Cheng was among four U professors who received the U’s Distinguished Teaching Award for 2014. He said his strategy is to take students out of “their own worlds” in an attempt to “force them to see through the perspective of someone else.”
“I like having students imagine something outside their own comfort zone,” Cheng said.
Barry Weller, chair of the U’s English Department, said students leave Cheng’s classes with “expanded horizons,” after learning about colonialism and expansionism.
In his graduate and undergraduate courses, Cheng challenges students to contemplate and respond to tough questions. For example, how it would feel to be Jewish in “turn of the century” Ireland or to be a non-white native under British imperialism, through the power of literature. Cheng’s passion for teaching literature and pushing students to empathize with people identified as “others,” extends beyond the books.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Cheng spent one afternoon each week volunteering and teaching creative writing at a state prison. Cheng said this experience pushed him to “come up with whole new approaches” for teaching. After completing his doctorate, Cheng taught at the University of Southern California for 20 years. During that time, he also taught poetry classes in a community high school twice a week.
“When I first walked into the high school, I threw my notes out the window,” Cheng said. “I realized I had to make [the students] care.”
He said these different audiences have “helped to expand my teaching tools … [and] made my teaching across the board better.”
Cheng said he chose to teach at the U simply because he likes the West. He said his first priority at the university lies in teaching, not in scholarships or management.
“When I’ve walked out after a particularly good class, sometimes I think, ‘Hey, they actually pay me to do this,’ ” he said.