Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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This question came up in our research seminar today. I’d actually been thinking about it for awhile, as I consider myself a “cultural historian,” but when pressed, wasn’t actually sure exactly what I meant by that. And, perhaps more importantly, because we hear the term a lot, and I’m never quite sure that others are always using it in the same way. In a seminar last year, we read sections from Lynn Hunt’s The New Cultural History; we were told this was itself a seminal text in, or was representative of, the “cultural turn,” whatever that means. As with most Theory/Historiography books I’ve been assigned, I came out of it with little clear sense of what it was talking about. And so, finding this book to be dramatically different from my own understandings (or assumptions) as to what constituted “cultural history,” I began to wonder, What is Cultural History?

I have long considered myself a cultural historian because I find myself chiefly interested in visual and material culture, in art, architecture, performance, spaces, display, representation, and in the overall appearance, aesthetic, style, feel, atmosphere of a particular place and time. To put it another way, I consider myself a cultural historian because I’m interested in “culture” more than I am politics, economics, or social history (social history includes class hierarchies, gender roles, family structure, and some other key things I’m sure I’m forgetting). In essence, though I don’t think I ever managed to articulate it for myself before, I think I might say that in this particular understanding of it, (1) cultural history is the history of cultural practices, forms, identity, and difference. It includes concrete or specific topics typically said to belong to the disciplines of art history, theatre history, music history, architectural history, such as the biography of an artist; analysis of a particular object, image, movement or dance, piece of music, festival, or work of literature; or discussion of stylistic developments. But it also includes a myriad of topics that simply emphasize or highlight such things.

The Buddhist temple Sensô-ji, in Asakusa, Tokyo. Photo my own, taken June 2013 from the new Asakusa Tourist Center.

Because of my interests, I tend to associate “culture” with the arts – with visual and tangible stylistic or aesthetic elements. When I think of “Japanese culture,” I think of architectural styles, styles of painting, forms of theatre, styles of music. But, of course, there’s also the idea that “culture” means attitudes, values, ways of doing things. And there are those who, when they hear the term “Japanese culture,” might immediately think of Confucianist or Buddhist values, group mentality (vs. individualism), politeness, certain attitudes about gender roles, or the like. This is no less valid, though it does certainly complicate things.

I never considered it a political statement to say I did cultural history, but simply a matter of personal taste, or preference. And so, imagine my surprise when I was exposed to Marxist history, and to the idea that economics drives everything, and that culture is merely the dressing. This is the idea that regardless of whether you’re in 14th century Mali, 3rd century China, 18th century Hawaii, or 20th century Paris, the most significant forces driving historical change are struggles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and shifts in control over, or availability of, labor, land, and capital. (I’m sure that Marxist historiography is much more complex than this, but, no doubt there is, or was, a school of thought that took this as its fundamental jumping-off point.) This is certainly a political statement, a particular position. And, in contrast to this Marxist history, (2) cultural history is that which takes culture, rather than economics, to be the chief force in driving historical change.

Angus Lockyer’s “A Short History of the World,” glossing over differences in visual or material culture, and emphasizing the impact of the balance of land, labor, and capital, in driving the most major overarching threads of world history.

On the one hand, the land/labor/capital triangle can explain a great many things, regardless of the time, place, or cultural context. As can economics theory more broadly – supply & demand, the impact of taxation upon those two, the idea of externalities, etc. etc. Whether you’re talking about saké or Merlot, silk or cotton, transported by horsecarts or by container ship, purchased with gold coins or with credit card, much of the “laws”, formulas, and models of economics will apply just the same. And issues of scarcity, of ease of access to certain goods, of the economic benefits or dangers of using certain materials (e.g. the economic losses if your stone building collapses in an earthquake where a wooden building would have survived), can certainly have a profound influence upon the form that cultural forms take. But, on the other hand, there are surely many cultural forms that arise largely independent of economic concerns – the Impressionists’ emulation of elements of the style of ukiyo-e prints, the popularization of particular hairstyles at this or that time, or the advent of particular stylistic aspects of kabuki, purely on the basis of aesthetic decisions or other types of cultural influences and artistic decision-making. That is, unless you want to attribute all of it to commercialism, and simply doing what will sell best.

There are also cultural aspects that have profound economic impacts – Confucianism teaches that concerning oneself with monetary matters is vulgar, and base, and that a cultured scholarly gentleman should not concern himself with such things. This ideal was adopted by the samurai class in Japan, who as a result did not embrace, allow, or encourage commercialism and proto-industrial developments as strongly as they might have otherwise, and who therefore declined considerably as the merchant class – who Confucianism said were low, base people for their greedy obsession with material wealth – grew more and more economically powerful and influential. Another example of cultural concerns might be the use by Ryukyuan ambassadors to Japan of Ming Dynasty robes, representing their association with the great Chinese civilization. Of course, in truth, both economics and culture are irrevocably intertwined. Economic concerns influence and shape cultural forms, and cultural forms have economic impacts, and to say that either trumps the other is, to my mind, misleadingly reductionist.

