Bringing Fiction Writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap to My English Class through the Community College Internationalization Fellowship Program
by Stephen Pierson, Professor of English, Onondaga Community College
As Featured in the Fall 2021 SEAP Bulletin, with support from the Community College Internationalization Fellowship Program, a joint post-secondary outreach initiative shared by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, South Asia Program, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, Professor Stephen Pierson from Onondaga Community College brought fiction writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap to his virtual English classroom as part of a project to internationalize his curricula and highlight diverse voices.
When I learned about the Community College Internationalization Fellowship (CCIF)—a year-long, competitive professional development opportunity for local community college faculty—it had an immediate appeal. This program represents one of SEAP’s many collaborative outreach initiatives aiming to help prepare students to become global-minded citizens by facilitating community college faculty engagement with Cornell University’s area studies programs and the South Asia Center at Syracuse University.
At Onondaga Community College, where I have been teaching English composition and literature for almost twenty years, I played a major role in creating the International/Global Studies Minor, headed up the International Education Committee and ESL Mentoring Service, offered service-learning projects to students working with resettled refugees, and tutored resettled refugees myself through Catholic Charities and Hopeprint, a Core Partner of the Refugee Alliance of Greater Syracuse. Additionally, I have enjoyed teaching Composition 1 with a globalization theme.
All of these activities were undertaken in response to Onondaga Community College’s (OCC) longstanding initiative to internationalize the curriculum. Consequently, the CCIF presented me with an opportunity to internationalize my Composition 2 syllabus (Writing About Literature) by offering support and resources for creating and teaching a course on the contemporary literature of South and Southeast Asia. The entire 2020 CCIF cohort comprised of seven educators from Cayuga Community College, Monroe Community College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, and my home institution of Onondaga Community College, whose work spanned the disciplines of Fine Arts, Geography, History, Sociology, Spanish, Construction Technology, and English. Being a part of this program turned out to be the silver lining in a year clouded by COVID.
For my CCIF internationalization project, I had originally planned on developing a course that would teach modern world literature, including literature from Africa, East Asia, and Latin America, and South Asia. Fortunately, Ms. Kathi Colen Peck, Cornell’s postsecondary outreach coordinator at the Cornell Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, encouraged me to adopt a narrower focus, such as a module on South and Southeast Asia. It was the first of much sound advice on my project from Ms. Colen Peck and others affiliated with the Center, and I decided to devote the entire class to the contemporary literature of the two regions.
One of the biggest challenges in developing this course was selecting the texts. Not only was the pandemic and a proposed massive reorganization of departments and programs at OCC taking a toll on my nerves, but the contemporary literature of South and Southeast Asia was more massive than I had expected. Having studied classics and comparative Western lit in grad school, I had little to no exposure to literary works of these regions. Ms. Colen Peck helped me surmount this obstacle. She brought on board Dr. Emera Bridger Wilson of the South Asia Center at Syracuse University, Dr. Thamora Fishel of SEAP, and Dr. Daniel Bass of Cornell’s South Asia Program. They assured me I did not have to reinvent the wheel, and after a couple of Zoom meetings and some correspondence, in which they provided me with syllabi, I soon had a syllabus ready and approved by all concerned. What’s more, I was able to locate electronic copies of 80% of the readings, and I made PDFs of the rest. My students—all three sections of English 104: Literature and Composition II—would be reading for free. As a bonus, Ms. Colen Peck provided me with many of the books on the syllabus.
This support was invaluable, but it did not end there. Ms. Colen Peck encouraged me to reach out to two of my colleagues with expertise in South Asia: Drs. David Bzdak and Anisha Saxena, both social studies faculty at OCC. This led to Dr. Saxena becoming the first guest speaker in the class. Dr. Saxena’s visit, in February, was stimulating. She spoke intelligently about the English-language literature and film of India; the historical conflicts among Hindis, Muslims, and Sikhs; as well as about the enduring problems of colorism and sexism in the region. One student, who at the outset of the semester skeptically asked whether the course would be “a geography or English class,” noted that Dr. Saxena made a strong connection with her owing to her own struggles with the racist beliefs that she was taught growing up. This student is now a member of the South Asia Club.
Additionally, several resettled refugee students began to speak up, acknowledging their connections to South and Southeast Asia. One student shared emotional stories about her relatives in Myanmar. The relevance of the course as an example of an internationalized curriculum was now apparent to all. As I write this, I know that students who are staying abreast of the news of the devastating toll that COVID is taking on India will receive it with an understanding and appreciation they would not have without the course. “I’m actually sad this class is over,” student Parker Barrington declared on the last day of class.
I also received help obtaining my second guest speaker, Professor Rattawut Lapcharoensap, acclaimed short story writer, Cornell grad, and creative writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College. Dr. Fishel arranged an introduction by email, and the rest was plain sailing. My students and I had just finished discussing and writing about several of Professor Lapcharoensap’s short stories from his successful collection Sightseeing (2005).[i]
Professor Lapcharoensap’s connection to the students was instantaneous. Dressed in a white, open-collar sport shirt that contrasted with his silky black hair, and seated in front of his massive book collection—including (we infer from his talk) fiction by Amby Bender, Saul Bellows, Anton Chekov, Edward P. Jones, Leonard Michaels, Flannery O’Connor, Leo Tolstoy, among others—Professor Lapcharoensap regaled his audience with a reading of a work-in-progress, a short story called “In the 90s.”
I had misgivings about anyone reading fiction at length via Zoom to my students at this point in the semester, let alone fiction they had not read. Nevertheless, Professor Lapcharoensap’s reading was spellbinding. After he read for ten minutes and proposed to begin the Q&A, one student interjected, “Please continue!” Another seconded, “Yes, please read more.” And so he did, giving his audience another twenty minutes of a tour de force of narrative fiction concerning the associations of the death of a loved one and the end of an era. Although the students could have listened to Professor Lapcharoensap read for another hour, the Q&A that followed his reading was delightful and enlightening. READ MORE
[i] Lapcharoensap, Rattawut, and Dennis Keesmaat. 2005. Sightseeing. Amsterdam: Vassallucci.