Leanne Day, UH Hilo scholar in Indigenous and postcolonial literatures of the Pacific, receives UH System award for teaching

Assistant Professor of English Leanne Day is known for her excellent abilities to teach, nurture, support, and challenge her students.

Professor English Kirsten Møllegaard, Assistant Professor of English Leanne Day (with medal and lei), UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, and UH Regent Wayne Higaki.
From left, Professor English Kirsten Møllegaard (nominator), Assistant Professor of English Leanne Day, UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, and UH Regent Wayne Higaki stand for photo at the 2023 Awards and Recognition Celebration, May 5, 2023. (Cooper Lund/UH Hilo Stories)

By Susan Enright.

Leanne Day pictured
Leanne Day

Assistant Professor of English Leanne Day, teaching at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is a recipient this year of the prestigious Frances Davis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. The announcement was made at UH Hilo’s 2023 Awards and Recognition Celebration, May 5, 2023.

The recognition is a University of Hawai‘i System annual award for outstanding instructors and assistant professors who are teaching within the 10-campus UH System. The award is a memorial to the late Frances Davis, who taught mathematics at Leeward Community College and UH Mānoa for 19 years.

Born and raised on O‘ahu, Assistant Professor Day received her doctoral degree in English literature from the University of Washington. She was the inaugural Daniel K. Inouye postdoctoral fellow at UH Mānoa, and did her postdoc at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where she helped build an Asian American and Pacific Islander studies program. Two recent publications of Day’s are “Plantation Housing Isn’t the Answer to Homelessness in Hawaiʻi” (Edge Effects, 2019) and “‘Asian American and Pacific Islander’ Studies in Boston and Hilo: Student Activism, Radical Imaginings, and Critical Ethnic Studies” (Western American Literature, 2022).

A scholar in Indigenous and postcolonial literatures of the Pacific, Day started teaching at UH Hilo in 2019 based at UH Hilo’s Department of English. “It’s a dream to be back in Hawai‘i teaching contemporary Indigenous literatures of Oceania to the diverse student body at UH Hilo,” she says.

Day’s research and teaching areas focus on settler colonialism, empire, Hawai‘i, Asian American studies, and the Pacific through literary and cultural studies. She teaches upper-division topics in Pacific Islands literature, literature of Hawai‘i, Asian American literature, and speculative fiction. She also teaches a range of 200-level courses on topics such as literature of human rights, Hawai‘i in film, introduction to the literary genre of popular fiction, and an introductory class on rhetoric.


Kirsten Møllegaard pictured
Kirsten Møllegaard

Assistant Professor Day was nominated for the Frances Davis teaching award by UH Hilo Professor of English Kirsten Møllegaard whose nomination letter notes Day’s “excellent abilities to teach, nurture, support, and challenge her students,” notably in her students’ development as critical thinkers.

“It is not easy to combine being caring, understanding, and compassionate with [student learning outcomes] centered on grading and subject-relevant teaching effectiveness,” writes the nominator. “She is on-time, on-task, and well-prepared for class, and she gives students opportunities to be creative in their assignments.”

Also included in the nomination letter are student voices. One student comments that Day “encourages a highly collaborative classroom, emphasizing open conversation between students as a means to learn.” A member of the English club writes that Assistant Professor Day “always provided effective feedback on assignments and papers that facilitated and enhanced my learning and academic performance. I feel as though I have developed immensely as a writer and a critical analyzer through her drive to ensure student success.”

Student-directed learning

Day says her teaching philosophy is predicated on student-directed learning, meaning she creates opportunities to encourage student engagement and peer-to-peer activities that foster and animate independent development through critical thinking and empathy.

“Regardless of the course content or modality, I believe students are most successful when they can take ownership over their learning processes,” she explains. “I am committed to meeting students where they are, valuing their own life experiences, and facilitating their growth.”

Day takes time to learn who her students are, where they come from, what communities they are invested in, what their current and long-term goals are, and how these affect their relationship to course content and objectives.

“This makes a significant impact on my students because it not only demonstrates the value of who they are as individuals, but that they also can create their own relationships to our texts and content.”

Day says once her students recognize how their voices and life experiences are both valuable and inherent to the discussions about readings, they have the ability to foster their own learning in the courses.

Leanne Day at front of class with notes on whiteboard.
Leanne Day teaches a class in 2019. (Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories)

Community engagement

Regardless of the content of a given course, Day emphasizes that she teaches her students to be aware of their own location and relationship to their communities.

“This means acknowledging settler colonialism in Hawaiʻi, or if students are located elsewhere, [then] knowing our own histories and relationships to place,” she says. “This is more explicit in my Pacific and Hawai‘i-based courses, but is equally relevant to thinking through the literature of human rights and even introduction to rhetoric. Students need to reckon where they are coming from to critically engage with course theories, concepts, and texts.”

The majority of Day’s courses involve some type of final project that requires research and often community engagement. For example, in the course on literature of Hawai‘i, students must interact with a local organization, event, or cause they are interested in and then produce an academic research paper that centers on their own research of that organization’s work.

Just the hands of two people working with soil in two white buckets.
The Kohala Center’s Ōhāhā Mahi ‘Ai program reconnects local farmers and gardeners with ancestral relationships to food and deepens kinship with ‘āina through ‘ike rooted in traditional Hawaiian knowledge and practices while also incorporating regenerative western approaches. (Courtesy photo/Kohala Center)

Recently, students in this literature class examined and engaged with the Partners in Development Foundation’s Tūtū and Me Traveling Preschool (supporting Native Hawaiian families), the ongoing Red Hill jet fuel leak on O‘ahu, Ōhāhā Mahi ‘Ai Agricultural Training and Education Program (a program of The Kohala Center), and the Hawai‘i Food Bank. Students also have examined missing and murdered Native Hawaiian women and girls, houselessness in Hawai‘i, food sovereignty in Hawai‘i, domestic violence in Hawai‘i, and West Papua liberation movements.

Day says that by having her students directly create relationships with organizations within their local communities, they are able to connect the theories explored in class with the material effects and possibilities.

One local student reflects about this approach to learning. “The topic of Native Hawaiians is something that is always exciting for me to write about because I am passionate about the issues that we face. Homelessness and poverty is one of the top issues that Hawai’i faces with Native Hawaiians being disproportionately affected.”

Møllegaard says Day’s teaching style, whether in person or virtually (as was the case during the pandemic), contributes vitally to student retention and success at UH Hilo.

“Her invaluable contributions are also strengthening the English program by teaching high-quality courses that empower student learning and critical thinking,” says Møllegaard.

Student success based in caring

Across the board, students and faculty colleagues say Assistant Professor Day is a caring, engaged, wonderful teacher, who is making a positive difference in her students’ college experience.

A noted example of this happened in a class of Day’s when the pandemic first hit. It was the last in-person class before transitioning to an online format, and the students were tense and nervous about the sudden change. Assistant Professor Day calmly and professionally first allayed the students’ fears about the rest of the semester and then successfully redirected their attention to the text of the day.

Says one student who was in that class, “I genuinely felt she cared about my future and academic wellbeing.”

Related story

Newest professor in UH Hilo English department comes back home to teach Pacific Islander literature

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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