Cheng, who specializes in race studies and psychoanalytic theory in 20th-century American literature, recalls her early days at Princeton as crucial to her intellectual development. “Princeton opened up possibilities I had never entertained,” she says.
Princeton also supplied her with an early role model for the professional path she would later take. “I was very struck by Maria DiBattista in the Department of English,” Cheng recalls. "As a woman working in academe, she was both confident and dynamic; she didn't apologize for the sharpness of her mind. I remember watching her and thinking, ‘I would like to be like that!’”
That image of the confident academic woman has stayed with Cheng. She has earned acclaim for her book, "The Melancholy of Race: Psycholanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief," which explores the psychoanalytic ramifications of racial identity in culture, history and law. Currently, she's researching 1920s entertainer Josephine Baker.
Returning to Princeton as a professor, Cheng remarks that some things have changed (“There are actually cafes in town now!”), but the essential things have remained. “Of all the Ivy League schools, Princeton has the strongest commitment to undergraduate education,” she says. “There's a great level of involvement. Professors know their students by name. It was true 20 years ago, and it's true today.”
She also likes some of the changes she has seen. “The student body is so much more diverse, both in terms of race and economics,” she says. “Through financial support, Princeton has enabled students to attend who never could have come here before. It has really changed the demographic makeup of the campus.”
She is also excited about the new Department of African American Studies, which she believes will provide a new model for comparative race studies, as well as the far-reaching Lewis Center for the Arts initiative, which is dedicated to enhancing the arts at Princeton through the creation of a new “arts neighborhood” on campus.
For Cheng, the most important aspects of Princeton will always take place in the classroom, providing experiences that will stay with students for the rest of their lives. “In the classroom, I try to teach students the importance of thinking and questioning over and beyond the security of 'knowing facts.' Hopefully, they will take these skills wherever they go.”