The world may come to us for simplification, but we give it complexity. There is power in that complexity. But it is a power that evaporates the moment we reduce our considered findings to a tweet.
Or this one:
My skepticism of Twitter is not a skepticism of activist scholarship, or even activism by scholars. We bring wide-ranging knowledge to important public questions, and we should be heard. Rather, I am concerned that our participation in Twitter is tacitly endorsing a commercial platform that subverts democratic discourse and collapses the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of debate. Scholarship demands cultivated habits of mind, considered distance, and the unfolding of time. Twitter does not.
Reading the manuscripts that take part in the Jaume Vidal Alcover Translation Prize. Very honored to be again a member of the judging panel. And very glad to see that this year we have plenty of strong candidates!
Society has been engulfed by a crisis of concentration that has hit higher education particularly hard. Our time and attention have gradually shifted from the specialized intellectual tasks that directly produce value to busywork, such as managing our inboxes and tackling nonessential administrative obligations.
Yet I’m not so sure about his remedy:
Instead of giving in to this reality, we should reaffirm the importance of the life of the mind by reforming the academy as a beacon of concentration in an age of distraction. Higher education can lead the way in turning back the tide of electronic chatter that threatens to overwhelm us. Do we have the will to protect what’s important against the pull of what’s easy? Will we stand for the power of concentration over the shallowness of rapid communication? And if not us, then who?
True. Yet, as inspiring as it may sound, is it realistic to combat managerialism with monasticism? Where are we working, actually? A recent reading particularly useful to understand how deep the problem is: Mark Garret Cooper and John Marx, Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education (Columbia UP, 2018), with, of course, its corresponding promo piece here.
Before traveling, checking out the last state of the discipline report–had been sitting in my reading pile for ages… I read some of the pieces included in the volume when they were posted on the wonderful web platform, but they somehow read differently in the book format.
Getting inspired by Ana Paulina Lee’s Mandarin Brazil: Race, Representation, and Memory. Great combination of sound historical research, fascinating studies of cultural representations, and important theoretical concerns.
Great workshop by Paulo Horta at our weekly departmental lunch series: On how to publish a book with an Anglo-American press. Timely topic! A real pleasure having Paulo around as a visiting scholar this year.
Walking back home after class. Listening to Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings. Wintertime. Our friends in Ithaca will remain between -10ºC and -20ºC on Wednesday. When I am about to cross Passeig de Sant Joan I realize I am sweating under my unnecessary winter coat.
These days Rachel Toor’s reflections in “How Academics Measure the Value of Their Books” come back to my mind as I progress (slowly!) on my manuscript. Particularly this one: among the many different definitions of success for an academic book, most of them unrelated to sales, your definition of success
might be finishing a manuscript that took far longer than planned. The idea of never having to think about the topic again can be cause for celebration…
Writing about how the Battle of the Yalu River was reported in Spain. The map below could very well be a slide used in a History class in the pre-PowerPoint era. In fact, it was published back in 1894 in Madrid–only three months after the battle! Where did they get the data from? Well, that is what my book is about…
Writing about how the Boxer Upheaval was represented in Spain. Going over the new draft I realize I will probably have to get rid of the section on Pierre Loti. Too bad I won’t be able to include my favorite quote–Loti’s words to his wife: “I will miss this time; the parks were exquisite in spite of the corpses and the crows”.
Great talk by Jorge L. Locane, who visited us this week: “¿Cómo pensar la escritura sedentaria? Para una crítica al paradigma de la circulación.” Locane brings the concept of sociology of absences, developed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, to the field of world literature and examines the paradigm of circulation. Very stimulating critical angle.
Thinking more systematically about our next collective project at ALTER. We still have quite some time before the application. But the decision involves several people (and individual research plans) and we need to think about this carefully.
Found inspiration in the sort of postface that sort of closes Anna Tsing’s fascinating The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton UP, 2015). Tsing defends the value of collaborative work in our age of commoditized scholarship:
What if we imagined intellectual life as a peasant woodland, a source of many useful products emerging in unintentional design? (…) Work in common creates the possibilities of particular feats of individual scholarship. To encourage the unknown potential of scholarly advances—like the unexpected bounty of a nest of mushrooms—requires sustaining the common work of the intellectual woodland.
Preparing a review session before students begin the examination weeks. I select a few representative passages from the course reader and plan to discuss them in class. Mental note: although not selected, mention the highly twittable section 3.3 from the Zhuangzi. Here in translation by A. C. Graham:
My life flows between confines, but knowledge has no confines. If we use the confined to follow after the unconfined, there is danger that the flow will cease; and when it ceases, to exercise knowledge is purest danger.
Back to my alma mater to give a seminar about the collective research project we are carrying out at ALTER. Hadn’t been there for quite a while and, probably for the first time, I felt kind of stranged when I walked around campus. The radio was playing Elgar’s concert overture “In the South (Alassio).”
Just attended the GUNi International Conference on the interrelation between humanities, science and technology in higher education. Three quick, personal thoughts:
Incoherence. Pressure for universities to teach according to the market–technical, employable skills and so on; now pressure also for universities to spread humanistic values outside the classrooms and across society at large–a society that is formed by, among other people, the very same students who are in our classrooms learning technical, employable skills.
