Workroom

Is Deep Thinking Incompatible With an Academic Career?

Joseph Keegin, Is Deep Thinking Incompatible With an Academic Career?

Yet even there [in college] I found myself a stranger. I discovered peers who were concerned with the acquisition of prestige and profit, beleaguered professors forced to justify their positions in terms of metrics, and careerists of all kinds. The lesson, it seemed, was that curiosity has no home. Thinking is at best a liability, something that destabilizes the solidity of a life and rips one from the fellowship of other people. At worst it’s poison, a fatal and ineradicable dose of melancholy and doubt.

Working on…

Revising the conclusion of my book manuscript. Putting myself in Kate Sturge’s shoes when, in Representing Others: Translation, Ethnography and Museum, she wrote :

At times my comments will seem only negative, following the hallowed tradition of translator-bashing. But despite the troubled past and present of ethnographic translation–in its harshest formulation, as an imperialistic appropriation into terms of the translating culture–this book starts from the assumption that translation must happen, that, however difficult, it is a necessary move and assertion of our common ground in being human. Translation must happen, that is, if the alternative is to wait silently until the others adopt our own language and linguistic homogeneity makes translation obsolete.

Wanderlust

Fully back to routine (sort of) and also back to my walks across Barcelona. Remembering Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust:

The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between. New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued–that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced. (10)

Liberate our imaginations

Wonderful last sentence in Tom Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter: “As we continue our examination of Chinese and global information technology in the age of computing and new media, one of our biggest challenges remains: to liberate our imaginations from a past that never actually existed.”

Jazz Suite

Received very good news about my book manuscript. Wait: not to be ecstatic yet! But I’m very happy to be moving in the good direction.

Dimitri Shostakovich, Jazz Suite #2: Waltz #2.

Working on…

Preparing a graduate course on language and cultural contexts in East Asia that I will teach for the first time this quarter. Very excited to be able to share and discuss fascinating readings on, among other topics, translation, Sinophone studies, sinographies and typing machines. Really looking forward to it.

The Humanities After Covid-19

Jonathan Kramnick, The Humanities After Covid-19 on what happens when hiring dies:

Disciplines of study exist only to the extent that they are grounded in institutions and practices: in syllabi, in methods of argument, in archives that compel inquiry, topics that inspire debate, and above all in the human labor of research, writing, and teaching according to norms that one acquires by training. Hiring is the backbone of all this. It is an occasion for collective expressions of value, for stating what kind of work a department wants or needs or judges favorably. It is also the means by which a discipline both survives and changes over time.

Suggestions

Reading Katherine Mangan anticipation of Fall’s Looming Child-Care Crisis. It comes with some suggestions:

Amy Armenia, chair of the sociology department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., has been studying ways colleges can help alleviate child-care crises this fall. Programs in women’s and gender studies have also been collecting models of promising ideas, most of which have yet to be put into practice. Among the suggestions Armenia and two psychology faculty members compiled:

Put nonessential service obligations, like curriculum reform, on hold.

Evaluate teaching loads and enrollments to be sure that early-career academics, who are more likely to have young children, aren’t overly burdened with large courses.

Allow flexibility for asynchronous teaching, work from home, and nonstandard work times.

Help employees help each other by setting up banks for unused sick leave or coordinating efforts to share part-time nannies and tutors.

Create lists of employees without current care-giving responsibilities who are willing to spend an hour or two a week virtually reading books or teaching math lessons.

First Gen Professor: How Academia Works

First thing I will do in the Fall: urge my graduate students and young colleagues to subscribe to Tom Mullaney’s YouTube Channel. His videos about how academia works (research and writing, job search and presenting, funding and awards, the politics of academia) are valuable not only to first generation professors but also to scholars working in peripheral academias.

Working on…

Pushing other people’s works forward before summer break: students’ dissertations, postdocs’ proposals, colleagues’ article and chapter drafts. Particularly proud of a dissertation I co-supervise: an old-style 640-page volume almost ready to be submitted!