Ryûkyû-jin tôjô no gyôretsu 琉球人登城之行列 (Procession of Ryukyuans Enroute to Edo Castle), 1710. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library.

But, returning to the point, there is a third definition of cultural history. As it has been explained to me, the “cultural turn” of which Lynn Hunt’s book is apparently representative was all about the assertion that “history” did not have to be political or economic history, or whatever the classical, conservative, standard, traditional mode of history had been. History does not need to be about “big men” (great historical figures who brought about great changes), or about the rise and fall of political entities, or about development and progress towards certain abstract ideals, such as “civilization,” or “freedom.” History could be about culture as well. Now, on the surface, this seems perhaps not so different from my own definition of cultural history, presented above. But, I get the impression that the cultural history of the so-called cultural turn was less about artistic, aesthetic, or stylistic developments, or even about nameable religious movements or guiding philosophies, but rather, (3) cultural history is about attitudes, mentalités, or “the social process[es] whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and define their beliefs and values.”1 It’s all very theoretical/conceptual – post-structuralist, something something.

And then, finally, there’s the fourth definition of cultural history, one I came across for the first time today. As a result of Googling “what is cultural history?”, I came across this wonderfully clearly written blog post entitled “Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?” To summarize, the blog post suggests that since the cultural turn, “cultural history” has expanded to “a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.” So, if cultural history encompasses so much, then what is not cultural history? A very compelling, interesting, and important question, and if you’re interested, I definitely recommend checking out the full blog post over at And After That The Dark.

But, to jump to the part that’s most relevant for my topic of today, this blog post defines (4) cultural history as “the analysis of the significance of events in the past to those who experienced them, and how these meanings changed over time. … All history that concerns itself with meaning and belief is cultural history. Any history that does not ask, ‘but what did it mean?’ is not cultural history.” Well, that’s certainly interesting. It’s certainly a form of historical inquiry I’m particularly interested in, and it’s certainly one that seems particularly strong these days.

So, to bring this thing to an end, which one of these four definitions best matches your understanding of “cultural history”?

(1) Stephen Best, “Culture Turn,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online (2007).

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Mind Your Mind

In honor of my 600th post, something broad and conceptual, about what we do as graduate students. I am so thankful for so many things in my life on this Thanksgiving, not least of which is the privilege to spend my time pursuing my interests.

Think about what you think. Think about what you know. Think about what you think you know.

Why do you think what you think? How do you know what you think you know? Why do you think you know what you know you think?

A T-shirt I bought at WEGO this past summer, in Harajuku.

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Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

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Whenever I’ve heard (or read) people say things like “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know,” I always used to think it referred to a breadth and depth of detailed knowledge. The more you learn about Japan, the more you realize how little you know about England, the Netherlands, or Korea (not to mention Botswana or Guyana); at the same time, the more you learn about any given aspect of Japanese culture or history (for example), the more you realize just how many other castles, samurai lords, artists, events & incidents, works of literature, or whatever it may be, that you still don’t know about. Plus, even within any given topic, the more you know about Hokusai or Danjûrô or Saga Castle, for example, the more you realize just how much more about that same topic you still don’t know. That’s all certainly true.

But, I’ve come to realize there is a whole other dimension to this phenomenon, too. Specifically, as I’ve spent more time in academia, as I’ve learned more and more, and come to appreciate the diversity and complexity inherent in any and every topic, I’ve discovered an inability to speak confidently on almost any subject, or indeed to even think confidently that I properly or sufficiently understand any given topic.

From the “Sumidagawa Digital Picture Scroll” on display at Tokyo Sky Tree. Artist unknown.

When I came to Japan for the first time ten years ago, I had all kinds of ideas and impressions about what Japan, or Tokyo, was like, and what Japanese culture or attitudes were like, and I didn’t hesitate to share these in blogs, and in talking to friends and family. At that time, thinking my undergraduate courses & reading made me actually something of an expert, combined with my experience as a study abroad student in Tokyo, which I thought a rather rare and special experience, I saw myself as truly having some kind of expertise, and some ability to speak on a wide variety of subjects pertinent to Japanese culture or history. Of course, the fact that so many of my family and friends asked questions and seemed to think me something of an expert only encouraged this. What do Japanese think about the war? Why did they do it at the time? What do they think about the Emperor? What do they think about Hiroshima? about Pearl Harbor? about Christianity? about Judaism? about the US? Asked these questions, based on my experiences, books, professors’ lectures, and my own personal ideas or impressions which I mistook for possessing some authority, I commented with a considerable degree of confidence on everything from life in Tokyo, contemporary pop culture, and contemporary political attitudes, to attitudes during the war, to aspects of traditional culture or samurai history.

A view of the “real” Tokyo, from that same Tokyo Sky Tree.

