Interview with Albert Fu, winner of the 2022 CUSS Teaching Award

Albert Fu is a Professor of Sociology at Kutztown University. As both an urban and environmental sociologist, his research examines the intersection between built and natural environments. Dr. Fu is also interested in how “culture” creates, defines, and controls space. At Kutztown, he regularly teaches Principles of Sociology, Sociological Imagination, Social Inequality, Urban Sociology, and Environmental Sociology. As the inaugural winner of the biannual CUSS Teaching Award, Steven Schmidt reached out to Dr. Fu to discuss his teaching, and we’ve included his responses below. Thanks for participating in our interview series!

Who (or what) inspired you to become a teacher? Did you have any classroom experiences earlier that influenced how you teach now? 

I have had so many great teachers (at all levels) over the years that have impacted my teaching. A story I often share with students is how my high school English teacher Mrs. Karen Harwood recommended that I be moved from the regular curriculum to the honors/advanced placement curriculum – despite not being a 4.0 student. In this way, Mrs. Harwood had a massive impact on my life, and I think it’s essential to pay it forward as an educator. It’s important to look out for creativity and curiosity beyond traditional grades. 

I’ve had many experiences that shaped my teaching. A particularly important one was UC Irvine’s “Humanities Out There” program. As an undergraduate student, I was able to work with students in the Santa Ana School District and get my first chance to teach (or at least facilitate discussions). This prepared me for being a teaching assistant in graduate school and shaped my teaching later. Another important one was my first full-time job out of graduate school. It was at a community college – Delaware County Community College outside of Philadelphia. You learn humility teaching traditional and non-traditional students during the Great Recession! Some college-aged students had to leave their previous university to be closer to home. Some older students lost their jobs and now needed a degree. This certainly made discussing topics like school, employment, and inequality thought-provoking.

In addition to teaching at a wide range of American institutions, I’ve taught overseas – specifically in Ethiopia and Turkey. Again, experiences like that remind me to respect the knowledge students bring into the classroom. 

Can you describe your approach to teaching community and urban sociology? What is your teaching philosophy?

I want students to think about their physical and social surroundings. I see myself as a scholar of the built environment. This impacts how I teach urban and environmental sociology courses. Something I’ve done (borrowing from Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story) is ask students to log all the plastic things they’ve touched throughout the day. Students are often amazed at how much that stuff surrounds us! Sometimes, it’s just the little things that unlock the sociological imagination.

In terms of style, I try to keep it casual. You never know when something will spark a discussion with students. I’m a pop culture nerd. I was name-dropping Riri Williams whenever I taught Eve Ewing’s work a good few years before Wakanda Forever came out. Similarly, I often recommend a podcast interview with production designer Hannah Beachler, who created the Wakanda we saw in Black Panther. This has led to discussions of fictional cities of all sorts.

Going back to deploying students’ imagination, I give my urban sociology students a short writing assignment where I provide a hypothetical scenario such as NIMBYism, a new infrastructure project, or homelessness. In each scenario, I list various actors or parties that might be involved. The students must imagine how they might address the problem and people’s concerns. The papers are really fun to read. So much creativity from students!  

Do you have any favorite materials or courses to teach? 

This is a tough one! When I teach urban sociology, I typically have students pick from a list of books to write a report and, later, a longer paper. Since we’re close to Philadelphia, students respond well to Elijah Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy. However, I’ve also had Amin Ghaziani’s There Goes the Gayborhood, Marcus Hunter and Zandria Robinson’s Chocolate Cities, Matt Desmond’s Evicted, and many others. What I like about this assignment is having a diverse array of student papers to read! 

In general, I try to mix it up in all the courses I teach. That said, I have a bunch of re-assigned time as faculty union president. So, I’m down from a 4/4 load to a 2/2 load. This has meant more intro-level courses and fewer specialized seminars. One of the things I like about introductory courses is the ability to illustrate the breadth of sociology as a broad discipline. Short assignments such as picking an ASA section and explaining why it was chosen give me a sense of student interest in various topics or subfields.

Can you talk about a particularly memorable experience while teaching?

I have recently tried to get my students into the community much more. Kutztown University is located near Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s an old Rust Belt city about 1.5 hrs. from Philadelphia in Berks County. Like many cities, organizations such as Berks Nature, a local conservation organization, and the Berks County Community Foundation, are doing things that can inspire students.

That said, something impactful and memorable to me as an educator is seeing all the amazing things my students are doing after graduation. When I say amazing things, that includes simply living fulfilling lives. 

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