Archive for the ‘research’ Category

I’ve added a new link to the Theatre section over there on the right. Much thanks to Prof. K. Saltzman-Li for introducing us to this list of available translations of Noh plays, and to Michael Watson of Meiji Gakuin for compiling and maintaining it. The list includes all 253 plays in the active repertoire, plus a handful more. A powerful resource for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out which plays are available in translation, and where to find them.

And, though the interface is quite plain – it really is little more than a pageful of text, with some links – it’s actually a wonderfully useful resource. Not only does it have the list of translations of a play, but gives some of the basic information about each play – presumed author, schools actively performing it, and the category of the play – as well as, in some cases, a bit more commentary or links to secondary sources discussing the work. If even for nothing else at all, just having such a complete list, easily skimmable in romaji, is a great thing to have.

Watson also provides links to:

(1) an extensive bibliography of Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, including many writings about Noh by Zeami, Zenchiku, and the like, along with numerous other works, from Muromachi monogatari to poetry collections, diaries, and histories.

(2) The UTAHI Hangyō bunko (半魚文庫) website (all in Japanese), which has pure text transcriptions of over 300 Noh plays.

Below: the stage at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo. I think. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. Photo my own.

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Illustration from H.M. Stanley’s book In Deepest Africa, used here as an image of the metaphorical wilderness. No further implication of African, colonialist, etc. contexts is intended or desired.

Post-modern theory tells us that, either, there is no Truth out there to be discovered, or that it is out there, but it is simply unattainable. Everything is reflections and representations. Everything is subjective. Nothing is sure.

This exchange from West Wing (ep 1×03), taken completely out of context, expresses I think my feelings on trying to do history in a world governed by such attitudes.

Pres. Bartlet: “what the hell are we doing here?!”
Leo: “Of course, it’s not good. There is no good. It’s what there is. … It’s what our fathers taught us.”

There was a time not that long ago when we thought we knew so much. And now, we believe we know nothing. All is in doubt. Everything is in question. Nothing is true. And, so, what can we do? What can we do, but to just keep moving, keep doing history like our fathers taught us. Post-modern critique tells us there is no good history, there is no good scholarship. There is only what there is. We do what we can.

One of my professors calls doing history in the wake of post-modern discourse “pitching a tent in the wilderness.” And wilderness it is, indeed.

In a sense, I feel we have come full circle. In the early days of the historians’ profession, there was so much left unknown. So much to be learned. Even as we began to meticulously record, or narrate, the details of our own histories – for US & UK historians, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Tudor and Stuart Dynasties, the Norman Invasion – massive fields went untouched. In those early days, there was so much yet unwritten (in European languages, at least) about China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Middle East, not to mention about Latin America, the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. A wide open wilderness, it was. Documents yet to be read, entire histories yet to be told (in European languages). … Our supposed “knowledge” eventually expanded to encompass many of these histories, though, of course, there was always more out there to be uncovered. … And then it all came crashing down. So, today, with everything in doubt, with nothing known for sure, have we not, in a sense, returned to where we began, knowing nothing? The key difference, of course, is that where before we thought we had solid ground to walk on, today, the wilderness is made entirely of quicksand.

I think my tent is sinking.

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A week or so ago, a colleague pointed out to me a new journal article by theatre scholar Steve Tillis, entitled “The Case Against World Theatre History.”1 Don’t be fooled – the article really should be called something like “On the Case against World Theatre History,” or “Against the Case against World Theatre History,” as this is precisely what Tillis argues. In the article, he lays out a number of the most common arguments made against “World Theatre History” as a subject for scholarly study, and then rebuts each of them. There is great relevance to this discussion for anyone thinking about “world art history,” “world music history,” or “world history” in general. Why is it that we study history on the global scale, and is it a valid, relevant, and useful pursuit?