Juxtaposition. Disparate presentations from very different perspectives: institutional, geographical, methodological, political. The unorthodox mixture comes in handy a couple of times as a few participants remind the majority of participants that science and technology are not things that spread naturally from the West to the Rest.
Déja vu. Passionate talk by Rosi Braidotti on critical post-humanities. She mentions how the usual perspectives are still missing in the discussions: de-colonial, migrant/diasporic and so on. Academic trends come and go (with their own lexica), but epistemological failures remain.
Making slow progress on the chapter on late-nineteenth-century representations of China in Spain. Drafting my close readings of Enrique Gaspar’s works on China–particularly The Time Ship, which actually predates H. G. Wells’s famous The Time Machine.
Updating my notes for the class on the history and culture of the Qing dynasty. Going over Stephen Platt’s books on the Taiping (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom) and the Opium War (Imperial Twilight) as a literary detective. Most of the undergrads enrolled in the course are not Chinese majors and Platt’s tone and narrative strategies work great as models to reach that kind of audience.
Excellent summary of the impostor syndrome and great common-sense suggestions about how to overcome it by Sindhumathi Revuluri here. Sharing the piece with graduate students and early-career colleagues—particularly with those working from marginalized positions and/or in marginalized fields:
There is also more recent research showing that the phenomenon hits especially hard among scholars who are members of minority groups and/or are studying topics that are marginalized in academic culture. In other words, some academics don’t just feel like impostors, they are made to feel like impostors, no matter how self-assured, smart, and confident they are.
Back from Edinburgh. Impressed by really interesting projects that apply postcolonial concepts, methods and concerns to the Spanish context of the Francoist period. Very productive dialogue with my own project on the representations of China in Spain.
Working on my presentation for the symposium Performing Otherness: a Postcolonial Approach to Francoist Spain at the University of Edinburgh. Trying to combine a few glances at ACE and all the empirical findings we have gathered in there with some of my own methodological and conceptual thoughts. Should I also squeeze in the great case examples I have?
Helping out a colleague working on ecocriticism and the sea. She asked me for potential additions from Chinese or Sinophone literatures. I suggested to look into all the constellation of primary and secondary works dealing with the South Seas. Plus one of my most recent readings: Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes.
I particularly sympathize with David Schieber’s attitude. Schieber peer-reviewed one of the surrealist papers written by the trio of hoaxers. He rejected it but tried to offer constructive feedback: “It is impossible to know who is on the other end of blind peer review, and it is reasonable to assume the person has good intentions, even if the paper is mediocre or worse.”
Finally working on the chapter on late-nineteenth century stuff. Trying to move it from a rough first draft to a readable piece to be shared. Today: writing a vignette about Tolstoy’s library to show that my argument actually goes way beyond the specific interactions between Spain and China. In the late 1880s we would find 39 scholarly books related to China on the shelves of Tolstoy’s library at Yasnaya Polyana. According to Derk Bodde’s Tolstoy and China, 19 of these books were in English, 10 in French, 7 in Russian and 3 in German.
Updating my notes for the class on the history and culture of the Ming dynasty. Listened to the great podcast on New Books in East Asian Studies with Michael Szonyi about his latest book, The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China (Princeton UP, 2017). Very nice (and very right!) mention at the end of the podcast about the young scholarly community within China–working on any topic you would imagine and working with tremendous sophistication.
Finishing up an institutional report. Thinking about research goals and strategies for my department. What is the right-sized environment for scholars working in the humanities?
Finding inspiration in this quote by Jonathan Brown, viola, Cuarteto Casals: “We show the composers’ soul. A quartet will never be as spectacular as an orchestra. It will never be as impressive as a soloist. But nobody offers a clearer musical dialogue. It is a unique approach to classical music.”
Going back to Imagined Communities after reading Rebecca Walkowitz’s twist of Benedict Anderson’s argument. This time I got my hands on the 2006 edition, which includes an Afterword that is the source of Walkowitz’s discussion: a detailed account of the path followed by Anderson’s book after its publication back in 1983. Fascinating stuff. Illustrative finale: “Imagined Communities is not my book any more.”
My favorite sentence from Anderson’s classic, though, still remains at the end of the Acknowledgments page: “I should perhaps add that I am by training and profession a specialist on Southeast Asia. This admission may help to explain some of the book’s biases and choices of examples, as well as to deflate its would-be-global pretensions”.
Reflecting on the idea of cross-cultural encounters as disconnections. Going over a new draft of what should become the introduction of the book. Thoughts fueled by the cluster at Modernism/modernity–and its terrific accompanying image:
Typical mid-September little tsunami of emails, meetings and all sorts of admin work. Coming back after a half-sabbatical does not make it easier. Right now, listening to the second movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 on repeat while trying to cope with my inbox.
Preparing my talk on China, translation and Western literature for this seminar to be held in a couple of weeks. Looking forward to explain the project we’ve been working on at ALTER to a non-academic audience in Barcelona.
