A lineage of teaching with love 

Dr. Raissa DeSmet encourages her students to embrace their whole selves by creating projects that center their experiences and identities.

Dr. Raissa DeSmet comes from a family of educators. From her mother and grandfather, both teachers, she inherited what she calls “a strong sense of vocation and service, and the belief that education, at its core, is a practice of healing. 

“This is work that I feel called to do,” she said. “It grounds me in the present moment. It is an act of love.” 

This is perhaps best seen in how DeSmet, associate teaching professor in the University of Washington Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, views the individuals in her classroom as people first and scholars second. “Many of the students I work with, like me, are children of refugees,” she said. “We emerge from histories of war, colonization, authoritarianism and forced migration. There are layers of trauma — as well as insight — that we bring with us to the educational setting. 

“I strive to teach in ways that center students, their experiences and their identities, and also empower them to co-lead and co-facilitate so that decisions, whenever possible, are made collectively and with consent.” 

In recognition of her teaching skills and her dedication to students, DeSmet has been named the 2024 recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award, one of the University’s highest honors.  

Honoring the past 

DeSmet’s vision of teaching is embodied in the program she founded, titled Southeast Asian Pasts & Futures, and in her course, Memory Work and Cultural Production in Diaspora. In both spaces, students reflect on their own lives, conduct archival and community-centered forms of research, and produce final projects that tell stories and support wellbeing. 

The idea for SEAPF originated in 2015 when DeSmet was on her first professional visit to the Burke Museum. “I was invited by Dr. Holly Barker, a curator, to visit the collections,” DeSmet recalled. “As we were winding through the aisles of cultural belongings –– a spirit house, a row of finely carved paddles — Dr. Barker explained that some of the museum’s most important work happens not in the galleries but behind the scenes.” 

DeSmet explained that, as colonial institutions, museums are haunted spaces. “Pieces like those at the Burke were severed from their lived contexts by the forces of imperialism, militarism and migration, making them not only powerful presences and forms of knowledge but also traumatic remainders,” she said. “The Burke is part of a movement among museums to engage these violent histories and work toward redress. 

“One way it does this is by inviting people whose ancestors made, used and lived with these pieces to view the museum’s collections; recognizing their authority; and opening access to cultural belongings as bridges to the past and resources in the present.” 

A sign that reads: "Ethnology: the study and comparison of human cultures."

Recognizing the present

A key inspiration for this work was the Knowledge Family, previously known as Research Family, a group of Pacific Islander undergraduates from the University of Washington organized to activate Oceanic collections in support of their communities. “Hearing about this work made my hair stand on end,” DeSmet said. “‘Could something like this exist for Southeast Asian students?’ I asked myself. 

“Five years later, and with support from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Center for Southeast Asia and Its Diasporas, Southeast Asian Pasts & Futures became my answer.” 

Since its beginning, SEAPF’s network of community partners has expanded to include not only the Burke Museum but also the Wing Luke Museum and anti-violence organization API Chaya. 

SEAPF is co-taught and co-directed by DeSmet and Nhi P. Tran, assistant director for student success and initiatives, who is also being honored this year as the recipient of UW Bothell’s Distinguished Accomplishments Award. 

As 2022 SEAPF member Justin Totaan recalled, “Growing up in the United States I always felt like I was two halves of a person who didn’t quite make a whole. When I was at school or with friends, I always felt too foreign — but whenever I was at home, I felt too American. 

“I had never felt as though I truly belonged anywhere,” he said, “until I became a part of Southeast Asian Past & Futures.” 

Writing through memory

Each SEAPF cohort meets every week across three quarters and engages with cultural artifacts, partner organizations and each other. “Sometimes we work directly with the Burke or Wing Luke Museum collections, but we also turn toward our own cultural belongings and practices with new eyes,” DeSmet said. 

For one assignment, students produced a “biography” for an object from their own lives. “Writing through their senses and memories and their conversations with loved ones, they told tales of mothers, grandmothers and aunties; bedtimes and mealtimes; longing and connection. 

“When we shared these stories in our circle,” DeSmet said, “we cried.” 

In her letter of support endorsing DeSmet for the teaching award, Barker wrote, “SEAPF opens opportunities for Southeast Asian students to see their families’ and their communities’ stories and knowledge reflected in their coursework, and these approaches benefit every student who participates. 

“Raissa is humble and focuses on her students’ experiences rather than herself, and I do not think she is even aware of the degree to which her teaching serves as a template for other professors who have developed similar courses and teaching opportunities at the Burke Museum.” 

Raissa is humble and focuses on her students’ experiences rather than herself, and I do not think she is even aware of the degree to which her teaching serves as a template for other professors.

Dr. Holly Barker, Burke Museum curator for Oceanic and Asian Culture

Learning about oneself

DeSmet’s course, Memory Work and Cultural Production in Diaspora, places student experiences and identities at the heart of intellectual work. Memory work is a key component that focuses on weaving historical narratives “from below.” 

This memory work engages the past through the subjective position of the researcher. “It’s a feminist methodology that challenges dominant modes of history,” DeSmet explained. “It attends to community stories, minoritized stories, stories that have been forgotten or silenced.” 

In this vein, the students produce a memory work text that asks them to “walk” through their own locations to trace their and/or their family or community histories across time and space. 

This project is developed across the quarter, with scaffolding in the form of weekly journal prompts, and through a series of conceptual maps — including an Inheritance Tree, a non-heraldic tool for showing lineage without reference to “blood” or patriarchal structures of descent. “The tree helps students disrupt received narratives and assert what, for them, constitutes inheritance,” DeSmet said. 

The results of these critical enquiries and ensuing projects have been stunning, she said. “Tristan Sorenson (Global Studies ’20), whose project would become a bridge to graduate school, produced a tribute to his grandfather that examined white settler masculinities and relationships to land,” she recalled, “and Grace Mandakh (Culture, Literature & the Arts ’23), whose parents migrated from Mongolia, created a three-dimensional ger, the once-forbidden Mongolian script scrolled on the outside.” 

Legacy lives on

Assignments are tailored so that project outcomes vary with each cohort, but each is as impactful to their creators as those by Mandakh and Sorenson. The works of the 2021-22 class, for example, can be found in this journal

And while DeSmet cares deeply about the quality of the finished projects, she cares just as much about the students’ experience as researchers and creators — one of the reasons she was chosen for the award. 

According to the award committee, “Dr. Raissa DeSmet’s transformative teaching, marked by interdisciplinary exploration, empathy and prioritization of emotional well-being, establishes her as one of the most impactful professors at UW Bothell.” 

Created in 1995, the Distinguished Teaching Award is presented each year to a faculty member who has demonstrated sustained excellence in teaching, exemplifying what it means to fulfill the academic mission of the University of Washington Bothell. 

“Being a professor is my attempt at making a vocational life, like my mother and grandfather before me. It’s my way showing up and being of service,” said DeSmet. “It is an honor to do this work on our campus, with amazing colleagues who are so committed to teaching and to our students and communities. 

“This award shows me that my labor — and my students’ labor — is seen and valued as part of this collective effort, and that is incredibly meaningful.” 

Celebrate Dr. DeSmet and all the 2024 UW Awards of Excellence recipients who are being recognized for achievements in teaching, mentoring, public service and staff support. The awardees will be honored at a ceremony in Meany Hall at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 6. The program includes a one-hour ceremony hosted by UW President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Tricia Serio, followed by a reception. 

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