Floyd Cheung, Vice President for the Office for Inclusion and Equity at Smith College, brings together his love of literature with his passion for inclusive teaching practices.
I grew up as an immigrant child from Hong Kong who didn’t know what it meant to be an American with my face. The actor Victor Wong once explained that he did not have a manual for how to be Asian American so he had to write it for himself. I, too, felt like I had to do this, but unlike Wong, I turned to literature for models of how to navigate America.
My earliest inspirations came from many cultural backgrounds. I learned from writers like Richard Wright, Chiam Potok, Maya Angelou, and Maxine Hong Kingston – and I took inspiration from writers who were not even American, like James Joyce and Sei Shōnagon.
The nerdy truth is that I became a professor of literature because I loved learning from literature about life, the world, and the power of art; because I wanted to share that love with students.
I loved literature, and I loved my students. Becoming a better teacher helped me to bring these loves together.
As I began my career as an assistant professor at Smith College, I realized that I had a lot to learn about teaching. While my grad school education had taught me how to be a literary critic and historian, I learned little about how to be a good teacher.
Fortunately, Smith College provided many opportunities for faculty development. The Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning was born in 2009. I loved literature, and I loved my students. Becoming a better teacher helped me to bring these loves together.
Eventually I had the honor of serving as the Director of the Sherrerd Center. After that, President Kathleen McCartney called me to serve as the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion.
For the time being, I’m teaching very little, but I have a chance to be helpful at the institutional level. I have always cared about inclusive teaching. Now I get to work on advancing equity and inclusion in broader ways.
I recently wrote a piece for Faculty Focus on five strategies for engaging students in class discussions. One of the most promising is valuing half-formed thoughts, an idea that I learned from my colleague Al Rudnitsky.
This idea requires the instructor to create an environment in which all participants feel free to think out loud with each other. Students don’t have to be smart or correct. They only need to be curious and brave. Fully-formed finished thoughts might be called for in other contexts, but I encourage students to share their half-formed ideas and questions in the brave space of our classroom laboratory.
Stay curious, keep learning, and connect with a network of people in your desired field so that you can share resources and lift one another up. I have been privileged to find such networks among my colleagues at Smith and the Five Colleges, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Professional Organizational Developers Network, and the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
Alison Cook-Sather, Director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr, is one of the pioneers and evangelists of pedagogical partnership between teachers and students.
This game-changing approach, which she and her co-authors describe in Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching, promotes not only inclusive teaching but also equity and justice. I am grateful for all that she has taught me personally.
Reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do was a humbling experience that inspired me to reflect on my assumptions about teaching and redouble my efforts to improve. Bain’s book taught me, for example, to organize courses around one compelling question that my students and I return to again and again over the semester.
Instead of reviewing greatest hits, my survey on American literature from 1865 to 1914 now asks, “How did authors from that period draw upon and contest emergent ideas in science to address the challenges of rebuilding the US after the Civil War and incorporating new kinds of immigrants from Asia and non-western Europe?” Bain’s book also changed the way I think about designing my syllabus, providing feedback, and encouraging reflection.
Want to learn more about DEI initiatives in the US context? Check out this conversation with Benjamin Harris, Director of DEI at Emory University’s School of Nursing here.