Cathy Schlund-Vials spent eight years living in England, part of growing up as the adopted daughter of a career U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant who rotated to military bases at home (Florida, Georgia, and Texas) and abroad. Considering herself “a bit of an Anglophile” when she decided to pursue a doctoral degree at UMass Amherst, Schlund-Vials planned to focus on British literature in her studies.
After enrolling in a class titled “History and Memory,” an ethnic American literature course that was taught by the noted literary critic Joseph Skerrett, she found herself moving down a different path. “It was the first time I had a professor of color who taught literature by people of color,” says Schlund-Vials, who was born in Thailand following the liaison of her Cambodian mother and American father and was later adopted, with her twin brother, by a mixed-race couple, an American of German-Scots-Irish heritage and his Japanese wife. “I finally saw myself in the literature.”
A professor of English, Schlund-Vials has served since 2010 as director of UConn’s Asian and Asian American Studies Institute and also is president of the National Association for Asian American Studies. “I try to make the experience of Asian American people relevant to non–Asian Americans,” she says.
While the course title is “Asian American Literature,” Schlund-Vials feels she is teaching a class in U. S. literature because the mix of fiction and nonfiction books that her students read explore themes and topics tied to the American experience, particularly conflicts during the latter half of the 20th century.
“In order to understand the Asian American experience, with the exception of South Asian Americans, you have to talk about war,” she says. “I also think it’s something that makes it a U.S. literature course. I’ve taught courses on the Vietnam War and I would always teach someone like Tim O’Brien [“The Things They Carried”], but pair it with a Vietnamese author. It’s really stunning how students in the class have very little understanding of Vietnam. But once they get to the end, they’re making connections to contemporary U.S. policy.”
Students write analytically throughout the semester, answering questions based on the readings. They also write longer midterm and final papers. Schlund-Vials describes the six- to eight-page midterm assignment as a “cultural artifact,” where the writer must examine primary documents — books, news articles, films, or songs — created by a person who lived during the time period the student is researching. The 10- to 12-page final paper can either expand upon the midterm or move in a new direction. She hopes such longer writing will assist students as they continue their education.
“This is kind of the way graduate school works,” she says. “You work through a paper over the course of a semester.”
Schlund-Vials’ Teaching Style
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, Schlund-Vials says many of her classes were lecture halls filled with hundreds of students, and she did not know her professors well. “I feel that when I talk to students, they’re not just students. They’re my future colleagues, so I try to engage them,” she says.
As they enter the classroom, she appears to greet each of the nearly 40 students enrolled in the class by name, asking how a project is progressing in another class or how they are feeling after the previous week’s bout with a cold. When she asks a question about the book under discussion, hands around the room go up, just as they do when she asks someone to read a passage. Everyone is called on by name.
“I’m very interested in what students have to say,” says Schlund-Vials. “I’ve read these works time and again, although I consistently change up the texts. It’s amazing to me how they read it and provide a new insight that I’ve never even thought about. They’re coming into it without all of the baggage I’m coming into it with as somebody who is a scholar of this work. I take very seriously that these are all individuals.”
Schlund-Vials meets with students individually about their class assignments. After each class there is a line of students waiting to chat, some continuing their discussion walking back to her office in the Philip E. Austin Building across from Swan Lake, where most English classes meet. Emails also arrive regularly.
“This is a population that is constantly emailing,” she says. “I respond to emails very quickly. I try to get to know all of the students.”
Why We Would Want to Take the Class Ourselves
Starting with the first week of class, Schlund-Vials conducts what she calls “an immigration exercise,” asking students to stand and indicate where they were born. Questions move on to the birthplace of their parents and grandparents. Soon, towns and cities in the U.S. give way to locations on other continents, and students begin to understand that everyone has an immigrant family history.
“I also say we’re going to talk about immigration exclusion, and if you’re Italian or Eastern European or Irish, it is a matter of luck that your family came here before there was an immigration restriction,” she says, noting Congress established national immigration quotas in 1924. “I always try to highlight that what happened to Asian Americans also happened to other ethnic groups.”
Schlund-Vials says most of her work is about trying to understand her adoptive parents and their history rather than her own personal story of growing up as a person of mixed race.
“I never talk about mixed race with the exception of one piece that I’ve authored, even though one would think that’s all I would talk about,” she says. “I had grown up understanding quite intimately race and racial formation. When we lived in Georgia, there was one incident where a white supremacist group came to our house, likely in the middle of the night, and keyed our car and burned a cross on our yard. We were the only mixed-race family in the neighborhood.”
The “History and Memory” class so many years ago served as an epiphany for Schlund-Vials. “I was very conscious of race, but it wasn’t until I was in that class that I saw that it’s part of the American experience. It’s not something that’s marginal; it’s actually quite mainstream.”