A Different Take: Winner of Teaching Excellence Award 2015

Writer: Sonia Yeung

Dr Y-Dang TROEUNG receive a cash prize of HK$15,000 and a grant of HK$150,000 to conduct a teaching development project.

Dr Y-Dang TROEUNG, Assistant Professor of the Department of English, was honoured with this year's Teaching Excellence Award (TEA) in recognition of her contributions to the quality of teaching at CityU. Dr Troeung talks about her teaching strategies and innovative course design — linking discovery with social transformation and empowerment.

At CityU, freshmen who wishes to explore an enriched university life would be dazzled by the myriad General Education (GE) courses that are on offer. Abbie YE Beini, who majors in psychology, took the course "Exploring English Cinema" by Dr Troeung, and enjoyed a very positive experience. "I chose this course simply because it is a discipline-specific yet the most diverse English course," says Ye. "I wanted to gain more professional knowledge in addition to learning English."

More than just language

"'Exploring English Cinema' is a General Education course offered by the English department that has been in existence for some time," says Dr Troeung, who took charge of the course, revamped it and has earned high acclaim from students and fellow faculty members. "I wanted the course to be more than just about teaching and learning English."

In order for students to explore an alternative way of learning English, she incorporated elements of film production and analysis into the course; thus students learn two things at the same time. "It's very different from the traditional concept of learning English, which is often considered 'boring' by students nowadays," says Dr Troeung, "It's far more than just learning grammar." As for teaching academic English writing, she said that she wanted to venture out of the traditional three-part approach, in which students are taught to write an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

What originated as an experiment to merge the process of film-making with English-learning quickly turned into a phenomenon. Soon, "Exploring English Cinema" became one of the most popular GE courses in the College and was constantly fully enrolled.

Encouragements count

The course owes its success to its innovative design and the teaching mode, where each instructor takes care of 25 students. There are about eight to ten sessions in each semester. Dr Troeung teaches one or two sessions each semester and coordinates the rest. Essentially, every class is itself a tutorial session. There are no large lectures where students might easily become invisible.

The twelve-week course involves weekly activities related to set topics. These activities include analysing the screenplay, designing the film's image, cinematography, and even taking the role of a film producer and pitching the film to potential investors. It then culminates in a final session of screenings. Students may either showcase a video, act out a screenplay, or present anything relevant that they can imagine. They may also invite friends and family to watch their performance.

Abbie Ye, who took the course, says that her best memory of the course is of her presentation. "Unlike other teachers who teach movies, Dr Troeung is always encouraging," she says. "Even if it's just a very simple film, Dr Troeung still gives us many merits and appreciates our effort."

Ye believes that it is important for novice learners to be treated with lots of warmth, help and encouragement. "We are not professionals; and it is difficult to turn big dreams into reality without encouragement."

Teaching is a learning process for all

Students are required to write a scene analysis, a plot synopsis and even direct their own film; hence many of these professional skills would seem to be right up the alley of creative media majors, who can take this course as an elective.

Yet Dr Troeung was careful in designing the assessment to be fair to all. "The part that requires technical skills only accounts for fifteen per cent of the assessment at the most," she says, "The rest is a formative portfolio which consists of individual essays and a personal reflection paper."

When it comes to her inspirations, Dr Troeung says the department's visiting fellows who teach the film-making sessions have played a big role in making the course a wonderful experience for everyone involved. "I work with them weekly, sit in on their classes, and organise events outside the class… We are more like mentors to one another. They inspire me on the course design."

"With the small class size, the students get very hands-on and the instructor also gets deeply involved with students' progress," says Dr Troeung. In every class, students work in groups and present their ideas. The topics of presentation can range from analysing movie scripts to creating a screenplay.

"It's very hard work," says Dr Troeung, "The instructors really care about the students and want to see them take something out of the course."

Students are equally motivated to put in 100 per cent. Towards the end of the course, it's not the grade that they care about the most, but the sense of achievement they gain as they finish their own projects. Students applauded the learning experience through their teaching evaluations, saying things like "This is the most meaningful project I've ever done!"

To Dr Troeung, discovery is not just about producing new content. "For me, discovery is about a critical perspective, learning about your own identity, your place in it — it's learning about yourself."

"Creativity and production are not the end itself; the course itself brings critical thinking. If students could say they've achieved 'finding out that I want to be a screenwriter, or a director' — that's self-discovery, and that's learning."

Dr Troeung joined CityU in 2012 and has since been awarded the Teaching Start-up Grant in 2013, the Hong Kong Government General Research Fund (GRF) grant and the CityU Teaching Excellence Award in 2014. Her GRF on the Cambodian diaspora and human rights, how displaced people are using creativity to connect with human rights issues also plays a role in her course. "I think that social transformation, empowerment, and survival do influence my teaching."