Yet, today, if you asked me about half these topics, I’d almost definitely say I have no idea. Whether this is simply a function of getting older, or a function of the amount of “knowledge” and experience I’ve accumulated over my many years in graduate school, or whether it has to do with post-modern theory that’s been imposed upon me, I don’t know, but, I have absolutely come to feel a dramatic lack of confidence in my ability to “know” or say anything definitive about almost anything.

I used to think my professors and my history books provided definitive answers, and that based on these, and whatever else I’d been exposed to, that I “understood” or “knew,” and could reiterate (or regurgiatate, as if on an exam) a relatively definitive answer. I used to believe that books and professors were perfectly reliable, believable, sources of “facts” which, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or bricks in a building, could be collected, arranged, assembled, to form an increasingly detailed – if never complete – knowledge of a given subject.

But today, I’d say that the issue, whatever issue it may be, from military bases in Okinawa to the current economic situation, is far too complex, and that I haven’t done the proper research. I haven’t interviewed or surveyed hundreds of people, and I haven’t scoured through hundreds of texts (or other evidence/sources), so, I don’t know. I can tell you what I think about the issue myself, and I can tell you what a few things I’ve read or heard say about it, but, I have no idea what most people think, or what they really think, or the precise reasoning or thought process behind why they think that… and so, in contrast to when I was younger, recognizing or acknowledging the limitations of my knowledge, I generally would hesitate to say anything much at all on the subject.

Leaving Yokohama/Tokyo a few days ago, coming out to Chiba, and seeing so much open space, fields, mountains, open up before me, I couldn’t help but have certain ideas, impressions, thoughts, about “this” Japan and “that” Japan, about what each one is like, and about which one I prefer, or which one better matches my expectations or desires. But, while there was certainly a time when I would have written down all these thoughts, and shared them on a blog, now, there was a voice in my head saying, “whatever you think, it’s too generalizing, it’s too conflating. Anything and everything is too complex, too diverse, to be grasped. Nothing you can say will be accurate or appropriate.”

A Hikari Shinkansen locomotive, at Hiroshima Station. Taken in August 2003.

Just because I’ve grown used to something, just because the novelty has worn off, does that mean I’m now seeing it more truthfully? Does that mean I’ve “realized” the “truth” about it? Does it make my new experiences any more genuine than my old ones? My first time in Japan, I was amazed by the Suica card system, by the Shinkansen (so fast, so clean, such a smooth ride, and so convenient, if a bit expensive), by how clean and completely non-sketchy the convenience stores were, by how perfectly on-time the trains were and how organized and polite most people were in most situations. I had a cellphone for the first time, and, of course I was amazed too by the technological capabilities of the toilet seats. Japan seemed at that time so sparkly shiny wonderful, so futuristic, and so wonderfully civilized. More so than [my experiences of] the US, in so many ways.

But, now that I’m used to these things, and they’ve lost their novelty, now that I see supercrowded trains not as a sign of how vibrant and active and urban Tokyo is, but instead as an obnoxious product of overcrowding and of the negative sides of urbanization – now that I see a train ride in Tokyo as an ordeal rather than an adventure – does that mean my new view is any more correct? Or that Tokyo or Japan has in any way genuinely declined, stagnated, or gotten further twisted up in inefficient and stupid bureaucracy in the intervening ten years? I don’t know.

Nishi-Nippori Station, in northeastern central Tokyo. Is this the “real” Tokyo, and the flashiness of Shibuya merely a front? Or is Shibuya the “real” Japan, and this a sort of left-over from an earlier decade, that simply hasn’t quite caught up yet to the “real” Japan of today?

If I’ve seen more delayed trains in the last two days than ever before in my quite limited experience in Japan, if I’ve seen more train stations served by far too few trains (coming far too infrequently) and surrounded not by an exciting, intriguing, or “quaint” or attractive town, but instead by nothing but asphalt, concrete, pachinko parlors and rundown hotels, is that an indication of the “real” Japan? Or of a decline? Or is it just an accident of where I’ve been, and when I’ve been there? Which is the exception, and which is the normal?

It is in these ways, and for these reasons, that I increasingly feel totally incapable of saying anything with any kind of authority about Japan, whether it’s a scholarly comment or even just something to write down in my journal. While I certainly understand why making such gross generalizations would be inappropriate – I’ve read and talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism more than enough – at the same time, it’s kind of sad, and leaves me feeling kind of empty. Looking out over the landscape, or reflecting upon my experience, I want to be able to think something about it; I want to be able to consider it and analyze it and feel I’ve come away having learned something or gained something or realized something. But, instead, I just stare blankly, unable to think anything at all without simultaneously thinking that that thought is too generalizing, too biased, too based on insufficient information or insufficient consideration. What is the purpose, after all, of reflecting upon my experiences or impressions, when these are so completely subjective, results not only of my individual personality and perspective, but also of my mood that day, and of all kinds of accidental factors, e.g. that I went to this shop rather than that shop, or this town rather than that town, or that I got there an hour earlier or an hour later, or a day earlier or a day later?