The seminar will be the formal opening of this wonderful exhibition of Juan Mencarini’s photographs taken in Fuzhou in the 1890s. The exhibition, commissioned by our colleague Xavier Ortells-Nicolau, is also part of our collective project.
Going over old issues of the CHE. Beautiful piece here by Daniel T. Rodgers on truth, post-truth, and truth’s complexity:
Above all, it will require a renewed commitment to truth’s complexity and the processes by which one searches for it. As long as we can click on the truths we want, as long as truth is imagined as a desire satisfied in a politically and commercially saturated market, we will have a superabundance of facts that people hold as true. Everyone will get what he wants, and the public — and its trust in truth — will fall apart.
Only a few days to go. Preparing to adjust back to the old rhythms by re-reading Zadie Smith’s Find Your Beach. Also, a quote from Viktor Shklovsky’s Third Factory comes in handy: “There is no third alternative. Yet that is precisely the one that must be chosen.”
Thinking about open science. Mainly understood as making data and results open to society (i.e. not to private companies or collectives), especially when research has been publicly funded.
Yet science–including research done in the humanities–should also open its backstage. Research appears always neat, solid, well-argued in books, articles, conferences. But a major part of the process leading to those results remains in the shadows. I’m thinking of obstacles and failures, but also of doubts.
Doubt has been removed from the public view. An extreme example: major research calls ask for contingency plans in case your hypothesis or methodology fail at some point. Also in the humanities. Everything has to be so tightly planned beforehand that, once you get the funding, it seems almost irrelevant to carry out the project–you already know what will happen.
It would be instructive to see what lies behind a book, an article, a talk, a course, a translation.
Interesting article here by Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan on the liberal arts outside of elite institutions. Their argument breaks down the polarity: humanities at elite schools vs. instrumental training in all other institutions. Plus, indirectly, their argument opens the discussion on the future of the humanities to institutional contexts outside the US.
Working on the final revisions for the article for Modernism/modernity. It is always a pleasure to receive comments from sharp readers who get down to the skin of each sentence. For instance: “This is a mixed metaphor, and it is also confusing: mosaics are already structurally diverse, and they rely on a single viewpoint perspective. So can you perhaps say the same thing without this analogy?”
What I mean by excellent working conditions is actually this: a small but closed working space with plenty of light, silence, and no interruptions. Of course, a great library collection is a plus–but still secondary. Need to move 4,000 miles to get this?
Stuck looking for images to illustrate an article that will come up soon at Modernism/modernity. One of my colleagues sends me plenty of options. One of them, this engraving by Enrique Alba for Juan Manuel Pereira’s Los paises del Extremo Oriente, published in 1883. The characters were originally copied upside down.
Selina Lai-Henderson opens one of the chapters of her wonderful Mark Twain in China with this great quote from Chesterton: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land”.
All day stuck trying to structure what will probably be chapter 4. Got the argument, got the corpus, but the flow in the sstructure does not work. Moving sections from here to there. I try to refocus by having a panoramic view of the project. Halfway of my visit, main ideas refined, very rough first draft on its way. I should be happy.
Nature‘s editorial this week: “How institutions can help lab groups to be productive, supportive and rigorous is an essential but often-overlooked topic.” Oh, yes. This is even more essential and overlooked in the humanities, where it is often not even considered a topic. The final recommendations (resources for administrative tasks; support for mentoring and managing lab members; more use of measures of scientific productivity beyond counts of high-profile papers) would be more than welcome outside labs as well.
Going over old issues of the CHE. Very interesting piece here by Jeffrey J. Williamson on the state of academic labor. The comparison with medicine and health care is insightful. But even if we end up having to buy the metaphor, we still need decent conditions for all the different types of scholars involved in this stratified process.
Reading Chen Jitong’s works written from Paris. At first sight, a clear example of bicultural agent or cross-cultural mediator. But a closer look at his writings reveals a strong auto-ethnographic drive. He works with binarisms and polarities all the time. No actual mediation underneath the surface.
I will be visiting Cornell University for a few months to work on my project on Western representations of China. Looking forward to camping at Olin Library, shaping the book and drafting the chapters.
Her letter was an apology. She was sorry for not having been in touch for a while and for the delays in her project. She was suffering a depression. It all had started with a strange feeling, a kind of weight, a kind of fog. It was now a diagnosed depression. She had lost much more than her self-esteem as a young researcher—she had lost her life’s breath. The letter was part of the first steps to assume and go over the situation.
It took me a while to write her back. I wanted to make her comfortable: do not worry, try to get well, take it easy. I wanted to teller her that she is talented and that her project is fascinating. But then I thought these are the polite things that people probably tell you all the time when you are down in the well. So I decided to share some experiences with her. I told her that I often lost confidence in my projects and in the profession as well. I told her that swimming regularly and writing down my frustrations in a notebook had worked well for me.
She wrote me back. She thought that more experienced researchers did not have these kinds of problems. She thought that it was all about sitting down and starting to write and enjoy. She told me that she was feeling better. She had started visiting the swimming pool and the notebook was a good idea.
This was a few months ago. Since then I keep on asking myself whether the training we offer to our graduate students and young researchers is adequate enough.