This is a fascinating issue, far more intriguing and engaging – and far more relevant to my own interests – than the needlessly dense Theory essays I’m reading right now for my mandatory Historiography seminar. In crafting my response/review for this article, I couldn’t help but to write quite a few pages before I decided I ought to scale it back and focus in, rather than posting pages and pages here on the blog. For that reason – i.e. for the sake of length – I have omitted discussion of “world theatre history” or “world art history” as a subject of undergraduate courses, i.e. as a mode of organizing teaching the subject. Perhaps I will consolidate my thoughts on that matter into another blog post. In the meantime, this post has still ended up quite long, and for that I sincerely apologize. After sitting on it for roughly a week, I figured it was better to just get it out there than to put it off until I felt like refining it down – it might have gotten left for a pretty considerable amount of time had I done that.

So, please try to bear with me as I try to summarize the arguments & rebuttals in this paper, along with my thoughts, regarding “world theatre history” as a subject of research and study.

The stage set for a jingju, or Beijing opera, “The White Snake,” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Winter 2010.

First, we have to see what it is Tillis means by “world theatre history.” According to him, it is not simply a matter of describing theatrical traditions in a variety of places around the world. Rather, “world theatre history” in his eyes is about considering the cultural exchanges and connections between traditions from around the world, as well as the slightly more abstract or theoretical-level underlying phenomena of how “theatre,” regardless of culture, functions. In his own words,

[“World theatre history”] seeks to investigate and explore the linkages between theatre forms of different world regions … and it seeks to understand how those linkages reveal structures that might have had a widespread effect on theatre: the relationship between theatre forms across the breadth of Eurasia, for example, or the widespread propensity to make use of meta-dramatic figures to supplement the dramatic characters themselves. And it seeks, finally, to analyze whatever interregional trends might be discovered in those links, such as the rising importance of urban forms of theatre (p381).

With this as his working concept, Tillis addresses seven arguments against “world theatre history” – three practical, and four ideological. As you will see, (spoilers!), I agree with Tillis on some of these, and disagree with him on others – as to what constitutes a problem, and as to the solutions or rebuttals he proposes.

(1) The problem of manageability – World history, as the argument goes, is simply not manageable – to address every period in every culture would result in a complete chaos of dissimilar, disconnected, cases and narratives.

Of course, this is not what Tillis is really talking about. Yes, in an undergraduate survey course, one could get into problems of how to fairly cover everything, and to do it in a cohesive way. But, for scholars trying to examine “what is theatre?” from a global perspective, I don’t think this idea of “completeness” or manageability is the problem. The problem comes in how you generalize, something we’ll get to with some of the later arguments.

(2) The second argument that Tillis addresses is the problem of detail. How do we cover all of the history of the theatre of the world without inevitably skipping over really big name individuals or events? Or, rather, how do we skip over subjects generally seen as of extreme significance and get away with it, justifying such omissions in pursuit of the study of the whole?

By way of solution, Tillis offers simply that every level of scale has its merits, that the global scale has its merits too, and that all of that lost detail is still there – to be addressed by other scholars, in other works. It’s not lost. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Still, there are serious dangers in generalizing too broadly, in essentializing cultures, and in ignoring significant counter-examples.

Reading this article, I find myself also thinking about the inevitable choice I will have to make as to my ‘fields’ of study for my PhD qualifying exams. There is a lot of pressure to do “world history,” but, if that “world history” is the same as that which Tillis is talking about here – focusing on the interconnections and broader themes – then that is decidedly not the type of history I am interested in, personally. In theatre, as in art and in history in general – I am interested in color, sound, movement, and stories. I am interested in the vivid ‘world’ of a specific time and place, such as the cities and post-towns of early modern Japan, as composed of the architecture, clothing, systems of social classes, logistics of travel and urban planning, elements of elite and popular culture, and the countless other aspects of that time and place that, when taken altogether, combine to provide some semblance, some hint, of the feeling of actually being there and experiencing it. I am not interested in how “societies” (in general) work, how “regimes” (in general) rise and fall, or how “art” or “theatre” function in some universal, pan-cultural, human sociological or psychological fashion; and I am most certainly not interested in taking historical events or cases as mere examples in arguing some broader point. I’m interested in the specifics, and in putting the specifics first, as interesting and worthy of attention in their own right. So, I think I need to talk to my professors about what exactly a study field in “World History” means, and whether I would be better or worse to focus on something that more specifically, directly, interests me, such as “Early Modern Britain & the Netherlands.”

