Vincent Shen, a beloved professor of the Departments of Philosophy and East Asian Studies (EAS), died on November 14 at the age of 69, surrounded by family after suffering from a major stroke, wrote his spouse Johanna Liu, also a professor at EAS. Shen is remembered for positively changing the lives of his students, both undergraduate and graduate.

Commemorating his life, seven former students of Shen spoke to The Varsity about how he made a positive impact on their lives.

Shen’s approach to teaching

Lincoln Rathnam, an assistant professor at Duke Kunshan University, recalled that Shen “had a very rich sense of humour,” despite his reputation as an internationally renowned professor.

Like most of his other students, Rathnam expected Shen to be a “very serious guy who was just going to solemnly lecture about Confucius for two hours” each session.

But instead, Rathnam explained that during “very serious lectures on different topics,” Shen would “always just interject with funny asides and jokes and things to lighten the mood a little bit.”

Xiaoman Chen, a graduate EAS student, said that “most of the professors will go just through lots of text and then just ask us to read enormous material. But how Professor [Shen] approached his teaching was to teach us sentence by sentence. And even one word, he can explain for 20 minutes — even for half of the class.”

Majoring in EAS, Carlos Arceo said, “He cared about your education, but that is — that was — his life’s goal. He wanted students to learn. He wanted students to improve. He wanted students to be reasonable. And I think he achieved what he wanted to do.”

Shen’s philosophical principles

Eric Ma, a Master of Arts student in EAS, remembered that Shen emphasized that to live a fulfilling life is “not just about making money.” Instead, it “has a deeper meaning,” he recalled. “It’s about realizing your potential and learning about life.”

Now a sessional lecturer in the Department of Language Studies at UTM, Derong Chen related three specific principles that he’s kept in mind throughout his career.

“First,” wrote Chen, “do not pull up the rice shoots with intention of helping them to grow (勿助勿忘); second, [think] of the topic and [work] on it all the time (念兹在兹); and third, [take] accuracy, [appropriateness,] and consistency as your final goal (唯精唯一).”

Yvonne Yo, a PhD candidate in EAS, wrote that Shen’s lifelong project was to “promote dialogues between the East and the West.” In his lectures, he strove to remind his students that “each of us has our own responsibility, and each of us could contribute something to this world,” explained Yo.

Shen’s empathy toward his students

Gabriel Weng, a PhD student in EAS, said that Shen went above and beyond in supporting his students. “In the summertime, I was working on my prospectus for my PhD program, and I was supposed to send him my draft, but I was a procrastinator.”

“I sent him the email maybe at 9:00 pm. He replied me at midnight. He just spent three hours to read my draft and then give me detailed feedback,” said Weng, expressing his gratitude.

Doil Kim, now a professor at Sungkyunkwan University, wrote that Shen connected his students with “visiting scholars from all over the world.” After discussing research papers, Kim remembers sitting around “a large round table in some of the Chinese restaurants in Toronto for dinner,” and engaging in “much deeper discussions about various topics related to Chinese philosophy.”

By doing this, wrote Kim, Shen encouraged his students to learn from scholars from different cultural perspectives to better understand their own views and also check if their views made sense to others.

Shen’s plans after retirement

According to Weng, Shen’s death was especially shocking to his students because “he [had] already submitted his retirement document to the university,” at the time of his passing.

Shen had told Weng in late September that he wanted to “reciprocate back to society” by volunteering at the National Palace Museum of Taiwan as a tour guide.

“He told me he spent too much time in the academia,” said Weng, “I think he also wanted to spend some time with talking with the general populace.”

Shen also wanted to travel abroad, said Weng. While Shen had already traveled widely, “he just went from the airport to the conference centre or to the university,” continued Weng.

“He didn’t spend too much time on looking at the landscapes, at the cities, so it’s kind of regretful thing for him. So he told me that, after his retirement, he wanted to travel abroad with his wife.”