and who come to my office hours and stop me in the hallways with questions, are also tremendously smart and eager and hard-working. They want to ask – and to answer! – Big Questions, they have a great curiosity about the world and its challenges, and they are making the most of the possibilities that this new place offers them. They are moving into the future so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them, but they are also fascinated by their own roots and by the historical processes that have led us all to where we are today.

In session 1, I taught a discussion group of 20 students, 19 from China and 1 international student, with no native English speakers among them. I will admit that I wondered to myself what that was going to be like. Those students absolutely blossomed in the classroom, devouring challenging texts that spanned the social sciences and the entire world, from ibn Khaldun to Adam Smith to Xunzi to Karl Marx. They spoke up, they asked penetrating questions – and then stayed after class to ask still more questions. Sometimes they struggled, of course, and they will struggle in the future: one of my jobs is to reassure them that this is all part of the process, that mastery is a moving target that changes as we set ourselves harder tasks. They did all this while dealing with the challenges and complexities of reading, speaking and writing a second language. That is hard work, as I know myself. They performed it admirably.

DKU should be extremely proud of these students, and proud to have attracted them to this new institution. They will do great things in the future. Thank you so much, to everyone here, for all that you do to support them.