This fall term, we welcome back Kao Kalia Yang (’03) as one of our visiting faculty members. We last checked in with her in April and discussed the role that language has played in her life. Now, as she joins the ranks of the English department faculty, we discuss the impact that her penchant for storytelling will have on her classes. She is currently teaching ENGL 161: Writing Across Genres and ENGL 261: Telling Your American Story.
As an alum, how does it feel to be on the other side of the desk?
It feels like cold, carbonated soda on a hot, humid day. My return to Carleton’s classroom, this time as a professor, gives me keen perspective on where my students are positioned. Yes, there are things I have to learn and negotiate, important realizations that time has passed. For example, pronoun sensitivity. It was once an easier landscape to call men and women just that, men and women, now I understand we all have to be much more aware, and this is a good thing. I was a first generation college student from a low-income family, a Hmong student on a college campus without many, a student whose library was the bit of ground my family has rested on temporarily through, not that world or its great libraries. As a student, I could not say that these facets of me were relevant to the classroom. This time around, I get to say that where we come from matters in where we are, and it shapes where we’re going. My return to Carleton has been good because it is clear to me that my students have not only been receptive but thirsting for the learning I am delivering.
Could you tell us a bit about the classes you’re teaching this term?
This semester I’m teaching an American Studies course titled “Unwritten America” and an English course titled “Writing Across Genres.” They are wonderful. In the first class we explore the world we belong to, seek to learn from the places that have not been easily found in the mainstream, and in the other we get to adventure into our most creative selves on the page before each other. The classes are highly interactive. Today in “Unwritten America” we had Bryan Boyce, founder of Cowtipping Press and a writer named Dar C., an adult with developmental challenges, come visit and talk to us about what it is like to foster and create projects for inclusive and equitable representation in communities with disabilities. In “Writing Across the Genres” we’ll be reading poems by five of my students and discussing their meaning, impact, aesthetics, and more as a group. Both classes demand an investment of heart and courage of mind, but they deliver a much deeper understanding of our shared human experience each and every time we meet.
Which classes will you be teaching in the spring?
In spring, I’ll just be teaching one writing course, relevant for both American Studies and English, “Writing Your American Story.” I’m already looking forward to the stories that we produce and the positive change they will create.
In other interviews and in your last check-in with the Miscellany, you really emphasized the power of language and how that has shaped your upbringing. How do you think this influences your teaching style?
Similarly to the languages I occupy, I teach in at least two modes; I switch easily between the traditional, westernized pedagogy of professing and then the circular storytelling norms and survival mentality of my Hmong people. I incorporate written texts to garner a sense of history and a foundation on the page and then improvise with youtube clips and whatever resources I can gather. There’s a sense of urgency to me as a person and I think this communicates in my teaching. We are learning so we can build strong, meaningful lives that matter to the places and people we journey with, those who we never get to meet. I try to give my students, as I do my words, the biggest opportunities to make impact.
What is one thing you hope your students will take away from your classes?
I hope my students have fun. I hope they learn new and important things about the different people we share this world with (particularly the ones they don’t know about, or the pieces of themselves that don’t get positive attention). I hope they understand that we’re not just taking a class together, but that we, for this moment time, get to participate and shift the trajectory of each other’s life story forever. I want my students to find meaning in the things I am teaching them, learning from them, discovering with them.
You’ve already visited Carleton in the past; in 2014 you were one of our convocation speakers. Do you have plans to return again in the future? (We sure hope so!)
Yes, I would love to return to Carleton again. I am now old enough to understand that much of life is about the return to the people and places who make us who we become, that it is our journey in the becoming of others that matters in the long end.