“It is professors like Emma Teng who make MIT such a wonderful place to be a student. She takes time to get to know her students on a personal level, and pushes us to succeed—not only in her classes but also in our careers at MIT and beyond.”
— Student nominator for MacVicar Faculty Fellow Award
During her 16 years at MIT, Emma Teng, T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and an Associate Professor of China studies, has distinguished herself as one of the Institute's finest teachers, making an indelible impression on students in her courses, and those who seek her guidance on a wide range of topics.
"Students come to her when they need academic advice, when they need a letter of recommendation, when they need a staff liaison for their student group, or when they just need some guidance," writes one student. "They know that she will take the time to listen to them and that she cares deeply about their well-being."
In March 2013, Teng was formally recognized for her impact on MIT students, receiving the prestigious MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, which honors MIT faculty members who demonstrate sustained excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.
Teng said she was as surprised as she was honored by the accolade, which is based on nomiations from students and faculty, but it was not surprising to her students and colleagues. They submitted nominations for Teng that collectively describe a remarkable ability to engage students in thinking about challenging material and relating complex concepts to student's life experiences.
Connecting history and experience
In her courses in Chinese literature, East Asian cultures, Asian American studies, and women's studies, Teng — who holds degrees in East Asian languages and civilizations from Harvard University — explores historical and contemporary topics concerning Asian history, culture, and literature.
“Teaching culture and history can be a difficult task as it touches on issues which may be close to students’ hearts,” writes one of her student nominators. “Professor Teng combines rigorous historical and cultural history with students’ own voices. She encourages us to write about our experiences in the context of the intellectual frameworks she presents, strengthening both our understanding of the theoretical background and our ability to connect this theory with our own stories.”
Some of the examples Teng presents in class aim to dispel presumptions that students may take for granted, such as the belief that Asian Americans are genetically predisposed to excel in mathematics, or that women and minorities are underrepresented in technology fields for the same reason. Teng employs historical material to illustrate the root causes of such misconceptions and to debunk them.
“By studying these topics, students will have a broader understanding of the meanings of race and ethnicity in our society, and the direct relation to educational inequities,” Teng observes. “It’s a broader social issue, but it informs the experiences our students are living right now at MIT.”
Several of Teng's MacVicar Faculty Fellowship nominations also emphasized her genuine interest in the well being of her MIT students.
“It is professors like Emma Teng who make MIT such a wonderful place to be a student,” writes one nominator. “She takes time to get to know her students on a personal level and pushed us to succeed not only at her classes, but also in our careers at MIT and beyond.”
Another student wrote, “I was struck by how much she knew about her students. It was as if she had her finger on the pulse of student life at MIT… Professor Teng isn’t just a professor you can talk to, she is someone who will take the first step and ask you about your classes, your research, or even observe that you’ve been looking a little tired.”
In conversation with students Teng discovered early in her career that a large majority of her MIT students are exploring issues of their own bi-cultural and/or biracial identity, and how these issues affect dating and marriage. “A lot of them wanted to pursue final paper topics on these areas," says Teng, "and they were very interested in discussing these topics during class discussion. I could see that these were very pertinent social issues that related to many young people at MIT today.”
This summer, Teng will release her new book, Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943 (California University Press), a work of scholarship inspired by discussions with MIT students. In the book, she examines a wide range of ideas about race and identity in both American and Chinese cultures, comparing the ideas to discern how they have influenced the formation of complex identities on both sides of the Pacific.
Teng explores variable factors that contribute to common cultural presumptions surrounding identity. For example, she notes, President Barack Obama, although of biracial heritage, is widely perceived as our country’s first African-American president. In China and Hong Kong, however, he would be identified based principally on his paternal descent, rather than by the color-coded identities prevalent in U.S. culture.
“It is very interesting to compare these two systems of categorization, and to see that the way Eurasians are classified in these two societies differs radically,” says Teng.
During the research for her latest project, Teng consulted SHASS scholars from various disciplines — history, anthropology, philosophy, literature, and women and gender studies — a process she says enriched the final product. Although diverse, the SHASS disciplines boast a distinct community atmosphere, facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration — an MIT signature that Teng has come to relish.
Of all the joys of MIT, Teng says it's the students themselves who make teaching at MIT such a unique and rewarding experience.
"For me, the students are the best thing about being at MIT," Teng says. "They're hardworking, they're smart, and they do not carry a sense of entitlement. That is very refreshing!" They also possess an openness and inqusitiveness about our world, as well as a drive to learn more about the people and their respective cultures who comprise it, Teng continues.
"At MIT, the humanities, arts, and social sciences all contribute to our students' intellectual and personal growth," says Teng. "This is vital because college is a time for students to explore their identities and inner lives, in addition to gaining professional expertise and training.
On several occasions former students have contacted Teng to discuss their experiences in different societies and to ask for her perspective on their encounters. Some have made their photographs and blog posts available for Teng to use in class discussions. Teng treasures these characteristics in her students, and is humbled to see how classroom learning extends into the world beyond MIT.
"Humanities and social sciences courses engage students in curiosity about the world," says Teng, "whether it's the world at MIT, or the larger world they experience when they travel. At the same time, our courses arm students with the tools to ask questions, uncover information, and assemble stories about a place and how it has come to be."
Many of Teng's students will go on to become global leaders in science and technology fields, and she is gratified to know that their humanities, language, and culture studies will help guide their leadership. "At MIT, we see that the critical thinking skills and perspectives our students gain in learning about politics, culture, language, economics, and history are invaluable for helping them tackle the great challenges of our time."
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Photography: Jon Sachs