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Michelle Ho Q&A: Turning Difference into Strength, Striking Balance

Michelle Ho

STONY BROOK, NY -- Michelle H. S. Ho, a PhD candidate in Cultural Analysis and Theory, is a recipient of the 2016 President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student. Her courses include WST 395: Topics in Global Feminisms: Genders and Sexualities in East Asia, WST 399: Topics in Gender and Sexuality/CST 327: Histories of Culture: Introduction to Japanese Popular Culture, WST 103: Woman, Culture, Difference: Gender in a Transnational World, and WST 111: Introduction to Queer Studies in the Humanities. 

Students say her discussion-oriented pedagogy create “an atmosphere within the classroom in which group discussions and learning can take place.” Michelle, they say, “is very enthusiastic about the subject matter and is careful to keep the room a safe space for the sometimes controversial topics we discussed.” 

Michelle is currently a Japan Foundation fellow and Visiting Researcher at the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo. Her dissertation, “When We Play with Gender: Affect and Alternative Sociality in Tokyo’s Crossdressing Cafes,” draws on 14 months of fieldwork and explores contemporary josô (male-to-female crossdressing) and dansô (female-to-male crossdressing) culture in Japan from the mid-2000s to present through a case study of crossdressing cafes in Tokyo. Aside from her dissertation topic, she is deeply interested in issues of race, affect, gender, and sexuality in popular culture across East Asia. Her work is forthcoming in Japanese Studies and the Routledge Handbook of Japanese Media

In this interview with Francisco Delgado, Michelle speaks to the struggles of being an international instructor. These experiences influence her pedagogy. As one student notes, she “understands international students' struggle with language, and she made a comfortable situation for me to be involved in this class. Usually I don't really speak in the classes, but I did sometimes in this class.” 

Francisco Delgado: How has teaching changed the way you approach your research?

Michelle Ho: I would imagine I have become much better at time management and clearer in expressing my opinions than before. Since teaching preparation tends to take up a lot of time, at least in my case, I try to divide my time into smaller blocks of time so I don’t complete everything in one sitting. For example, I might alternate my time between re-reading the text I will teach, picking out certain ideas I wish to emphasize during class, making and selecting materials to better explain the text, brainstorming on the next assignment, and grading students’ work.

I approach my research in pretty much the same way, but perhaps teaching has made me more efficient about compartmentalizing my time. I typically switch between drafting a paper or chapter I am working on, revising other writing, such as abstracts for conferences, writing fieldnotes, and conducting fieldwork (which I am doing at the moment). This method also works well when you are in the classroom and divide the total lesson time into blocks of twenty minutes as students can only absorb so much at once and need to switch gears so they stay alert. 

Teaching has also taught me how to explain the way I think in a manner that students might more easily grasp. I would put myself in my students’ shoes, which I suppose is not too difficult when you are a graduate student yourself, and try to see where they are coming from before conveying my ideas. Sometimes this can be tricky if the theories are complex or when the student has a very different worldview from you, but I think the key here is patience and respect for the other person.

I typically attempt to communicate with the student again and again until both of us understand (but may not necessarily agree with) each other. This skill has come in handy not just for my own research, but also when interacting with other scholars. When conducting fieldwork, particularly when I approach potential informants or conduct interviews, I often have to think on my feet and rephrase my sentences or questions in a way they can comprehend (and in another language). I subsequently confirm what they have said by following up with a suitable response or another question. I like to think this encourages informants to continue speaking to me about their personal experiences, which is, incidentally, similar to the way I address students’ questions and comments.

Francisco Delgado: These are definitely skills that transcend teaching. What would you say have been some of the obstacles you have faced in your teaching? How did you overcome them?

Michelle Ho: As an international graduate student and a woman of color instructor in the U.S. academy, it is inevitable that I would face many obstacles while teaching. Perhaps the two greatest obstacles have been figuring out the kind of instructor I want to become and teaching outside a Euro-American context.

