Kanjana Thepboriruk

Associate Professor, Department of World Languages and Cultures

Kanjana Thepboriruk

What year did you start working at NIU?

Where is your hometown? and where do you live now?
I was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Now, I live less than two miles away from NIU, which makes for a very short work commute!

Where did you attend college and what degree(s) have you earned?
I received my B.A. in linguistics (tone languages) and Southeast Asian studies (Thai history, post-1932) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was then accepted into a Ph.D.-terminal program for linguistics at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where I studied the variety of Thai spoken in the diaspora in Los Angeles, California.

In which department(s) do you teach?
Department of World Languages and Cultures

What do you like about working at NIU?
NIU is home to one of a handful of centers for Southeast Asian studies and one of only 10 universities in the United States that teach Thai. Not only that, NIU is the only place in Illinois where students can learn the Thai language. In fact, I am one of only two Thai language professors in the country! The fact that NIU has a tenure position to teach the Thai language shows our long-term dedication and investment in the field of Thai studies, Southeast Asian studies and Thai language. We have a long and rich history and relationship with Thailand, the Thai people and Thai culture, one that I am honored to be able to continue and foster. The best part of my job is being able to introduce students to the Thai language and culture and watching them discover a new world. The students who enroll in my classes often do so for practical reasons—to fulfill their language requirement or because it's the only class that fits their schedule—but they end up continuing on to become Southeast Asian studies scholars because something sparked their curiosity. It's beautiful to watch students in the process of discovery.

What advice would you give to students currently attending NIU?
Dare to wander beyond your own borders. In today's educational environment where everything is money and a liberal arts education at a university is quickly becoming vocational training for a specific career, take at least one or two courses in something you know nothing about. When else will you have the opportunity to learn from an expert in the field? No class is useless. There's always a new skill you can learn, new people you can meet, new networks you can form and new perspective you can gain—even if the professors do not make all of this immediately clear to you. Take the time (and courage) to put yourself in a new situation. Are there things you haven't ever heard of or done? Do that! Who knows, it might become your new favorite thing.

Tell us about a research or engaged learning project you have led.
My research examines the notion of "Thainess" in all facets. I am currently conducting oral history interviews with Thais and Thai Americans in the Chicagoland area to learn more about how the third largest Thai community in the U.S. came to be. I am also documenting ways that Thais use the Thai language outside of Thailand, so that we can better understand what happens to a language when it leaves its homeland and becomes a minority language. I am also translating a popular Thai history book, Nai Nai: Men of the Inner Court during the Sixth Reign, into English.

What do you hope students take away from your class?
Above all else, I hope that my students leave my class having a better understanding of how they learn. Language is one of those things we all know how to use (you're using it right now to read this!), but we don't remember how we learned it. In my class, we use the task of learning the Thai language to learn the best ways each of us learn. What is it we need to master a new skill? What do we need to make something stick? What helps to motivate us to learn and practice? How do we need to organize information so that it's easy for us to find and use later? The answers to these questions are essential for professional and personal success, no matter where my students end up after their time at NIU.

What is your favorite campus event?
I love all of the events that are held in MLK commons. I love learning all the great things that NIU organizations and groups are doing. There's always music and so much joy and enthusiasm that radiate from the commons when there's an event there.

What is your favorite memory of NIU?
Being offered a job at NIU! That was the beginning of everything for me here.

Who has influenced your professional path?
Beyond my own family, so many teachers have left a lasting impact on the type of scholar I want to be. Ms. Karen Seno, my eighth grade English teacher, taught me how to be an activist-scholar and the role teachers can play in bringing about positive social change. We spent a whole month reading books that have been banned from our library and writing essays either defending or opposing the ban. Dr. Monica Macaulay, professor of linguistics at UW-Madison, taught me how to teach with grace. She was the first professor to acknowledge that what was going on in my life outside of her classroom was going to affect my life inside her classroom, and she made room for that in her teaching. I always remember to teach with grace now that I'm a professor myself. Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, professor emeritus of history at UW-Madison, showed me that being a child of two worlds—Thailand and the U.S.—was a privilege. I have better access to Thai scholarship than my Western peers, and I have better access to Western scholarship than my Thai peers. He told me that it's my duty as a Thai American scholar to serve a bridge between my two worlds. I take this responsibility very seriously in my work.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you currently doing it? If not, what changed your path?
I've always wanted to be a teacher and a writer. Nearly all of my relatives—uncles, aunts, cousins—are teachers in some form. In fact, I'm a third-generation teacher. I used to line up my pet bunny and figurines to teach them what I learned in preschool. It was just a matter of figuring out what to teach. I'm lucky to have so many terrific role models in my life who taught me what it takes to be a great teacher. I hope that I am as much of a positive presence in the lives of my students as my teachers have been in my own life.

Are you a member of or hold a position within a professional organization? If so, what organization? What is the purpose of that organization and how does being part of this organization benefit you in your role at NIU?
I sit on the executive board of the Thai-Lao-Cambodia Interest Group for the Association for Asian Studies, an international organization of over 5,000 members who are interested in Asia and the study of Asia. The TLC group supports younger scholars of Asian studies with travel funding to the annual conference and helps build scholarly and popular interest in these three countries. Being able to represent NIU on the board is an honor, as my colleagues on the board are often from large universities and Ivy League schools. It's important that schools like NIU have a seat and a voice at that table. 

What community organizations are you involved in?
I am the Thai language representative for the Heritage Language Coalition, a national organization that supports the teaching and learning of home languages in the community. In this role I get to meet many teachers and administrators of community-based Thai language schools. It's amazing what the community is able to do when we just come together and work together. 

What do you do to relax or recharge?
I love cooking. Food is my love language. I really enjoy discovering new cultures through new recipes and watching others discover new flavors, cultures and sensations through food. I cook for my Thai language students so that they, too, can have moments of discovery through food.

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