More masks

Back to UAB for another doctoral dissertation oral defense. Last time I came up here was on March 13, right at the beginning of the lockdown. The campus is still completely empty. In March, at the end of the defense the candidate, who had just come back from China, offered a few masks to each member of the committee as a sign of gratitude instead of the proverbial cheese and wine. Almost four months later, each member comes equipped with his own mask. Still no cheese and wine.

Working on…

Grading many BA and MA dissertations. Always learning something new–about Qiu Shihua, for instance.

Qiu Shihua, Untitled, 2009. Oil on canvas. Galerie Urs Meile.

Ethics committee

Working with the Ethics Committee at my university to refine the process for assessing the research proposals coming from the humanities and social sciences. The EU General Data Protection Regulation was implemented in 2018. Two years later we still need a better understanding of how the issues of data protection and privacy should be dealt in fields outside biomedical research, for instance.

Icelandic pride

Reading about soccer in Iceland. In 2016, the Iceland national soccer team qualified for the first time for the UEFA European Championship and reached the quarter-finals after beating England in the Round of 16. In 2018, Iceland qualified for the first time for the FIFA World Cup.

Of course, Icelanders feel proud: they excel at soccer at a world level, even if they are a very small country and live in a very tough climate–two conditions that make it extremely difficult to excel at soccer internationally. Being able to overcome these difficulties, Icelanders feel they can achieve anything–beyond soccer.

I’m reading about all this pushed by a comparison: scholars in peripheral academias should feel like Icelanders playing soccer and look for their sources of pride given their own Icelandic professional conditions.

On leadership and the emergency rule

John Keane’s Democracy and the Great Pestilence. On leadership:

The ubiquity of death helps explain not just the overnight socialism and the nervousness of governments but also the new difficulties elected leaders are facing in explaining their actions to citizens. The Great Pestilence cries out for leaders who are good at motivating citizens by winning their respect. True democratic leaders display a radiance of style. They listen. They are practiced in the art of knowing when to be silent. True leaders learn from others. They know and respect the value of experts, wise people (as Niels Bohr said) who remind them that they don’t know everything. Good leaders are wise in turn: they are not blinded by expert advice and scientific data, which they know to be incomplete, constantly mutating and subject to disputations. Genuine leaders are level-headed and inwardly calm. They know how to poke fun at themselves, but they refuse to be clowns. They are not biddable. When the chips are down, as they now are, true leaders are rock steady. They have the courage to face up to hard realities and to make difficult judgments about how best to save lives while protecting citizens from social and economic ruin. They avoid demagoguery. They don’t worship power for its own sake. Above all, true democratic leaders humbly acknowledge their deep dependence upon the people known as the led. They don’t try to drag citizens by their noses. They lead people by persuading them to look up to their leaders.

On the emergency rule:

Such justifications of emergency rule are both dangerously naïve and ignorant. Unless they are resisted, concentrations of arbitrary power always display a definite stickiness. As temporary measures, they easily become permanent arrangements. Power granted is power conceded; and power relinquished is power reclaimed with difficulty. Emergency rule gets people used to subordination. It nurtures voluntary servitude. It is the mother of despotism and, as Percy Bysshe Shelley observed in Queen Mab (1813), arbitrary power, ‘like a desolating pestilence’, which strangely resembles the virus it claims to combat.

Overcoming difficulties

Book project: planning ahead.  Josep Pla in The Gray Notebook:

He emprès aquest camí, no pas pensant en els resultats que en podré obtenir que seran, gairebé segur, mediocríssims, potser nuls, potser negatius–llevat de produir-se alguna cosa impensada. He emprès aquest camí per vèncer la dificultat d’emprendre’l–exactament parlant.

Working on…

Reached a small but important milestone in the long path towards the book manuscript. Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, by Tchaikovsky. Also, family ice-cream to celebrate.

Business as usual?

In Beckie Supiano, Why Is Zoom So Exhausting?:

Another factor in the exhaustion, Joosten adds, is that so many people want to project to others that they’re doing business as usual, even while the news is full of “images of death, of illness, of economic downturn and collapse.”