The Noh stage at the Ôe Nôgakudô in Kyoto.

(3) Tillis’ third argument addresses the supposed problem of the world historian’s reliance on secondary sources, but, frankly, I see no problem with this. Operating on that scale requires one to understand (or at least claim to understand) a very wide range of cultures, events, trends, structures – in the case of theatre and art history, perhaps the most relevant word is “traditions” – and so, of course, one would have to rely on the syntheses produced by other scholars. No one can know enough about every culture, about the complexities of the cultural context in every historical period, nor possess sufficient language skills, to do sufficient research from scratch to understand each of these different traditions well enough to talk about them in a comparative mode – not to mention the inconceivable amount of time it would take. Besides, what use is it, really, to be examining a 17th century playbill or translating an 18th century play, word by word, when your argument concerns kabuki (or jingjiu or Randai) as a whole? The idea that the reliance on secondary sources is problematic seems, to put it plainly, stupid.

The trick is, simply, that the scholar does need to be relying on reliable sources, and to have a good idea what she is talking about. The danger in using secondary sources is that one can get an incomplete or misguided understanding of the subject – but, so long as one reaches out sufficiently to his colleagues, experts in those respective theatre forms, to help guide her to the right sources and the right understandings, the reliance on secondary sources should not be seen as such a problem. Moving on.

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as reconstructed in London today.

Thus, we finish with the practical problems, and move ahead to the ideological ones.

(4) The next issue Tillis presents is the argument of Western dominance – that is, the argument that it is only natural that a treatment of “world history” (or “world theatre history”) would focus chiefly on the European path.

The first ideological argument seeks to justify a Eurocentric approach by appeal to what it takes to be historical fact. Europe, it argues, has been at the centre of history for many centuries – in theatre history and general history alike. To deny this centrality is to deny the facts of history. We can call it the argument of Western dominance. … For many centuries, the argument contends, only the West experienced historical progress. (p384)

Wow. I couldn’t say this more boldly or directly if I tried.

For anyone who has studied (anti-)Orientalist theory, in the vein of Edward Said, the above statement that only the West has history or progress is not only patently absurd, but downright offensive.

I am sorely tempted to hold onto this article to assign to my eventual future students. Sure, the overall argument of the paper – the topic of whether or not we should consider ‘world history’ a valid field of study – along with the theatre focus, might not be perfectly relevant to, for example, a general course in Historiography. But, the paper is decidedly historiographical in its approach, and addresses numerous important points, addressing and refuting arguments for a Eurocentric or Westcentric approach to history, and introducing the reader to the basic concept of Whig History, as well as to the Orientalist idea that only the West has history while the non-West is unchanging, and saying it all boldly, clearly, and directly.

Tillis goes on in this section to talk about the argument that since non-Western art forms tend to remain fairly constant, like animated museum pieces (as we do see, admittedly, to varying extents in Noh, kabuki, etc.), these cannot be so relevant to a history of the evolution/development of theatre. In other words, if Noh and kabuki are relatively unchanging, then all innovation and progress is to be found in the West. This is an argument that we very often see argued, as well, in regard to Modern Art. We can see this at play in Wikipedia’s article on Modern Art. Twentieth-century developments in the non-West (e.g. Nihonga, Guohua, not to mention the countless prominent non-Western modern and postmodern artists, from, for Japan, High Red Center and Gutai, to Murakami Takashi) are ignored at the “global art history” scale to instead devote attention almost exclusively to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, up through Fluxxus, Warhol, Pollock, Mondrian and the like. A Westcentric mindset as to what constitutes progress, or what is to be defined as “modern art,” imposes itself upon the choice of which artists, artworks, and movements to discuss.