For certain types of things, I still believe in the value of “facts,” of building up one’s knowledge of what’s already “known” (or, rather, what’s already said) about a given subject, and of adding to that collective “knowledge” through one’s own investigations (research, e.g. reading texts). But for other things, it’s sometimes very much a feeling that we don’t know, we can’t know, we cannot, will not, every know. Which leads to the next question: if none of us can truly call ourselves experts, if none of us can ever truly obtain anything approaching or resembling expert knowledge, if “knowing” X or Y is impossible, then, as scholars, what the hell are we doing?

I kind of hate that I think this way now, but I’m not sure there’s any going back…

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A recent opinion piece in The Guardian argues that “There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process – a process which universities teach (at a fee).”

I’m not going to get into any lengthy or thorough discussion of the subject, but would rather like to just comment back at Prof. Osborne’s opening statement in this article, that “the fundamental argument for providing open access to academic research is that research that is funded by the tax-payer should be available to the tax-payer.I disagree entirely. Yes, this reason is among those most frequently recited and debated, but to my mind, it is hardly the most fundamental, or appropriate, argument for open access. Rather, I believe in open access because:

(a) as researchers, students, and scholars, the work we do is not-for-profit, and therefore others, such as online journal database providers, should not be making profit off of it.

Rather, the journal database providers are, or should be, members of that same academic community, should see themselves in that way, and should dial down their asking prices accordingly.

(b) as researchers, students, and scholars, we are members of a community that functions through the sharing of knowledge. Everything we do is based on having access to others’ findings or interpretations, and access to as complete as possible the body of scholarship on a given subject. Consider the number of articles scarcely ever read, and never cited, because they are not easily accessible through the normal routes – i.e. whether freely, or through one of the standard subscription services such as JSTOR or Project Muse – there is a bias here, a bias towards scholarship that is based not on the entirety of the scholarship out there, but based instead on only the scholarship that is easily accessible through standard avenues. And that’s a problem.

(c) on a somewhat similar note, the very nature of scholarship itself, the intention of scholarship, is to inform the world, whether that be the public / the masses, or fellow researchers, and to add to a growing body of knowledge. When that body of knowledge is hidden behind paywalls, when obstacles are put in place to prevent either scholars or “regular” members of the public from having access to that information, the information might as well not be a part of that body of knowledge to begin with.

(d) finally, returning to the idea of academia as a community based on the sharing of knowledge, open access is the broad-scale equivalent, or extrapolation, of the small-scale phenomenon of my walking down the hallway, knocking on the door to a friend’s office, and handing him a book (or sending her an email with a PDF attachment of a journal article) that I think would be of interest, relevance, or importance to their research. This is the essence of a scholarly community, the essence of scholarly collaboration; when one does it on a small scale, there’s no subscription service, access fees, or other middleman involved, so why should there be on a large scale?

I don’t know if these really constitute four separate reasons, or four aspects of a single, not-so-well-worded, idea. But, either way, I think, I hope, that most academics are thinking along similar lines to myself, and not along the lines of this oft-repeated, tax-payer-centered argument.

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Ack, did I really never post about the symposium at which I presented this past February? And the associated small exhibition I co-curated? I’m ever so sorry.

Here’s the story. Some time ago, the National Museum of Japanese History (国立歴史民俗博物館, or Rekihaku for short) was planning to do an exhibition on processions and parades in Early Modern Japan, and decided they wanted to borrow a handscroll painting from the University of Hawaii collection to include in that exhibit. The University of Hawaii – and most especially Tokiko Bazzell, the Japan Specialist Librarian – decided to take advantage of the opportunity, to hold our own small exhibition, in conjunction with the return of that scroll painting from its being loaned to Rekihaku. I’m sure there were all kinds of behind-the-scenes considerations and negotiations, and then, completely unexpectedly, I found myself being invited to co-curate this small exhibition, alongside my MA advisor, Dr. John Szostak.

As I was graduating, I was not able to be on campus to work hands-on directly with the objects, or with the gallery, in order to help figure out what would fit where, or anything like that. But, having handled some of these objects before in person, and drawing upon my MA thesis research, I was able to contribute gallery labels, to suggest which sections of the scrolls to show, etc. It was an absolutely privilege and pleasure to get to have my curatorial debut be in Hawaii, and to be an Okinawa-related exhibit; and, of course, it was a privilege and pleasure to work with Tokiko-san and Prof. Szostak on this.

Long story short, the exhibit, entitled “Picturing the Ryukyus: Images of Okinawa in Japanese Artworks from the UH Sakamaki/Hawley Collection,” opened at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, and showed from February 7-22 this year. While the Rekihaku exhibit featured a wide variety of early modern processions and parades, from sankin kôtai daimyô processions and festival parades to Korean, Dutch, and Ryukyuan embassy processions, ours focused in on just Ryukyuan (i.e. Okinawan) subjects. The highlights of the exhibit were a 1671 handscroll painting depicting a Ryukyuan embassy procession in Edo in that year, the oldest such Ryukyu embassy procession scroll extant, and another scroll, this one sixty feet long, and in much brighter, bolder colors, depicting a 1710 procession. The 1710 procession is of particular significance as a mission which set new standards in dress, ceremonial, and form of the embassy, precedents which would stand, to a large extent, for the remainder of the early modern period. Plus, it’s simply a wonderfully beautiful object. Given its incredible length, however, we were only able to show a small section.