I am trying to convince some peers at my department that we should minimize this factor of exhaustion: limit the amount and length of online meetings, cancel research seminars, and so on. We should avoid projecting the image of business as usual. Not only because we are surrounded by “images of collapse,” but also because, pure and simple, business is not as usual–particularly for those who have to care for others at home.

La Xina del present, el món del futur

The dossier on contemporary China for L’Espill that I coedited with David Martínez-Robles is out! It includes wonderful pieces by young China scholars. It also includes my translation of Dai Jinhua’s essay on the future of Chinese (and world) history, which seems quite appropriate for these days. Proud to make Dai’s work available in the Catalan language and for such a prestigious journal.

La Xina del present, el món del futur (L’Espill 62, 2020)

David Martínez-Robles i Carles Prado-Fonts, “La Xina del present, el món del futur”

Javier Borràs Arumí, “Periodisme, censura i el repte d’un futur comú amb la Xina”

Carles Brasó Broggi, “La Xina i les noves rutes de la seda”

Irene Masdeu Torruella, “La Xina com a país d’origen i de destí”

Xavier Ortells Nicolau, “Les ruïnes de la nova Xina”

Jesús Sayols Lara, “Sota els paraigües”

Manel Ollé, “Dai Jinhua o el feminisme que mira més enllà dels drets de la dona”

Dai Jinhua, “Després de la Postguerra Freda”

Killing a Chinese Mandarin

In the past few weeks I’ve been asked many times to share impressions or recommend readings about China and coronavirus and the virus and them over there and now  the virus and us right here and etcetera. Mostly I have directed them to the mandarin button and to Eric Hayot’s The Hypothetical Mandarin

In the predictable near future

Getting into a mood of anticipation. Similar to the mood brilliantly described by Yan Lianke a couple of months ago in China: When the epidemic ends, let our memories live:

In the predictable near future, as the nation celebrates its victory against this national battle that is the Covid-19 with music and song, I hope that we will not become empty and hollow writers who echo along, but people who are simply living authentically with our own memories.

Pandemic caste system

‘White-Collar Quarantine’ Over Virus Spotlights Class Divide. In Barcelona we’ve had our own share of fellow citizens moving to their vacation properties in the countryside…

Still, a kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.

 

Letter to students

Terrific piece by Nick Admussen here. One of the best things I’ve read in the past few days. First paragraph:

As cases of Covid-19 spread and we begin a period of social distancing, I want to give you my argument for continuing to do the two things university was designed for: to read and to write. Colleges often present themselves to students as a package excursion for youth: open quadrangles, energetic friends and lovers, deep conversation, light beer, live music, parties. It is that, and much more. Yet my colleagues and I didn’t become literature professors – we didn’t become literate – by going to class. We learned what we know in rooms that lacked conversation, friends, and open doors.

Flush it

Getting adjusted to this new situation. I read this Twitter thread from Aisha Ahmad. I find it very helpful. She later expands this thread in an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education: Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure. The article, though, does not mention what, for me, was perhaps the most important advice given in the Twitter thread: simplify, minimize, focus on the most basic and important things:

Third, any work that can be simplified, minimized, and flushed: FLUSH IT. Don’t design a fancy new online course. It will suck & you will burn out. Choose the simplest solution for you & your students, with min admin. Focus on getting students feeling empowered & engaged.

Masks

Yesterday was the last day of school before lockdown. So the  kids are at home today when I leave for work. I take the train to UAB–I’m a committee member in a dissertation oral defense that has not been canceled. The campus is still open but there are no students around. At the end of the defense, the candidate, who has just come back from China, offers each member of the committee a few masks as a substitute for the cheese and wine traditionally offered by candidates at the end of defenses in Spain.

Feminization of service

Anna Kornbluh on academic service in this interesting conversation, here:

I can’t believe that people don’t want to understand the conditions of their own work. There’s this terrible feminization of service, but there’s also the mischaracterization of it as not intellectual. Building a curriculum, inventing a gen-ed curriculum: Those are profoundly intellectual things. So one wants to be careful of upholding that divide.

