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Singing karaoke, designing flash mobs: U of T's Denise Cruz engages first-year students

Denise Cruz: “The humanities allow you to imagine alternate worlds, and what it might be like to think, act or live in those worlds. They encourage critical thinking and lead toward an ethical way of being with each other” (photo by Diana Tyszko)

The literature of the Asian diaspora would have lost a major champion if Denise Cruz had followed her initial plan to attend medical school. 

Luckily, Cruz, an associate professor in U of T's English department, couldn't walk away from literature.

Today, her class for first-year students in the Faculty of Arts & Science includes Canadian writers from diverse backgrounds such as Mona Awad, David Chariandy and Souvankham Thammavongsa. 

Literature, she says, plays an important role in teaching critical thinking and reflection, something she emphasizes when teaching “Literature of Our Time.”

For Cruz, the 400-student humanities course, which was previously taught by Professor Nick Mount, is an argument for why the acts of critical reading and writing are crucial in today’s world where we read things on social media – without context –and make snap judgments on whether to “like” or “not like.” 

“This is why I don’t just analyze the texts and provide historical and cultural context. My students and I have sung karaoke together to demonstrate anonymity within a crowd, designed musical flash mobs to synthesize skills for the final exam and played a 400-student version of the game “telephone” to examine the multiple narrators of a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved.”

She says she looks for ways to engage students with the global world.

“What I try to bring is a direct engagement with the transnational and the global,” Cruz says. “Students are able to read works that are not similar to their experiences.

“The humanities allow you to imagine alternate worlds, and what it might be like to think, act or live in those worlds. They encourage critical thinking and lead toward an ethical way of being with each other.”

Cruz’s research also challenges people to think about the world – both past and present – in new ways. She calls herself “a scholar of gender and sexuality in national and transnational cultures.”

“I’m interested in national, regional and global interactions in North America, the Philippines and Asia, and how these dynamics effect gender and sexuality,” she says. 

“More broadly, my work is grounded in my fascination with examining how different forms of culture – a novel, a performance, a fashion show – can become a way of questioning lived social realities.”

The California native pursued her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, and arrived at the University of Toronto in 2013 after six years teaching at Indiana University.

“The University of Toronto was attractive for many reasons,” Cruz says. “It’s a wonderful school and I was impressed by the strength of the English department. It has a lot of depth in gender and sexuality studies and in post-colonial studies, two of my major interests.”

Cruz, the daughter of Filipino immigrants to the United States, was also attracted by Toronto’s large Filipino community. 

“Toronto’s place as a global city interested me, and I like the idea of studying American literature outside the United States. It has been wonderful.”

She is currently working on a book about fashion, Runways: Filipino Couture and the New Silk Road.

“Manila (the capital of the Philippines) has a long history of made-to-order, custom clothing – couture,” Cruz says. “There are more than 300 working designers there today, and the book looks at the city from the Second World War to the present.

“These designers defy the stereotype of cheaply made Philippine clothing, highlight the importance of the industry and show its connections with centres like Dubai, rather than the traditional fashion centre, Paris.”