Here is me talking about the exhibition:

(Backup video link)

Other objects in the exhibition included a scroll painting depicting Chinese investiture ceremonies in Ryûkyû and related subjects, copied by the Japanese artist from a Chinese source; a set of colorful woodblock prints depicting a procession of the 1832 embassy, the year of a so-called “Ryûkyû boom” – 1/4 of all popular publications produced in the early modern period were produced in that year; and, finally, a Meiji period accordion book depicting “customs and folkways of Okinawa.” All beautiful objects, and all just wonderful to see on display like that. I’m sad that the exhibit is gone, existing now only in our memories, in installation photos we’ve taken, and in the various documents we produced in the planning and preparation. But, fortunately, all of the objects are still quite visible and accessible online, either at the Sakamaki-Hawley Collection Digital Archives webpage, or through the UH Library’s Treasures from the Libraries webpage.

You can see all my photos of the installation here.

The exhibition was accompanied by a set of public lectures, and a symposium, held in conjunction. Prof. Kurushima Hiroshi from Rekihaku, Prof. Szostak, and myself, presented on a panel alongside two of the truly top experts in Ryukyuan history, Prof. Yokoyama Manabu of Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, and Prof. Gregory Smits of Penn State. It was kind of nerve-wracking to be up there along with such prominent scholars, but was really quite pleasant, and extremely informative, in the end. As they say in Japanese, taihen benkyô ni narimashita 大変勉強になりました.

I apologize to not summarize or comment upon the talks here, as I have been doing for the AAS talks I attended last month. But, many of the talks, associated PowerPoints, and even video of the presentations, are now available online, on a UHM Hamilton Library webpage. These will all eventually be added to the University of Hawaii University Repository, also known as ScholarSpace.

And, the full audio from my talk at the symposium can be found via the Samurai Archives Podcast. In the next episode of the podcast, I talk with C.E. West, Shogun of the Samurai Archives website, about the presentation, the symposium, and the exhibit. Now that the following third and final episode in the series is available, I’ve added the link to that here.

Meanwhile, you can also read about the Rekihaku exhibit here; I myself did not get to see the exhibit, which sounds like it was spectacular, but, at least I’ve managed to get my hands on the catalog, and a mighty beautiful catalog it is, for just 2000 yen.

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Writing up the report on Mark Erdmann’s paper on Azuchi Castle got me thinking. Discourses of legitimacy play a major role in my field of research; when Ryukyuan ambassadors journeyed to the shogun’s castle in Edo, it contributed to stories the shogunate told about itself, and stories others told about the shogunate, which represented the shogunate as being so powerful, and so virtuous, that envoys from foreign kingdoms would, of their own volition, purely out of awe and respect for the Shogun as a shining source of virtue and civilization, come to pay their respects. Of course, the truth was much more complicated, more political, and not nearly so freely performed at it might have seemed. But that’s besides the point – things may not always be what they appear to be, but appearances have power.

“Discourse” sounds like a big fancy academic-type word, but basically all it means is these kinds of stories, these tellings and retellings of meaning; conversations people have with one another, or with themselves, repeated again and again and transmitted throughout a society, creating and reinforcing a given set of ideas, associations, or meanings.

The reconstructed Fushimi-Momoyama castle, looking mighty impressive.

Now, it’s not hard to see how an embassy like I just described could contribute to discourses of the shogunate’s power and legitimacy. Big castles sitting high atop a hill, overlooking the city and visible from many places within the city, are also not particularly difficult to understand, in terms of their discursive impact. Whoever lives in the castle has the power to continue to hold that castle, and the money to build, maintain, and operate such an expansive and lavish living space. The power to see without being seen, the power to look down upon people, which also plays a key role in the discursive power of a castle, is a bit more complicated to explain, but is also a major concept in “discourse theory.” In fact, it’s such a major part of so much that I’ve read and been taught (see, the power of the gaze, and the panoptic), that I’m surprised Foucault spends so little time on it in his famous book Discipline & Punish; I fully expected that a majority of the book, rather than just one brief chapter, would be devoted to this important concept.

And, with certain cultural understandings, certain systems of symbolism in place (widely understood by the populace), we can easily understand how certain symbols worn by a king, or certain artifacts wielded by an emperor, would enhance perceptions of his legitimacy. This sort of thing can be seen in countless other examples too; riding a horse and wearing swords at one’s belt is a symbol of one’s martial/warrior identity, and is not only imposing and intimidating on a fundamental level, but is also tied into discourses of samurai identity and social class within that particular society. When considering the case of someone seen (or, rather, not seen) riding in a palanquin, it is easy to imagine the thought process, of understanding that only people of a certain class get to ride in palanquins, and that, bumpy ride though it may be, the very idea of not having to walk on one’s own feet – to not get one’s feet dirty, calloused or chafed, and to not have to put in the energy and effort of walking (rather than growing tired, sore, and thirsty) – implies something about the person’s high station. And, of course, by being hidden within the palanquin’s basket, going back to this whole issue of the gaze, we can understand that they are someone too important to be seen by just anyone; they have the power to see you, but you don’t have the power to see them.