In my very first semester as a teaching assistant, I struggled with a serious case of the imposter syndrome. Every time I walked into class to teach my recitation of forty students, I would inevitably think: Would students make fun of my accent? Would they discover they have nothing to learn from an instructor of a diverse background? Would they compare me with the other white American teaching assistants and feel I was not as intelligent?

The turning point for me came when I realized in my multiple conversations with students that they, too, were nervous about succeeding in college as well as other personal issues and looked to me for advice on how to overcome them. I suppose this is symptomatic of having an international or woman of color instructor teach a course, but a large number of the students who enroll in my courses tend to be international, women of color, and/or queer-identified. I would have numerous chats with them during, before, and after class not just about the topics we discussed in class, but also how these issues directly affected their lives.

Due to the experience of performing this kind of affective labor, I decided that in subsequent semesters, I would openly embrace my position as an international and woman of color instructor. On the first day of every term, I would tell students exactly where I stood and that because of this, they had to accept that my perspectives would naturally differ from theirs. I was not going to have them assume that everybody adopted the same outlook because in reality, some people do have more privileges than others. In sum, I became the kind of instructor I wanted to become by turning my difference into my strength and I think this has made me more confident about how and what I teach.

The other obstacle, which is related to the first one, has been trying to teach students about the issues concerning individuals in an entirely different cultural context from theirs without essentializing either the culture or people.

For example, if my course focuses on issues of gender and sexuality in East Asia, which happens to be my field of specialization, my aim is for students to take a genuine interest in the subject without walking away thinking that these are things that only happen to other people in other places. The reality is that many of my students know next to nothing about the culture or people nor will they have visited the geographical region on which my courses are based. Conversely, for those who think they might know something, a lot of their information is distorted by their personal outlook or based on stereotypes in the media.

As you can imagine, the challenges for me are multifold. In the span of one semester, I have to introduce or reintroduce the East Asian culture to students, reconfigure their ideas on women’s, gender, and sexuality studies so they are careful not to map what they know about U.S. feminism and queer studies onto East Asian people, and meaningfully discuss contemporary issues, such as sexual harassment in the Japanese workplace or LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movements in Taiwan. I am not sure I have completely overcome this obstacle, but perhaps what was helpful was that I used many visual aids and organized my syllabus by theme instead of by nation so students had something to hold on to.

For example, in one section (about five or six lessons) focusing on masculinities in East Asian popular culture, I had them watch an episode from a South Korean drama for one session and showed them clips from the Takarazuka Revue, the Japanese all-women theater troupe, for another session. This way, students could exchange views on Korean male masculinity based on what they have seen and read and subsequently link it to a later discussion on female masculinity in Japan. Also, the wonderful thing about having many international students enroll in your course is that you can turn to them for their opinions on certain issues. I often tap on my students’ knowledge this way and they, in turn, seem happy to oblige.

Francisco Delgado: What on-campus teaching resources do you find particularly useful?

Michelle Ho: To be honest, other than the occasional trip to the library, I have only ever used Blackboard so I am not sure I can adequately answer your question. For my courses, I typically build a simple Blackboard course page to include reading material, send announcements to students, upload slides after each lesson, and have them submit their assignments.

For more interactive assignments, I additionally create a class blog through WordPress for students to write in response to a specific question and to their peers, thinking that they might find this a fun social activity. To my surprise, I sometimes wind up having to teach them how to use WordPress so much that we would have mini-technological lessons from time to time.

Perhaps the most valuable teaching resources, in my opinion at least, are other instructors. I love to sit in on other instructors’ classes because I can learn new things while watching other people teach, such as what kinds of activities worked with students, which texts or topics excited them, and how instructors handled students’ questions and comments. I would also ask these instructors for materials, such as syllabi, readings, and advice on teaching.

Francisco Delgado: How do you consider your teaching and your research to be related?

