Law professor Joel Eisen's decision to travel to China as a Fulbright professor last spring was a “leap of faith.” Prior to his acceptance into the prestigious international educational exchange program, Eisen had never been to China.

“What attracted me was the challenge of teaching Chinese law students and influencing them in China, with its rule by one party,” he explains. “I wanted to help them learn about Western norms regarding the law and what that would mean to them.”

At Richmond, Eisen teaches classes in environmental and energy law to law students and an undergraduate course on environmental law and policy. As a Fulbright Scholar, he taught two classes at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing: Energy Law and International Environmental Law.

During his five months in China, Eisen discovered similarities between Chinese and Richmond law students; many were concerned about getting a job in the current economy.

There were also marked differences. In China, for example, interactive classroom discussions are virtually non-existent.

“This was their first exposure to the sort of critical thinking that is necessary in an American law school,” Eisen says. “Getting them involved in class discussions was very challenging because they are not used to that.”

Prior to his visit, Eisen shared a common Western perception that tends to see China as a major polluter of air and water because of its vast manufacturing enterprises.

But Eisen, who is a leader in the field of environmental law and energy policy, was pleased to see that China has an aggressive renewable energy law.

“In some respects, it is more aggressive than ours,” he says. “There is tremendous growth and deployment of solar and wind technology. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get this technology up and going.”

One perception that did have merit was that China’s urban air quality continues to be poor. Even though the government is making attempts to help correct pollution from vehicles, what little progress is made is often overshadowed by a growing population and mounting traffic congestion. Currently, China has 49 cities with more than one million people, and the number of vehicles on the road doubled between 2003 and 2008.

Eisen asked his students in China to become more involved in improving the environment. “That’s a complex challenge,” he says. “In the end, if I inspired any of them to dedicate themselves to improving the environment in China, that would be a good outcome from the trip.”

During his time in China, Eisen also had the opportunity to talk with Chinese professors and top Chinese and foreign environmentalists. Each meeting gave him a better perspective of life in China.

Now that he’s back home, Eisen is taking all that he learned in China and integrating it into his classes.

“I learned a lot more about being a teacher,” he says. “I had to depart from what I usually do, and I found that to be a useful exercise. It made me a better teacher because I had to focus on the core of what it is I am talking about in any given class.”

Eisen is working on projects with environmentalists and lawyers in China and says he plans to return soon.

This article by Joan Tupponce originally appeared in the October 2009 edition of Richmond Now.