But, finally getting to my point, how is it that someone like Nobunaga can create his own discourses of legitimacy? Sure, his castle is big and impressive, and it represents his wealth and power insofar as that he built it, and has the military power to hold it. But, supposing that no one considered him the rightful ruler to begin with, how would appropriating imagery from past shoguns or emperors change that? No one can be king, or emperor, unless the people (whether than means just the nobility, or whether it means the masses) regard him as that. Without that recognition, he is merely a pretender.

If Nobunaga had simply moved into the shogun’s palace, and begun performing the role of shogun, thus allowing people to situate him within already-established systems, that would be one thing. Even then, he might simply get called a false shogun, an interloper or “pretender.” But, Nobunaga isn’t doing that. He’s not calling himself Shogun or Emperor, and he’s not dressing himself up as the next in a line of succession of a position that already exists. No. He’s building a castle, and filling it with all sorts of different artistic and architectural symbols of legitimacy, but, what does that really do for him? Sure, it’s impressive, and anyone who sees it will surely think of him as having wealth and power. But, anyone with sufficient wealth and power can build a replica of the Kinkakuji, and a Mingtang, and have them filled with paintings of great Emperors of the past, by way of trying to associate oneself with those Emperors; commissioning a building, or a painting, doesn’t make you rightful ruler any more than commissioning some local smith to make you a crown and scepter would.

So, in all sincerity, I ask you, my fellow academes, how does this work? Symbols of wealth and power, I understand. Exacting formal titles and such from the Emperor, as symbols of legitimacy, I understand. But as much as I love architectural and art history, and am fascinated by ideas of symbolism and discourses, I just don’t get how surrounding yourself with architecture or paintings recalling themes of virtuous rulers functions, discursively, to actually enhance your legitimacy among your followers, among your enemies, or among the masses. Your thoughts and input would be most appreciated.

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There are a plethora of articles out there on different ideas about what’s wrong with higher education, and how to fix it, and if I read even a decent percentage of them, I’d be here all day, every day, reading them and responding to them. Which is part of why I don’t generally go out of my way to read such things, or to respond to them. But, then, sometimes, something comes to your plate, e.g. when it is shared by a friend directly on her blog, and so you end up reading it, and then having thoughts that you feel you need to get out.

I don’t in any way presume to have all the answers; these are very complicated matters, and I have not yet worked out my views or positions entirely. But, here are my thoughts at the moment, in response to a blogpost entitled “The Inability of Poor Students to Navigate College is Not the Problem, College is the Problem,” posted on the blog Peer-Reviewed by my Neurons.

In his blog post, Mike Horowitz presents the problem in a wonderfully cogent manner:

Nobody questions a system that’s supposed to be the key American vehicle for social mobility, but which often has a sticker price of $150,000. If I told you a poor African country had a system that allowed impoverished villagers to have a middle class life in the city, but that it cost $20,000 to take part in it, you would immediately say it’s perverse. Yet that’s essentially what we have in America.

Yes, well, when you put it that way. The cost of education in this country is ridiculous. I was fortunate to be born into a relatively well-to-do family, in the top bracket of the family income question on every application. But that doesn’t mean that my family, on an income of over $100,000/year, would have been able to pay upwards of $30-40,000 on my tuition and fees every year, out-of-pocket. The idea that $100,000/year places you in the top bracket, and thus rather ineligible for need-based financial aid, when your family still absolutely can’t afford it out-of-pocket, and when there are plenty of other families out there with much, much higher incomes, still seems an absurdity to me, but that’s a subject for another time. Returning to the point, yes, in a society where we expect, or should I say demand, that everyone go through college (at least) if they want a solid, middle-class life, we are charging way too much for school, and putting far too much financial pressure on families, and on students, to pay for it.

Horowitz offers four points towards a solution. Frankly, (spoilers), I find these quite problematic. But, let’s go through them.

1. Unbundle the bachelor’s degree. Horowitz argues, as many others have, that we should allow career-minded folks, especially those in the STEM fields, to be able to focus on just those fields, just those requirements, and that general ed / distribution requirements are an unnecessary burden, making it much more difficult, and more expensive, for students to get through school. He writes that “knowing a foreign language appeals to our elitist notion of a liberal arts education,” but while I have no problem admitting to being an elitist, I think there’s a lot more to it than simply appealing to some elitist ideal.

