Dr. Kin-Yan Szeto

Professor uses the arts for cross-cultural teaching
Friday, November 30, 2012

For each academic degree Dr. Kin-Yan Szeto has earned, she studied in a different locale – first in her native Hong Kong, then the United Kingdom, mainland China and the United States.

“Universities are a great place for us to study and work with people from other cultures. I treasure the education experiences that students can have in college because of what we learn about ourselves and others,” said Szeto, who joined the Department of Theatre and Dance in 2005.

An expert in performance studies, Szeto came to Appalachian as part of the Faculty Fellows Program, which works to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty. She is among a growing number of Appalachian faculty members with international backgrounds – a figure that may be at least 10 to 15 percent, according to the Office of International Education and Development.

Since coming to Appalachian, Szeto has integrated interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies in her research and teaching, both in theatre courses and in general education courses, and has produced cross-cultural theatre productions.

Szeto finds the arts to be a cultural bridge to better understanding humanity – “to see our differences and also what we have in common. We all have pain, suffering, joy,” she said.

Jonathan Fitts ’11 says Szeto profoundly influenced him as a student, scholar and playwright. Now an M.F.A. candidate in dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Fitts said, “I firmly believe that the theory she exposed me to and our critical discussion of it helped shape my artist's conscience.”

As a student in her performance studies class, Fitts said Szeto offered “a perspective alternative to my own (and, largely, the class's) in terms of cultural practices, political views and sociological perceptions,” he said. “Regularly we were brought to question what degree our perceptions of certain issues were informed by our American lens.”

Both Fitts and current student Tim Reis reference their involvement in the department’s production of Gao Xingjian's “The Other Shore,” which Szeto directed in spring 2011. “Aspiring to produce a work of Chinese post-modern theatre at a university in a rural Appalachian town takes a great deal of courage, and she never wavered in her commitment to the project, understanding the tremendous value it would have for her students,” Fitts recalled.

At the time, few American theatres had performed “The Other Shore,” Reis said. As “westernized thinkers,” Reis said he and his peers had difficulty understanding the nuances of the show's themes – of tension between the individual and the collective, and of the Buddhist idea of freedom.

“She gave us the background and worked with us to improve our understanding of the culture and Eastern philosophy through meditation and group discussions. She was patient and shared her knowledge with us all at our own pace – as we were practically reshaping our entire life philosophy and way of thinking,” said Reis, now a senior. That experience led him to add theatre arts as a major in addition to social work.

“I find students today know a lot about the outside world through the Internet, they’re open and want to learn more and are excited to learn something different,” Szeto said. “All of us in education want students to broaden their horizons and see things differently. I was blessed to have professors who inspired me, and now I want to inspire them.”

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