UW-Madison professor seizes a virtual teaching opportunity

Design studies professor Wei Dong turns home basement into a teaching studio.
Wei Dong
UW-Madison Professor Wei Dong (upper left) is ready to conduct virtual classes from the studio in his basement. (Photos courtesy of Wei Dong)

When Wei Dong was considering moving on and up from his post as an assistant professor in the College of Design at Iowa State University, he had offers from the University of Florida and the University of Wisconsin­-Madison.

This was 1993, and a powerful lobbyist was insisting that Dong choose the Gainesville campus.

“My son was 3,” Dong recalls. “It was close to Disney!”

Still, Dong brought his family to Madison, drawn by UW-Madison’s historic academic connection to his native China and, especially, by the city’s history with Frank Lloyd Wright.

“In China,” Dong says, “I knew only one American architect: Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Now approaching three decades at UW-Madison, Dong is a distinguished professor of design studies in the School of Human Ecology; an author whose books in English  have been translated into Spanish and Korean; an artist whose work has been widely exhibited; and a global ambassador who annually leads UW student groups on trips to China.

Dong has done it all with an optimistic brio that is undiminished by the current pandemic.

If anything, he sees opportunity amid the upheaval. The belief that crisis brings opportunity has long been Dong’s mantra. He says it comes in part from the fact that there is no one word for “crisis” in Chinese. Rather that concept is expressed in two words meaning “dangerous” and “opportunity,” though not all linguists agree with that interpretation.

Dong, who looks at Facebook but is rarely active on the social media platform, recently posted a description of how he’s turned the basement of his home into a teaching studio to conduct at least a portion of his “Visual Communication 1” class that starts virtually this week.

He noted that he wants to “really mimic the physical environment of the classroom … from the color of the walls, the UW symbol, studio lighting, atmosphere and multiple camera angles for a live experience feeling …. I can analyze student’s projects, demo techniques and show what I’m talking about.”

Dong grew up in Beijing, where his interest in art and design began in middle school.

“I am very visual,” he says. “Everything I tried, I had to draw.”

He enrolled at the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing, China’s top art and design school, now affiliated with Tsinghua University. “They took only 15 students a year,” Dong says.

In 1986, Dong came to the United States to study for a master’s at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, one of this country’s best art institutions.

Two months after landing in Richmond, Dong visited Fallingwater in Pennsylvania – Wright’s pull was strong.

When he interviewed for the UW-Madison job seven years later, he spotted Wright’s Unitarian Meeting House and after landing in Madison was delighted to find his campus parking space allowed him to pass it every day: “An incredible experience.”

Dong sees in Wright’s work a kinship with the ancient Chinese feng shui philosophy of balancing opposing forces, yin and yang, in an effort to achieve harmony.

He points to Wright’s “engagement with nature. It’s almost the same as feng shui culture, all about the harmony between the universe, the Earth and the human. Between the natural and the manmade. His work really integrated well between outside and inside.”

When the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center opened in 1997, Dong published an article about the Wright-inspired convention center in a prominent Chinese magazine.

“An assistant professor’s salary was low, and we had a family, but I still bought a tile at Monona Terrace,” he says.

As noted, Dong was aware of UW-Madison having historically played a leading role in establishing academic connections with the People’s Republic of China, and it influenced his decision to come here.

In the early 2000s, with the university once again promoting globalization and multicultural awareness, Dong began preparing the annual “Chinese Art, Design and Wellness” summer study abroad program that was launched in 2004 and has allowed hundreds of students to experience China’s ancient structures, emerging architecture and much more – many call it the trip of a lifetime.

The spirit of adventure that takes them there isn’t all that different from the one that first brought Dong to the Midwest. It was 1989, and he had an offer from Iowa State, his stop before Madison. His colleagues in Virginia, aghast, tried to discourage him.

“In their minds, the Midwest was cornfield,” Dong says. “I wanted to try.” Thirty years on he’s glad he did.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.