"If I don’t care about teaching, then I have let my students down"
The awards and honorary certificates that Prof. Yan Junping has received are almost too many to count. As a leading scientist and doctoral advisor in humane geography at the School of Tourism and Environmental Studies the of Shaanxi Normal University, he has been awarded the Grand Prize for Outstanding Teaching Achievement by Shaanxi Provincial Government, the second prize of national-level teaching achievement, and titled Shaanxi Normal University Teaching Master ...... Apart from these national, ministerial and provincial level awards and certificates, one special unofficial certificate stands out. On this self-made certificate from the Class 2014 undergraduates, they name him as an Erudite Scholar and "hereby issued this certificate to attest their affection for him." For Yan Junping, this particular certificate is the best ever affirmation of his teaching from students and is much more important than any other official awards.
"For all these years, I have always taught undergraduate classes. Many of my fellow teachers told me to leave these classes to young teachers as I'm no longer young and have a lot of research work to do. But I just can't not teach them. "If I don’t care about teaching, then I have let my students down." I have always had my students participate in activities like 'Go to Countryside' volunteer teaching, social practice and teaching contests." While speaking of his students, Yan Junping's voice and eyes were filled with tenderness, "The duty of a professor is to teach well, otherwise he does not live up to the title. My conscience requires me to treat every student with sincerity and be responsible to them."
When it comes to classroom instruction, Yan Junping opposes to reading item by item from the textbook to students, but instead advocates research-oriented teaching by introducing latest research findings to them. Yan Junping has a habit of making clippings, and his black suitcase is filled with geography clippings. During class, he would take out the clippings and share the latest academic advances he had read about in journals and newspapers with students. He began clipping when he was a college student. "We used to pass on magazines and read articles in them. When everyone has finished reading, they were put aside. I thought many materials in them were quite useful and couldn't be learned in class, so I clipped and sorted them for later use." Over the years, he has accumulated tons of clippings, well sorted and classified in Chinese geography, world geography, climate and geology. This bit-by-bit built collection has become his source of inspiration. By sharing his clippings with students, he hopes they will not limit themselves to textbooks, but open up their vision by reading more about the latest research findings and become a conscientious learner.
Each summer he takes students to different places for internships. He believes field trips are a salient feature of geography. Knowledge learned in classroom is not enough. Travelling ten thousand miles with close observation and hands-on practice is the prerequisite of success. Field trips are a hard work and the most difficult part for teachers and students is lodging/accommodation and transportation. Often they could only afford to cram to sleep on wide beds and hire insecurity-looking mini vans due to their limited budget. Not eating on time was just normal. They would bring with them steamed buns, bread and fruit and give local farmers money for a bowl of hot noodles. Going through these hardships is no guarantee of desirable data. For Yan Junping, it is helpful even if the results are not satisfactory. "After all, we have found out this path is a dead end, so next time we'll try another." he said.
"Nature has the final say"
Looking back on his 30-year experience of teaching and research, Yan Junping said that "You must choose a field that you are really interested in and make a clear long-term clear plan." He has been focusing his research in two areas: natural disaster and regional sustainable development. His interest was first sparked when he took the graduate course of Arid Area Geography taught by regional geography expert Song Deming. He discovered many of its contents were in the category of natural disaster but there was no special research in natural disaster in China. Yan Junping made up his mind and committed several decades to research in natural disaster, opening up a new area of geographic research. In his book Restudy on Temporal-Spatial Symmetry of Major Natural Disasters published this October, Yan Junping used the method of symmetry principle in his previous book, Study in Temporal-Spatial Symmetry of Major Natural Disasters, to study and predict the natural disasters in major regions in China.
If the studies in natural disasters are mainly out of personal interest, his research in regional sustainable development is meant to meet the demands of China's Western Development strategy. While speaking of the current situation of regional sustainable development in northwest China, Yan Junping looked worried. When he was investigating at Turban Basin in Xinjiang, he heard a 15-year-old Uygur girl complain, "Planting trees! Planting trees! Planting trees means digging up underground water and the water becomes less and less!" Yan Junping was shocked as she had told an inconvenient truth: Planting trees would consume more water resources, especially in the already arid northwest China. This vicious cycle results in the paradox that behind the apparent "greener" environment there is more severe water shortage. Yan Junping suggests to implement policies such as "restoring farmland to grassland" and "ecological purchase" to ease the ecological deterioration. "The ecological system in northwest China is too fragile. Conditions in northern Shaanxi province have been improving, but are still grim in Xinjiang and Qinghai."
Yan Junping believes that "Nature has the final say and we must respect nature." He hopes his students take up the responsibility to make their own contribution to the protection of natural environment, making the world a better place. This is the biggest expectation of this Erudite Scholar for his students.
Text by Yan Xueshi, Feng Wei
Photo by Tian Tao