Cynthia (Hsien) Shen

One door of the Language Learning Center (an internal door which is rarely closed) wears on its hidden side a sign saying in Chinese “Language Learning Center.” They are a relic of an ambitious project of Chinese video lessons filmed around Gainesville; as I recall, the scene for which the sign was posted involved a cassette tape exchange—in Mandarin. The less obsolete videos from that series are still being used by students in UF’s first-year Chinese courses. A film set is just one of the ways Cynthia Shen has used the Language Learning Center over the past twelve years. She has also taken advantage of web-based materials for her Chinese Heritage Speakers course, and tested speaking ability in the Sanako lab; we have assisted in making sure the streaming videos she and her colleague I-Chun Peir created are available in ever-more-generously-sized streams, too.

Hsien was born in Amoy (Xiamen), China, a port city just across from Taiwan. Her family moved to Taiwan when she was still a baby, and she grew up there. Some years ago she and her brother and sisters—now dispersed across three continents—were able to return to Amoy and explore their roots.

After completing her undergraduate studies in Taiwan, Cynthia decided to go to the US for graduate work. She had been studying English since middle school, and had picked up the name Cynthia in class (just as her UF students choose “Chinese names” for classroom purposes). She remembers studying English grammar and translation. This did not prepare her for getting off the plane in the US and realizing she had never spoken the language.

She did her MA in Sociology at the University of Cincinnati, then went on to Cornell University for Ph.D. work. It was hard work, not only dealing with the spoken language but also all the reading. Her dissertation addressed the quality of life in Japan—a choice influenced by the excellent census data available from Japan. While at Cornell, she worked as a research assistant—including a year as a research intern in Hawaii. She completed her dissertation but never looked for a job related to the field.

The big detour toward teaching Chinese came when Cynthia married and followed her husband to Gainesville, where they began their family.  The Chinese community in Gainesville wanted their children to enjoy their linguistic and cultural heritage. The Gainesville Chinese School began as UF “leisure courses” on weekends at the Reitz Union, and eventually found a home at Oak Hall School, where heritage speakers, non-speakers, children, and adults have opportunities to learn Chinese. Cynthia was active in just about every role in this school—teaching, organizing, collecting curriculum resources, managing the small library. She also tutored a high-school student who was passionately interested in learning Chinese, and his progress impressed friends who were teaching at UF.

In 2001, UF needed an adjunct lecturer in Chinese, and friends urged Cynthia to apply. She was shy about her qualifications, but her teaching demonstration convinced the faculty that she should be given a trial. It was a dramatic learning curve for her, and she took it seriously. For the first year, she shadowed Elinore Fresh —attending every single class and modeling her lessons and activities on what she saw. Since then, she has had opportunities to attend conferences and workshops. But, perhaps because she worked so hard on a Ph.D. in a different field, she seems to have doubted her qualifications for a long time, and only applied for a full-time lecturer position when it was obvious (perhaps even to her) that she was the best person for the job.

Besides driving ahead with projects like the video series to enrich the elementary Chinese program, Cynthia regularly teaches Honors Chinese and and the Anderson Scholars gave her an award for teaching. She developed the Heritage Learners course, including video and reading materials for acquiring idioms. Cynthia has worked with K-12 Chinese language teachers through the Florida Schools Chinese Program Survey, and also through the  StarTalk program of the National Security Administration and National Foreign Language Center. She is one of the directors of the UF in Bejing program, and has accompanied our students there for two years.

“Chance and opportunity” brought Cynthia Shen onto the UF faculty at the moment when Chinese was moving from being a Less Commonly Taught Language to being valued by students and administration—strategically important for business, economics, and world politics. I guess it’s Cynthia the sociologist who comments that she has enjoyed witnessing this huge change. But I had a lively discussion with Cynthia the teacher about some of the web-based tools she likes to offer her students—not only good dictionaries but a Flash tutor for  stroke order and quick ways to transcribe text in Traditional characters into the Simplified form (or vice versa) , as well as a Chinese “Dating Game” for cultural enlightenment as well as language practice.