• Woods (middle) with participants from nine ASEAN countries at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (2014)

  • Woods (middle) with participants from ten ASEAN countries at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (2015)

Professor Damon Woods, a lecturer on Southeast Asian history, shares his experience teaching and introducing students to Southeast Asia for the past 15 years.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

The road to teaching history

Professor Damon Woods, a visiting lecturer in the department of history and the UCLA International Institute, has been teaching an introductory course on Southeast Asia at UCLA since 2005.

When he first began teaching, he had many students who were the children of refugees. "Taking a class like this was important to them," he reminisces. Now, he says there are fewer students who have familial ties to Southeast Asia and many come without prior knowledge of the region.

Woods moved to Baguio, Philippines at the age of five and completed high school before returning to the United States. After reading two novels by José Rizal, a national hero of the Philippines, he decided to go back to school for his doctorate in Southeast Asian history. He reflects upon his desire to learn more, "Southeast Asia shows up in the news when there’s trouble but there’s more to Southeast Asia than trouble." He wanted to write about history on a popular level, but decided to commit to teaching after finding enjoyment in working as a teaching assistant.

At UCLA, Woods switched from lecturing during the school year to summer sessions. He veered away from the traditional testing structure of giving a midterm and final exam to accommodate the tighter schedule. He introduced a cultural paper that would encourage students to engage with ethnic communities and local restaurants to further their understanding of Southeast Asia.

In thinking about fun moments with the cultural paper, he shares a story about one particular student who was going to write a paper on phở. "She said she was vegetarian, but she would eat it with meat to complete my assignment," he recounts, "She then found out that there was vegetarian phở!"

Adjusting to remote instruction

Woods describes himself as a "blackboard and chalk professor" who values personal presence, so the transition to remote instruction seemed quite daunting for this summer. He fears that group activities and office hours will be more difficult to conduct remotely. However, through conversations with other faculty and workshops hosted by the university, he has made several changes that will make it easier for students during this time.

"I’ve experienced and have been reading up on Zoom fatigue," he says. Instead of having one break during his two-hour class, he has decided to split his lecture into 25-minute chunks to allow for more breaks. Woods is also incorporating more student-led presentations and encouraging them to participate in a virtual tour of a historical site or city in Southeast Asia in place of a research paper.

"They will learn, in different ways, the material that I wouldn’t normally cover in the course," he hopes.

The remote learning format has also made it easier for students to attend virtual office hours. Woods require students to come to office hours for at least 15 minutes so that he can meet each one and learn a bit about them. "It was difficult to get them to come in to talk to me before. Now, they are lining up and we are having wonderful conversations!" Wood remarks.

Looking to the future

Besides teaching, Woods has also been writing anthologies of articles to give different perspectives on history based on documents written by indigenous Filipino people in the 1600s. "What you find out in these documents is how they refer to themselves, how they refer to each other," he shares. "They just write as who they are and it gives us real insight into their social history and for example, how language has developed over time." He is also working on the first book written in Ilocano, the language of Northern Luzon where he grew up, seeking to construct a social history of the Ilocanos.

Woods is hopeful that a course like his gives a broad understanding of the region. "Southeast Asia has 11 countries. They have things in common, but in many ways, they are very different," he comments.

He says we now have a generation of Asian Americans who fully embrace their Southeast Asian heritage. "They are very much connected to their homeland culturally and sometimes, linguistically, but they were raised in this country," he states. "They can really help to bridge the knowledge gap and be good scholars and professors to educate people about Southeast Asia."



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Published: Friday, July 10, 2020