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Key K Asian Studies Architect Reflects on a Three-Decade Project

Thirty years, Madeline Chu counts. The professor of Chinese language and literature sums up her years at Kalamazoo College with three milestones reached. Her initial decade, beginning in 1988, she says, was dedicated to bringing China to K. The next 10 years helped build K’s international reputation by bringing K to China. And her final decade was dedicated to reinforcing the program she had established.

Madeline Chu

Madeline Chu was born in China, in the Shaanxi Province, “where the Terracotta Army was found,” she says. “I grew up in Taiwan—elementary school, high school, college, marriage, children. We came to the United States in 1970, and my husband and I continued our studies at the University of Arizona.” There Chu earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in Chinese language and literature.  And there her path happened to cross that of Tim Light.

At the time Light was the university’s new director of the Chinese program, and Chu was completing her Ph.D. Ten years later, when Light was provost at K and had already started the Japanese program, “he contacted me and some other people,” says Chu, “and shared with us his idea of inaugurating a Chinese program at Kalamazoo College.”

Chu was intrigued. There was something to be said about starting a new program, she thought. And, Light told her, it was an endowed chair, one of only five such positions in Asian Studies nationwide.

“He told me I could arrange the program however I liked,” Chu says. She had been offered two other positions elsewhere, but Chu pinned her destiny on Kalamazoo College.

“At that time,” she says, “Asian Studies programs in general tended to pay too little attention to language and cultural studies. I wanted to change that, and the arrangement of the language division at K was conducive to such change.”

In the beginning there was minimal understanding about China at K, but Chu’s position allowed her to grow that understanding. She led a faculty group for a China trip, and established an annual China forum on campus and involved faculty of different disciplines. A “China interest group” and intellectual resource network was built. China became visible on campus.

First mission accomplished. Over the next decade, Chu worked to build K’s reputation for its excellence in Asian studies. She became director of K’s Chinese program, the Center for Asian Studies, the East Asian Studies program, and the International and Area Studies program. She also took on the role of board member (and, later, president) of the ASIANetwork, executive director of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, and the coordinator of the Summer Intensive Chinese Language Program at the University of Michigan.

“Colleagues in the academic field of Asian studies started to know Kalamazoo College better, and I became known as “Madeline Chu from Kalamazoo,” with the rhyming email address “Chu-at-Ka-Zoo-Dot-ee-dee-you (chu@kzoo.edu),”  Chu says.

Many ASIANetwork colleges consider K’s Asian studies a role model in program building and curriculum arrangement.  “In 2001, K received a $2 million grant from the Freeman Foundation to fund a second position to teach Japanese and a second position to teach Chinese, expanding our Asian studies program,” says Chu. This grant also supported a lecture series and study tours open to the K community and the greater Kalamazoo community.

The Freeman grant and many other external grants have supported the second faculty position in Chinese for almost two decades. Starting next year, there will be two tenure-track positions in K’s Chinese program, “thanks to the vision and support of two wonderful provosts, Tim Light and Mickey McDonald,” Chu adds.

“The program is in good shape, and will be in the excellent hands of my colleague for the past seven years, Yue Hong.” Chu says, taking a long, satisfied breath. “It’s a good time to leave.”

Chu is not one to put up her feet, however. In her retirement, she plans to finish writing a college-level textbook, Mastering Chinese. The textbook maps out aural strategies in listening and interacting and associates learned materials with real-life situations. More importantly, it pays due attention to, and takes advantage of, the semantic utilities of Chinese characters in word construction, vocabulary building, sentence formation and discourse configuration.

“I’ve used K students as guinea pigs for this method, and it’s worked,” says Chu. “It’s intensive, but it’s the best way to build reading and writing as well as listening and speaking competence in Chinese.” As Chu muses about her students over her many years at she smiles. “Our students are intelligent, and some of the nicest, happiest, most decent young people. I’m going to miss them.”

Chu was awarded the Walton Lifetime Achievement Award by the Chinese Language Teachers Association in 2000. In 2001-02, she received the Florence J. Lucasse Lectureship Award at Kalamazoo College.