I’m not quite sure that most of the tasks related to academic service that are part of my daily routine could be considered profoundly intellectual. But I promise I will give it some thought.

The Panic Epidemic

While I am driving to Reus for the book presentation, the news report the first coronavirus case in Catalonia. The presentation goes well and I am happy to meet again with friends and family, but there is a strange mood. Back home I read Ian Johnson’s piece, Coronavirus and the Panic Epidemic. Quite prophetic–this kind of government’s gesticulation will take place here too. The effectiveness of the government’s actions is another thing.

Lilts and twangs

Recognizing some of the feelings mentioned by Vikrant Dadawala in this piece. For example:

Like Stephen Dedalus in front of his British dean of studies, I found my tongue stumbling over familiar words, intimidated by how naturally Americans spoke English: caressing each word, adding lilts and twangs in the most unexpected places.

Working on…

Reading ahead for a doctoral dissertation oral defense. The dissertation is on Yu Hua’s fiction writing. Happy to reencounter Yu Hua’s “Death Narrative” and one of my favorite short story starters:

本来我也没准备把卡车往另一个方向开去,所以这一切都是命中注定的。

Translated by Teresa Tejeda as: “En principio no había planeado ir con el camión en otra dirección, así que todo esto estaba destinado a suceder.” Translated also by Lucas Klein here as: “I hadn’t planned on driving the truck in that direction in the beginning, so this was all predestined by fate.”

Literature in the singular

Still about empathy… Teju Cole’s Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation against an empathetic value of literature but for a singular yet collective value of literature:

How can literature help us here? The claim is often made that people who read literature are wiser or kinder, that literature inspires empathy. But is that true? I find that literature doesn’t really do those things. After observing the foreign policies of the so-called developed countries, I cannot trust any complacent claims about the power of literature to inspire empathy. Sometimes, even, it seems that the more libraries we have over here, the more likely we are to bomb people over there.

What we can go to literature for is both larger and smaller than any cliché about how it makes us more empathetic. Literature does not stop the persecution of humans or the prosecution of humanitarians. It does not stop bombs. It does not, no matter how finely wrought, change the minds of the little fascists who once more threaten to overrun the West. So what is it good for—all this effort, this labor, this sweating over the right word, the correct translation?

I offer this: literature can save a life. Just one life at a time. Perhaps at 4 AM when you get out of bed and pull a book of poetry from the shelf. Perhaps over a week in summer when you’re absorbed in a great novel. Something deeply personal happens there, something both tonic and sustaining.

Erode our engagement

Back again to teaching–this quarter, Readings in Modern and Contemporary East Asian Fiction. Really looking forward to it. On my way to the first session I just read that Jennifer Egan taught a course at Penn and banned computers and phones: “I won’t have it. I won’t. Unless people have a problem with handwriting, I have no computers in the classroom. I think these devices really erode our engagement with whatever it is we’re trying to do.”

Rigorous, critical, empathetic thinking

Interesting piece  here by Karen E. Spierling on the humanities and critical empathy:

Functioning effectively in a globalized society — in business, politics, medicine, education, daily interactions with immigrants in one’s own community, or daily interactions with locals in the community into which one has immigrated — requires the skill of rigorous, critical, empathetic thinking. Not just run-of-the-mill empathy. Not a wishy-washy definition of empathy that reduces it to natural feelings or emotions. Not just instinctive “people skills.” Not some kind of imagined empathy that depends on a person’s inherent ability to listen well and think from another person’s point of view. Not touchy-feely but uninformed sympathy for “those less fortunate” in other parts of the world. Instead, navigating this globalized world requires sophisticated, well-honed skills of empathy.