What is the purpose of college? Is the purpose of college job-training and professional qualifications? A lot of people, a lot of departments/universities, seem to be going that way. But I stand by the idea that education is not purely for the purposes of providing qualifications for a career – it’s about producing a more educated and capable citizenry. It’s about teaching critical thinking skills, the ability to form an argument, and an expanded understanding of civics, economics, history, politics, and social issues beyond the minimum they teach in high school, thus allowing you to go out there and be an informed voter, a racially/culturally/gender-sensitive member of society, who is capable of managing their own finances, of understanding political issues, of drafting reports, etc. etc. This isn’t about some elitist ideal that everyone should be well-versed in the elite cultural classics simply for the sake of cultural elitism. It’s about very practical concerns towards producing a better citizenry, a better society, in which every member is less racist, less sexist, less imperialist/ultra-nationalistic, and more capable of making informed, intelligent decisions in everything they do, from the political positions they support and the way they vote, to the products they buy. When I look at my STEM-major students who, in their fourth year of college, have never analyzed a document, have never written a college paper, I seriously wonder how these people are going to interpret the news with a critical eye and make informed political decisions, and how they are going to draft reports, in quality English, in whatever science/tech/engineering career they end up pursuing.

2. End College Admissions & 3. Make Classes Free.

End college admissions? I’m not so sure what I think about this one. It’s all in all far too complex an issue, and I just don’t know what to say, or where I stand. It involves far too many questions and far too drastic/dramatic a logistical change for me to even begin to think about how it would shake out.

As for free classes, yes. Absolutely. Public universities should be free, as they once were. Or, at the very least, there should be some free option. Charge for Columbia and NYU, but not for CUNY, as was the case not so long ago. My grandparents, Holocaust survivors who came to this country with basically nothing after X years in a series of concentration camps, followed by X years in refugee camps, struggled the entire rest of their lives just to put food on the table. And yet, they were able to put their sons through college because Brooklyn College (part of the public City University of New York / CUNY system, and a pretty decent school) was free at that time, as public school should be. As an article on democratic socialism I quite like explains (emphasis added),

Unfortunately, in America, the public education system ends with high school. Most of Europe now provides low cost or free college education for their citizens. This is because their citizens understand that an educated society is a safer, more productive and more prosperous society. Living in such a society, everyone benefits from public education.

EXAMPLE European style social program for college: Your college classes are paid for through government taxes. When you graduate from that college and begin your career, you also start paying an extra tax for fellow citizens to attend college.

Question – You might be thinking how is that fair? If you’re no longer attending college, why would you want to help everyone else pay for their college degree?

Answer – Every working citizen pays a tax that is equivalent to say, $20 monthly. If you work for 40 years and then retire, you will have paid $9,600 into the Social college program. So you could say that your degree ends up costing only $9,600. When everyone pools their money together and the program is non-profit, the price goes down tremendously. This allows you to keep more of your hard earned cash!

4. Charge Money For Acquiring the Credential, Not For the Learning.

In his last point, Horowitz suggests that education itself should be free, and the monetary charge should come into play only when seeking to acquire the official credentials that prove that you’ve earned those qualifications.

I can appreciate the sentiment – people are paying enough, in terms of time, effort, opportunity cost, to take these classes, and shouldn’t information/education be free, anyway? On some level, I sympathize. I really do.

But, isn’t it true that every time you’ve had to pay some exorbitant amount for just a piece of paper, you’ve felt nickeled-and-dimed? Two hundred dollars for the SATs, $40 for the college application fee, $100 for the diploma, $15 for each copy of the transcript you want to request to have sent to your grad school… Never mind “nickel-and-dime,” this is costing me Benjamins!

And then you get into a situation where people know they have the knowledge, the skills, and that all that’s standing in their way is some bureaucratic technicality of the piece of paper, the official credential, that they either can’t afford, or don’t wish to pay for on principle (who likes paying tens or hundreds of dollars for some office worker to just hit “Print” on their computer?. This leads to either frustration when employers insist on the piece of paper – a piece of paper which, ultimately, represents nothing at all but that you have paid your forty bucks or whatever it may be – or, it leads to a total circumvention of the system, when employers take you based on your skills and knowledge, acquired through free classes, even without the formal credential.

If it were possible to have everyone’s college degrees paid for by government funding, and/or by grants and awards, such that no one had to take out loans or pay out of pocket for college, I think that would be a wonderful thing. Just like many of us enjoy for at least some portion of our graduate school careers. But I don’t think that charging money for pieces of paper is the answer.

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Last term, I TAed a course on Japanese History through Art & Literature, and while the course as it was taught that term focused much more heavily on the literature, it really got me thinking, how do we teach “history through art”? Or, to put it another way, how do we incorporate art into the teaching of history, without it becoming “art history”? I struggled to come up with a good answer. Sure, you could show images in your PowerPoint in lecture, but, so what? I was going to do that anyway. It’s about the angle, the approach, the way you use the images to help convey the historical themes.

