Asian studies professor receives four grants to support teaching, research
St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Chinese Ka Wong has been awarded four grants that he will use to support projects ranging from field research in China to an in-class exploration of what it means to be a hero.
Wong received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), ASIANetwork, and the Digital Humanities on the Hill program.
The Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Grant from ASIANetwork will support Wong’s travels to China this August with three St. Olaf students — Jacob Caswell ’17, Nathalie Kenny ’16, and Cameron Rylander ’16 — to conduct field research for a cross-disciplinary project titled A Tale of Two Eco-Cities: Environmental Awareness and Sustainable Urban Development in Tianjin and Qingdao, China.
Examining the concept and construction of the “Eco-City,” a significant chapter in Chinese environmental development, this cross-disciplinary project combines environmental studies, cultural studies, ethnography, economics, natural science, and engineering. Each of the three students will conduct their own research on distinct aspects of the Eco-City, and they will present their findings at St. Olaf this fall during a symposium on campus.
“We want to understand whether the Chinese public is broadly aware of sustainability, recycling, carbon footprint, urban development, and other environmental concerns,” Wong says. “And we wonder if this has led to a relationship with the Chinese government that embraces pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, as well as support for grassroots, business, and international joint ventures.”
Looking at Asia in the American Midwest
In contrast to visiting China, Wong also received a grant from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) to look at the Asian American experience right at home in the Midwest.
“Midwestern Asians, unlike their coastal counterparts, have been largely overlooked in academic research and literature,” Wong says.
Titled Asia in the American Midwest: Enhancing Diversity, Visibility, and Connectivity through Digital Learning, the project will look at devising digital teaching and learning materials from a uniquely Midwestern perspective that all colleges in the ACM can share. This will be an expansion of Wong’s current Asia in Northfield project.
Wong will also focus on the Midwest in terms of Japanese American experiences during World War II for a project sponsored by the Digital Humanities on the Hill (DHH) Summer Grants program.
While Japanese families were being placed in internment camps during the war, St. Olaf was one of the very few higher education institutions that accepted Japanese American students. In 1943 and 1944, 10 Japanese American students enrolled, representing seven of the 10 internment camps nationwide.
“Their stories offer fertile ground and a distinct vantage point from which to view American history, and St. Olaf is in a very special position to offer important insights on this topic,” Wong says.
He will create a digital project that will include ethnographic videos, visual artifacts, critical analysis and readings, as well as research tools “to bring key issues such as race, culture, identity, nationalism, and diversity to the forefront of our discussion of American society and history,” he says.
Examining an enduring question
In addition to all of these projects, Wong received an Enduring Questions Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a new course at St. Olaf that examines a simple question: “What is a hero?”
The course, which will be offered this fall, will prompt students to consider and investigate various questions about heroism: What does it take to become a hero? How are heroes different in various cultures? What is the heroic way to live, and more importantly, to die? Is a hero simply someone we admire and respect? In a post-9/11 world, can our own hero be someone else’s villain?
“To ask these questions is to explore fundamental ideas of the humanities,” Wong says. “I believe that a course that asks ‘What is a hero?’ will not only intrigue our students but will also motivate them to read widely across cultures and reflect on their own understanding of morality, mortality, heroism, patriotism, and good versus evil.”