The future of knowledge

Yesterday, department seminar on the future of the humanities led by Marina Garcés and based on GUNi’s 7th Higher Education in the World Report presented this week in Barcelona. Today, read this piece by Aaron Hanlon–what is the future of the humanities, of knowledge, of higher education when the situation of the professoriate is so critical?

a professoriate that can count on a job for only a year at a time is not well positioned to build, or even to consider, the future of knowledge. What is the future of plant science? What is the future of literary studies? What is the future of pedagogy, of rhetoric, of media, of communication? People with tenure and job security are now working on those things, in many cases in partnership with people outside the university, but if such people cease to exist in a professional capacity, what will become of their fields?

Double feature

Attended Ignacio Sánchez Prado’s double feature today here in Barcelona: a morning seminar on his theoretical and methodological approaches to world literature and an afternoon talk on transculturation and the global novel. Very inspiring–I hope to put that inspiration on paper very soon…

Working on…

Back to Joan Torres-Pou’s Asia en la España del siglo XIX. His chapter on Luis Valera takes me back to one of the best moments in Sombras chinescas:

Son las once de la noche. Nos queda una hora hasta que llegue el cotillón, último número de los festejos. La gente se dispersa. (…) Las señoras bajan a orillas del lago y se embarcan en los dorados juncos imperiales, que parecen iluminadas góndolas venecianas. Yo también voy en junco. Desde el lago contemplamos de nuevo aquella visión de teatral apoteosis. (…) Las señoras que estaban en Pekín el año anterior, recuerdan lo que hacían doce meses antes, y cómo estaban encerradas en las Legaciones oyendo los gritos de los boxers detrás de la negra muralla de la Tártara Ciudad. Los que no estábamos entonces en Pekín contestamos a las señoras que todo aquello fue una pesadilla, cosa soñada y nada más; y si no, ¿cómo nos estamos paseando en la misteriosa Ciudad Prohibida, por el Lago de los Lotos Purpurinos, dueños de hacer cuanto se nos antoje y gozando de maravillosa fiesta? ¿Dónde están los boxers, dónde la Corte imperial y dónde los pérfidos mandarines que la aconsejaban? Alguien, desde la proa del junco, nos contesta incoherentemente: “cadáveres de boxers hay en el fondo de este lago, la Corte pronto regresará a Pekín, y quizás nunca vuelva a celebrarse fiesta como la de esta noche.” Lo de los boxers yacentes en el limo debajo de las aguas que surcamos no agrada a las señoras; éstas quieren tornar al embarcadero de la Rotonda, y tanto más deprisa cuanto que se oyen los compases del primer vals y las aguardan sus parejas.

Working on…

Just finished my translation of Dai Jinhua’s essay–squeezed in the middle of this quarter’s teaching and while revising the book  manuscript too… Really happy to make her work available to Catalan readers in the Catalan language and for such a prestigious publication as L’Espill. It  should be out in January in a special issue on contemporary China that I have co-edited with my colleague David Martínez-Robles.

Omnivorous reading

Amitav Ghosh interviewed at The Creative Independent. What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?

I find that it’s very important to read. Really, a lot of the time I get my ideas for books or for essays, articles, whatever, from other sources. I think it’s very important to read not just literature but also history. It’s important to read poetry. It’s also very important to read in other languages because that also gives you a perspective on the world which can be very, very fruitful.

Alienation and resonance

Interesting definitions of alienation and resonance in this (rather old, given our high speed society…) interview to Hartmut Rosa on the LARB.

Hence, we can only make our world more resonant and less alienating when we change our own attitudes, but also the structures of our social and economic world. Economic democracy, a basic income, and the idea of resonance might be essential components for such a change.

Lin Yutang

Still re-reading and organizing my thoughts on James St. André’s Translating China as Cross-Identity Performance. On Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People:

Even though Lin may have set out to write a measured account that would refute both the overblown defense of China by Sinologists and the defamation of the Western missionary, trader, and diplomat, he finds himself acting the part of a Chinese (Daoist) sage and decrying the limitations of his own people. No wonder that, according to his daughter, a popular criticism of Lin’s work in China after it was translated into Chinese was the bilingual pun “ 賣 Country and 賣 People,” where the Chinese verb “to sell” is used as a homophone for “My” in the original title, so that it now reads “Selling [My] Country and Selling [My] People”.

