MLL Department Welcomes Assistant Professor Thomas Chen

The Department of Modern Languages and Literatures is pleased to welcome Thomas Chen, Ph.D. as our newest Assistant Professor of Chinese! 

Lehigh student Kim Mejia '19 recently sat down with Professor Chen for an informal Q&A session - read on to learn more...

Q: What classes do you teach this semester? What are you going to teach next semester?

A: This semester I’m teaching Chinese 298: The Art of the Chinese Essay. It is a course on Chinese prose from the 20th century. Next semester, I’ll be teaching two classes: one [taught in English] called "Protest Narratives in Modern China" (MLL 097), which will focus specifically on literature and film that directly relates to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest. The Chinese-language course will be one that is called "China Pop" (CHIN 297).  Broadly speaking, it’s on pop culture, current pop culture, and this particular iteration of the course will focus on a Chinese sitcom, in fact, the first ever sitcom in the Chinese language which was made in the early '90s and there’s a laugh track and everything.


Q: How do you like Lehigh’s campus and students?

A: I think the campus is gorgeous, it reminds me of the campus of my alma mater at Cornell because it’s just as hilly. I actually prefer the Northeast part of the country even though I got my Ph.D. at UCLA. I love the change of seasons.  I look forward to seeing the leaves change color even more.
I think the students are very motivated and I really enjoy that. I have noticed that the students are perhaps more engineering and business-oriented, but I don’t see that has a disadvantage or a drawback. It’s more of an opportunity for me to encourage them in a way that appeals to them. I can tweak and modify what I usually teach in such a way that speaks to their own interests and passions. I don’t find that to be something that’s an obstacle to an effective connection with my students.


Q: Why did you choose Lehigh?

A: I chose Lehigh because I had literally one of the best experiences of my life during my campus visit. From the moment I met my current (or then-future-colleague) Constance Cook, we really hit it off. On that first night I also met with Kiri Lee, the MLL Chair, and they made me feel that Lehigh is where I see myself. That feeling only increased on the next day when I did the committee interview and the interview with the Dean. Most importantly, the research job-talk which I gave towards the end of my second day.  To just see so many faculty members present and, even more importantly, so many students present, too… it was very touching to see such a well-organized event but also an enthusiastic response from everybody in this community. It just won me over! When I got the phone call from Professor Lee offering me the job there was no hesitation, I knew I was coming here.


Q: Do you like the fact that Lehigh is a small campus? Was that a factor when applying for this position?

A: Coming from Cornell and UCLA for my Ph.D., I enjoy the sense of close-knit community that you get here. Everything is within reach, you always run into people that you know and catch up. So, this is a plus of the Lehigh community.


Q: What research and projects related to your research are you working on right now?

A: Currently, I’m taking a break from revising my dissertation into a book manuscript. I’m putting that aside to work on a short-term project on specifically the Chinese adaptation of the American Hollywood film 12 Angry Men. So in China, there came out a movie last year called 12 Citizens and it pretty much follows the storyline of 12 Angry Men except they localize it. I find it a fascinating interpretation of this movie in the Chinese local context because there actually is no jury system in China. So, the movie uses instead the conceit that students are preparing for a law school class. Part of their assignment is to hold a trial on such a murder case involving a jury committee to make the decisions. I believe that it’s a movie that reveals a lot about the current political and legal culture in China. I will explore themes of governance and rule of law in this paper.


Q: Do you have projects that integrate your research with teaching?

A: The class that I’ll be teaching next semester, the "Protest Narratives in Modern China," (the one of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest), actually is very much related to my dissertation project. My dissertation looks at how literature and films that resonate with the 1989 protests gather together members of the Chinese audience into what I call “alternative publics”; that is, publics that are not sanctioned by the Chinese state. These could be underground, they could take place on the Chinese internet. So, it is in these more or less marginal spaces or communities of readers where spectators can share their thoughts and find new avenues for historical memory.


Q: What is the most important thing you want students to know about you?

A: I want them to know I am very much devoted to teaching, that I take teaching seriously. What’s more, I want them to know that I may set a high standard but I only do that for two reasons: so that I, too, can match the standard that I set for them, and also to bring out all the potential that lies within them. I always want to challenge my students because I feel that it’s a form of respect when you push them, when you treat them as your intellectual equals. That’s when they respond to your teaching the most, I feel. As much as I may demand from them, I also demand that much from myself. I want them to know that this is not a professor who only cares about his research [or] who does not give an extra moment to teaching. I also don’t want them to think that my class will be an “easy ‘A’” because it will not be an “easy ‘A.” But, I hope that they will get a lot out of this experience by working hard.


Q: What’s the most important thing you want to learn here at Lehigh.

A: What I want to learn at Lehigh is to be a more complete professional. By that I mean, for the past seven years I was a grad student. A student whose main tasks were research, working on my dissertation, and to some extent teaching, as a TA mostly, although I did teach my own classes as well. Now I see my role as a researcher, as a teacher, and as a contributor to the culture of this department, this college, and ultimately the university. I want to be a more complete professional in the sense that I want to understand what’s going on at the departmental level, at the college and university level, and not just solely be focused on my own work, whether that be teaching or research. I want to think beyond the strictures of research and teaching and really get to know the workings of a university from a higher perspective.


Q: What are you looking forward to with your time here at Lehigh?

A: I want to bring to the students’ attention how vibrant the study of China can be. I want more students to be interested in the Chinese language and Chinese culture. I hope to really grow this section of this department, the Chinese section. I also look forward to constantly creating new curricula. I always want to teach new things because that’s a challenge to myself. By keeping things new, by keeping things fresh: I think [that] is the surest way to stay alert, to set a high standard for my myself, and engage student attention.


(edited by S. Alburger)