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Meet John Cheng, Asian and Asian American Studies

By Eseosa Olumhense

John Cheng

New Asian and Asian American Studies assistant professor John Cheng believes that science fiction, fanboy culture and actor Kevin Bacon can help us better understand social network theory.

Complex and interdisciplinary in nature, social network theory involves the study of links between social agents and identifies patterns and common behaviors within groups of such agents. Cheng's work centers on patterns and behaviors of a very particular group: science-fiction fanboys.

"Science fiction is not just about stories and movies," Cheng says. "It's actually something that involves a lot of people. Science fiction is about the fans; it connected people who were interested in both science and in science fiction. You can actually track the kind of networks that they created."

Cheng, who wrote a book on science fiction and fanboy phenomena called Astounding Wonder, says he became engrossed in the field after studying how fans communicated with one another over time through the publication of fan magazines. "I began reading about that and then I started reading about the social network theory," he says. "It turns out there is a lot that relates."

In chronicling this overlap, Cheng also became aware of the "small-world issue," a theory of social connection that attempts to illustrate just how connected two social agents are.

"There's this thing known as the small-world issue," he says. "In popular culture, you might know it as six degrees of separation, or six degrees of Kevin Bacon. It's now become something that people study. You can now calculate a movie star's 'Kevin Bacon number.'"

According to Cheng, studies of connectivity like this are relevant to our understanding of social relationships and patterns, especially in a world where social media and online networks dominate.

While all of the above might seem like an unusual area of focus for faculty in his field, social network theory is one of the many emergent fields that Cheng is studying, which include immigration and naturalization policy, critical race theory, American popular culture and digital humanities.

Cheng was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States at the age of 2, settling in Portland, Ore. He later attended Harvard University, earning a bachelor's in history and science, later earning a master's and doctoral degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

Since Berkeley, Cheng has taught at a number of institutions, including George Mason University and Northwestern University. He has also championed a great deal of research and holds a patent for developing both a method and apparatus for fiber optic time domain reflectometry.

It is hard to debate that he is not a barrier breaker across the disciplines. But one of the most interesting (and little known) things about Cheng's history is that he actually taught the first Asian and Asian American Studies class at Binghamton University, as a PhD student.

"I was here almost 20 years ago," Cheng says. "I was hired to teach the first Asian American Studies class at Binghamton. It was actually the first time I had ever taught my own class."
Thinking back, Cheng admits that though the course was successful, he was petrified at the prospect of teaching a class so large. The class consisted of 100 students, a class size that Cheng has only ever taught that one time.

"I was terrified. It was more like being a talk show host. ... it was more like a performance. Your body language changes, your voice changes. That was interesting."

That aside, Cheng says the course was an exciting opportunity for him as a new instructor and for his students. He is a firm believer in the significance of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University. "It's important," he says. "There is a bias that some people have because they assume that the history is not that important."

Two decades later, Cheng's focus has expanded, and he is constantly working to push the academic envelope. In addition to his study of social network theory, he is introducing digital humanities and science fiction courses for the spring semester. He will also be working with Asian and Asian American students to develop community outreach projects in the hope that students can be exposed to "practical, meaningful" work during their time.

Ultimately, Cheng implores his students never to sell themselves short and to take advantage of their time here.

"Students at Binghamton are really smart," he says. "There are students here that are smarter than some of the people I went to (Harvard) with."


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Last Updated: 3/1/17