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Zu-yan Chen promoted to distinguished teaching professor

By Katie Ellis

Zu-yan Chen, professor in Harpur College’s Asian and Asian American Studies Department and director of the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera, has been promoted to distinguished teaching professor for his contributions to the educational mission of Binghamton University over the past 27 years.

Zu-yan Chen

Promotion to the distinguished teaching rank recognizes the mastery of teaching at the graduate, undergraduate or professional levels.

“Dr. Chen is a superb teacher whose impact has been felt well beyond the Binghamton University classroom,” wrote President Harvey Stenger in Chen’s nomination letter. “He was critical to the development of Asian and Asian American Studies from a handful of Chinese language courses to a department offering a major, minor and master’s degree.”

Chen’s students also describe his passion for teaching, calling him “magnanimous, cogent and inclusive”; “open and approachable”; and a “master of soliciting divergent ideas.”

“It’s a great honor and to me it’s a big encouragement to keep doing the best for our students and our University,” Chen said. “Our University is an intellectually challenging environment, allowing us to do our best and achieve at all levels.”

Chen came to Binghamton University in 1987, hired into the Department of German and Russian, which became the Department of German, Russian and East Asian Languages after his arrival. As additional East Asian language courses were added, the Asian and Asian American Studies Department was spun off into its own department. Establishment of the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera five years ago, though separate from the department, further enhanced the teaching of East Asian languages at Binghamton.

A successful program builder, Chen commends his colleagues for the collaboration that has helped to grow the department. “We have many colleagues working together and it’s very exciting,” he said.

The Chinese program has grown from the few introductory courses offered when Chen arrived into what is now a large and comprehensive program offering a major, minor and graduate concentration in the new Master of Arts program of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

With no lack of four-year language courses, as well as a focus on literature, culture and society, the department also offers majors and minors in Japanese studies and Korean studies, in addition to Asian and Asian American Studies.

Chen believes that learning about the culture of a country is a vital aspect of teaching the language of that country, and both students and faculty benefit from their connections.

“Teaching is a field of inquiry, so a teacher should be dedicated to the scholarship of the field and an effective teacher should have an excellent understanding of the subject being taught and the underlying pedagogical theory,” Chen said. “My major field is pre-modern Chinese poetry and I needed to teach language as well, but I couldn’t find good textbooks that integrate language and culture at the advanced levels.”

To rectify that, Chen has written five textbooks in recent years, noteworthy for their combination of classical Chinese, modern Chinese and cultural content. “These books, the texts themselves are well-known cultural, historical stories, so the students learn the authentic material as a language text. The students like the textbooks and this innovative approach has been praised by pedagogy experts as well,” Chen said.

With the enrichment of the Confucius Institute, there is an even stronger language-cultural connection, Chen said. “They help each other.”

Carrie Buck, a 2014 Binghamton graduate, is one example of how marrying language and culture can provide a strong foundation and growth opportunities for students. A double major in Chinese studies and Spanish, Buck participated as a freshman in the Chinese Bridge Competition, a worldwide Chinese language proficiency contest sponsored by the Confucius Institute Headquarters. Buck was required to give a speech and sing a Chinese song and came away with second place in the junior division of the Northeast U.S. Regional Final.

“We found her talent and focused her and prepared her for growth,” Chen said. “In her sophomore year, she won first place in the junior group and was invited to China to observe the final round of competition.

“I encouraged her to study at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (NACTA) in Beijing, which gave her a scholarship and she studied there for a semester,” Chen said. “When she came back and competed in New York City for the third time, she won first place in the senior group and was qualified to compete in China in the final round.”

Of 126 contestants selected from different countries all over the world, Buck received a third place award. “That’s phenomenal,” Chen said. “Both her language skills and her talent of Beijing Opera and Chinese singing impressed the judges and audience. She is a perfect example of the Confucius Institute and the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies working together.”

And a perfect example of how Chen has become a master teacher.

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Last Updated: 3/1/17