This term, I am TAing a World History course. I found the textbook extremely frustrating almost from the very moment I began reading it, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. And then, today, as I was reading a bit discussing the Incas, and contrasting them with the Mayas and other groups of Mesoamerica, it hit me. It hit me that the visuals in this textbook are terrible. Not in resolution/printing quality. And not in quantity, either. In fact, the page layouts look about as busy as a typical webpage, with all sorts of extra infoboxes on the sides. Rather, it’s the selection of which images are included, and the way that they are used.

Visuals – specifically images of art, artifacts, and architecture – can serve as powerfully useful touchstones for a student’s, or a reader’s, understanding of a period or a culture, serving as mnemonic devices or flashcards, encompassing a whole range of concepts within a single, relatively easy to remember image.

Left: Lady Xok’s Vision of a Great Snake. Limestone, c. 720s. Maya. Chiapas, Mexico.
Right: Gold back flap from the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, Moche culture, Peru.

Reading purely in text about how the Incas had more advanced metalworking technology than the Mayas seems abstract, seems hard to grasp, for me at least. It makes one think of a whole bunch of intricate, complex, economic and “history of technology” sort of factors that, for an undergrad I’m sure, and even for myself, can make one quickly feel lost or overwhelmed. It’s difficult to recognize the significance of this comment about metalworking, the implications, and it’s hard to remember. But then I thought of the golden backflaps, and myriad other golden artifacts that our art history textbook provided as representative examples of Incan objects, and immediately it all clicked into place. These standard examples of Inca art given in a survey art history textbook are, many of them, gold, while the standard examples of Mayan art are all stone-carvings. Picture these in your mind, remember the image of what these objects look like and which culture or period they belong you, and you’ve got in those images a touchstone for remembering the identity or character of each culture, and a jumping-off point for remembering and thinking about further details about that period or culture, and about comparisons/contrasts with other periods or cultures.

You don’t need to talk about artistic style, composition, the individual artist, or anything else exceedingly “art historical” to use images in this way. Just include examples of images, objects, from each culture, to serve as a visual example of the character of that culture, and you’ve created an anchor, a touchstone, for helping the students remember which culture, which period, is which, and what characterizes it. The World History textbook we are using this term could have benefited greatly from this, because instead of these sorts of touchstones, we find, for example, a 17th century line illustration of a particular Andean farming technique which, really, adds nothing to the reader’s (the student’s) understanding. Honestly, do you think this image is going to stand out in a student’s mind, and help them remember anything about the key characteristics of the Inca civilization?

Maybe I’m a visual learner. Maybe I’m biased because of my art history background. But I think that visuals can be used to much greater effect in “mainstream” History than they are (or seem to be). The field of Art History has been much too marginalized, when in fact it has a lot to offer, and many Historians seem far too intimidated by the idea of art history, not realizing how easily it can be employed. Admittedly, granted, as someone without much training or experience myself in deconstructing and analyzing literature, theatre, or music, I can appreciate that art, too, requires a certain set of techniques or approaches, but, we’re not talking about in-depth analysis here, just superficial visual, stylistic, material associations. Flashcard-style recognition.

St. Peter’s Basilica versus the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia (left) as symbolic of the differences in character, in flavor, between Roman Catholicism and Arab Islam, for example. Something for the student to latch onto, as a representative example, to spark the memory for all the various concepts and facts that he has memorized about Roman Catholicism, or Islam, or the politics of the Popes, or about the Islamic Conquests – whatever. For another example, a picture of a Minuteman, with his formal-looking coat, breeches, tricorner hat, and horse, as compared to one of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt in a 20th-century men’s suit and tie, in a 1940s-style automobile, as compared to one of JFK riding in an early 1960s automobile, to provide an instant indication of the time period, the level of technology, and again, though I know it’s a vague sort of term to use, the “flavor and character” of the period.

I think the role played by visuals in this respect profoundly powerful and useful. Art brings something alive. It gives it texture and color, makes it tangible in a way that pure facts do not. If you can’t imagine what a person or place looks like, how can you feel you know it, understand it?


Postscript: As I worked to prepare this post, read more of the textbook, and continued to think about these issues, I realized it is quite possible that in their dearth of representation of cultural character, the authors were deliberately trying to combat Eurocentrism and Orientalist approaches. That would certainly make sense given the political/historiographical trends prominent in the field right now. An advocate of non-Eurocentric attitudes myself, I certainly cannot disagree with this as an admirable political aim.

By representing all societies as simply cases of different ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and different ways they engage in agriculture and trade, the authors level the playing field, and do, actually, a pretty incredible job of presenting a historical narrative that truly does not privilege Europe; this textbook neither devotes a disproportionate amount of space (pages) to Europe, nor does it speak of Europe as being better, more advanced, at least not in the chapters I have read so far (extending up to the 13th century or so). But, what it gains in a more global perspective, it loses in becoming oh so much drier. My apologies to those historians genuinely interested in modes of agricultural development, but for me what makes history colorful, fun, exciting, and interesting is the visual and material culture – the cultural flavor and character of the myriad of cultures that exist (and have existed) in this wonderfully diverse world of ours.

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