Working on…

Organizing the tons of notes taken when reading James St. André’s Translating China as Cross-Identity Performance (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2018). This is an amazing work. So far, one of the most helpful readings for my own project.

Modern jobs

Great conversation between Ken Liu and Nick Admussen. Here. My favorite bit: Liu compares the work of a programmer, a lawyer and a fiction writer–and most modern jobs:

I’m like many other people in modern society: we’re paid to become skilled manipulators of symbols. One of the signs of modernity is the degree to which we cease to make anything concrete. A lot of our jobs are about manipulating symbols and putting them into virtual symbolic structures. We are engineers of symbols, if you will. That’s really what most modern jobs are.

Working on…

I have let my book project rest for a few weeks. I am now engulfed by Dai Jinhua’s reflections on the end of the post-Cold War, which I am translating into Catalan for the dossier to be published by L’Espill. Happy to exercise my rusty translation skills–a totally different kind of mental gymnastics.

Working on…

In the middle of a hectic rentrée. Finishing up all the logistics for the new semester plus some paperwork that cannot be further delayed. Preparing my notes for the final meeting of the Marcela de Juan Translation Prize committe. Drafting my intervention for a fishbowl conversation about SDGs and the university to be held next week–I’ve been (quite unexpectedly) invited to expose my critical ideas, especially from the perspective of the humanities.

The circumference of my ignorance

From David B. Honey’s Incense at the Altar (super helpful as a map for the chapter I’m writing on 19th-century sinology), I jump to John K. Fairbank’s autobiographical Chinabound. First page:

The shrinkage of the globe we live on has made it more necessary to understand the other nations, and for the past fifty years I have been trying to understand China. The gradual enlargement of my circle of knowledge about China has of course enlarged the circumference of my ignorance which surrounds it. Questions multiply faster than answers.

En Falso

Found Álex Matas’s En Falso (Pre-Textos, 2017) at Olin Library, seventh floor. A very timely discovery for my impostor syndrome, which always increases when I’m here.

En este contexto de relaciones sociales constantemente dinámicas propiciado por tecnologías de la movilidad, el yo es tan sólo el modo como nos damos a conocer ante los demás. Preservar alguna clase de individualidad exige renunciar a toda posibilidad de ser reconocido por lo que se ‘es’, y excluye también, por supuesto, la adhesión sin fisuras a generalidades salvadoras, como aquellas grandes narraciones sociales o nacionales de antaño.

Punch the clock

First signs of exhaustion after some weeks of very focused, intensive work on the manuscript. But I want to make the most of the few days left until we go back. So, as Rachel Toor, says here: “Productive writers don’t reach for excuses when the going gets hard. They treat writing like the job it is. They show up, punch the clock, and punch out. Nothing romantic about it.”

I know, I know…

Thinking about potential changes in next year’s syllabi. Skimming some options. Then remembering Bruce Robbins in this piece on critical correctedness:

The sudden pervasiveness of this depoliticizing impulse came to me while teaching a graduate seminar last term on intellectuals. Two of the books I asked the students to buy, without having first done more than skim them myself (I know, I know), were David Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity (Duke University Press) and Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press), both from 2017. Both enacted some version of “the new modesty.” And both, it turned out, depoliticized intellectuals whom I considered political heroes.

And who knows where?

Mark Grief in this piece: “The reality is, for our generation, if you care about the life of the mind, you’re just going to have to keep doing it, (…) and who knows where you’ll be doing it? Is it going to be as an adjunct? On a tenure track? At Gotham Writers Workshop? As a journalist? As long as you can keep it going in your own head without going mad, you’ve got something.”

Frustration picking

Ignacio Sánchez Prado in his great introduction to Strategic Occidentalism: “I decided to embark on this project a few years ago, and to do so in English, partly as a reaction to a couple of frustrations.”

Thinking about which of my too many frustrations I should pick and make visible in the introduction of my book.