Michelle Ho: They definitely inform each other. I teach what I know and what I know comes from what I work on. Conversely, I learn from my students about what I do not know and this feeds back into my own research. In this sense, there is always a sort of dialogue going on between my teaching and research. Besides, I see teaching as a constant learning process in the same way I see research as a way of experimenting with my ideas again and again.

I suppose this makes sense considering my research is anchored in fieldwork so the communication skills that are required for interviews and informal conversations with informants are somewhat similar to those for leading and facilitating discussions with students. As I am currently conducting field research for my dissertation in Tokyo, Japan, I find myself remembering how I conveyed my ideas to students and drawing on these same skills to express what I think to my informants in another language.

My current project explores contemporary josô (male-to-female crossdressing) and dansô (female-to-male crossdressing) culture from the mid-2000s to present through a case study of crossdressing cafes in Tokyo. Specifically, I am interested in the commercialization of crossdressing in relation to sociality, affective labor, gender identity and sexual orientation, and consumption of popular cultural media. As you can see, my research is thematically related to the courses I teach, which helps when I try my best to impart what I am most enthusiastic about to students.

My goal is for students to discover what topics and issues excite them the most and write about them, even if this only results in a short essay in an introductory course. Perhaps a handful might establish lifelong learning based on this initial essay. One can only hope.

Francisco Delgado: How do you balance the two? What advice would you like to give to new graduate student instructors about striking the right balance?

Michelle Ho: I have experimented with many ways over the years but two strike me as the most important by far: Practicing self-care and tapping into support resources. This also ties in with my advice to new graduate student instructors as I did not figure this out until late in my second year or third year.

By “self-care,” I mean the fundamentals, such as maintaining a balanced diet, sleeping regularly, exercising often, and scheduling time for breaks to distance yourself from work. This might sound like common sense but I believe that being healthy sends a positive message to your students about being able to take care of yourself first before tending to other people’s needs. This message goes a long way especially when I rarely miss classes for being sick and remind them from time to time to take care of their own bodies. I also urge students to do the responsible thing when they fall ill, that is, stay at home to rest instead of coming to class. In addition, by “self-care,” I also mean developing good habits like managing your time well (as I mentioned before), being disciplined about completing your tasks through what I like to call “performing triage,” borrowing the medical term, on the long list of things you need to do, and knowing what to do with yourself when you are depressed or under duress.

For instance, in order to cope with dual stress of teaching and research, especially feelings of anxiety and distress that tend to thrive under such situations, my go-to response is to hit the gym or run after a full day of work. I find that doing something routine like exercise helps me to “digest” the stressful events that have taken place during the day, reflect on what I might not have done so well or could have done better, and unwind from these unresolved emotions. Perhaps the crucial part of this activity is that it generates a head space for me to consider things differently, ruminate, and then mentally move on to concentrate on the next day’s tasks. Granted, exercise may not work for everybody so I would say, find an activity—it can be any kind—that you can do daily or frequently and keep at it.

Something else I wished I had known earlier as a new teaching assistant/instructor is to be proactive about asking for help. By this, I mean reaching out to your mentor/advisor and committee and faculty and fellow graduate students not just within your department but beyond the immediate people you know. If you are a first year, you will most likely struggle with teaching due to inexperience and many other factors that accompany entering graduate school. This is completely normal. The quickest way to learn, apart from jumping straight into teaching, is to admit this fact and ask for advice on teaching.

For example, I would typically email academics in other institutions, even those I have never met, to ask for a copy of their syllabus if I knew they were teaching a similar class to mine or I might send them a syllabus I had just designed for a new course I was slated to teach and ask for their feedback. I know this sounds terrifying at first, especially if you are a first year, but know that you have nothing to lose by contacting other scholars. The worst response you might get is silence. In reality, though, many of the academics I have approached have been highly supportive and interested in my teaching ideas and this has encouraged me to become more confident and desire to experiment with new teaching methods.

Francisco Delgado is a PhD candidate in English. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 Humanities New York Public Humanities Fellow.