English professor encourages students to imagine thinking, living and acting in a transnational world

January 26, 2017 by Elaine Smith - A&S News

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

Luckily, Cruz, an associate professor in the Department of English, just “couldn’t walk away from literature,” although she had applied to medical school and gone for interviews. The California native pursued a PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, instead and arrived at the University of Toronto in 2013 after six years on the faculty at Indiana University.

“The University of Toronto was attractive for many reasons,” Cruz said. “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.”

Equally dedicated to teaching and research

Cruz is equally dedicated to teaching and research, believing that one informs the other. Literature, she noted, plays an important role in teaching critical thinking and reflection, something she emphasizes when teaching the large, first-year course “Literature of Our Time,” previously popularized by Professor Nick Mount.

“I was lucky, because students already knew about the course, but it was a challenge to decide what I could bring to the course,” Cruz said. “I was exposed to the large lecture class as an undergraduate and I knew how amazing it could be. Where else can 400 people collectively read and talk about the same work of literature at the same place and time?”

“What I try to bring is a direct engagement with the transnational and the global. Students are able to read works that are not similar to their experiences.” Her syllabus for first-year students includes Canadian writers from diverse backgrounds, such as Mona Awad, David Chariandy and Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Denise Cruz giving a lecture to a large class
Denise Cruz is equally dedicated to teaching and research, believing that one informs the other. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

For Cruz, the large lecture humanities course is an argument for why the acts of critical reading and writing are crucial in today’s world where we are exposed to vast amounts of information and social media. We have begun to read quickly, without context, and make snap decisions: should I “like” this or not, should I share or not?

“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.

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 said.

“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.”

Upcoming book on Filipino couture

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 said. “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.”

Ultimately, both her teaching and her research emphasize her strong belief in the importance of the humanities in fostering critical thought and even empathy.

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


  • Denise Cruz discusses her book,  Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina (Duke University Press, 2012) with Christopher Patterson of the New Books Network.