This idea is supported by the assertion that since Western theatre (or art) has been so influential all around the world, and so widely adopted, this justifies focusing on it. Tillis rebuts this, saying that “the notion that we should study Western theatre history because of its current global status is … both politically motivated and breathtakingly teleological. Because it looks at history only as a pathway to the present, it cannot help but offer a deeply skewed vision of the past” (p385). Tillis rejects, of course, these assertions, saying that in fact Western theatre has remained extremely conservative in certain respects as well – note the proscenium stage; the architectural form of the theatres we build and use follows much the same form throughout the Western world that it has for at least 100 years. And opera, to name one example of a Western theatrical form, hasn’t changed much either.

Preview/excerpts from a University of Hawaii performance of Randai, a Sumatran theatre form combining dance and martial arts with dialogue and plot.

(5) The Argument of Western Relevance – A similar, but less biased, argument, argues that we should focus on the West not because it’s inherently better or more important, but because it is more relevant to what the students (whether as performers or as audience) will encounter and experience. Nationalism plays a part in this argument as well, as it is felt there is a need to devote considerable time/attention to American theatre history when teaching in the US, or to British history in Britain, French art history in France, etc.

Tillis rebuts this one quite nicely, as well, writing that even putting aside other arguments as to the relevance, importance, or simple appropriationability of other traditions in developing one’s own art, at the very least, the global perspective is important in allowing performers within the Western tradition to see that tradition from an outside perspective. To not take things for granted, but to recognize and be aware of the artificiality of our assumptions. Assumptions about the shape a stage should take, the structure of a play or of a cast (i.e. how many lead actors, what it means to be lead), about the way the audience ought to behave, and about the way the actors ought to interact with (or ignore) the audience. Rethinking our assumptions helps us understand our own culture in much fuller, more complex, more nuanced ways, and thus helps us to be creative, innovative, inventive with it.

(6) The Argument of Western Inevitability – In short, the argument that all the world has come to perform theatre in a Western way, and that therefore, it’s okay to use Western definitions/conceptions of “theatre.”

It is true that “world theatre history,” like “world art history,” like “world history” in general, all too often rest on Eurocentric definitions of what does and does not count as “theatre” or as “drama” (or as “art”, or countless other descriptors). This results in statements like: “With a few possible exceptions, there is no tradition in Africa of artistic performances which include all the elements which might be demanded in a strict definition of drama – or at least not with the emphases to which we are accustomed” (387).

This makes me wonder if even Western theatre necessarily always contains all the elements which might be demanded of such a strict definition. What is necessary? There is not always music. There is not always a set, or props. Sometimes there aren’t even costumes – see: Naked Boys Singing. (Better yet, don’t.) There is not always a stage. There is not always a curtain. I suppose there must always be performers. But, there need not necessarily be dialogue. There need not necessarily be a plot or narrative.

On page 388 we find another of Tillis’ brilliantly bold and direct statements – a wonderful rewriting of the typical Eurocentric discourse: “At least until recently, [Europe] has been a dependent part of the general development of civilization. Rather than standing astride history like some Colossus, Europe spent numerous centuries playing catch-up with the rest of Eurasia.”

The first part of the Kumi Udui play Nidô Tichiuchi, a theatrical form from Okinawa.

(7) The Argument of the Metanarrative – Tillis ends with the argument against “world theatre history” that

Any totalizing metanarrative [e.g. some attempt to explain or to investigate “theatre” as a whole, regardless of when or where it occurs] will advance one or more particular ideological positions, and in doing so, will distort history to an unacceptable degree. … Such [master or grand] narratives offer totalized versions of history that use a homogenizing process in which a dominant ideology is imposed on any text … thereby eliding its diverse elements. (388)

Tillis concludes by arguing against this idea, that is, arguing for metanarratives, saying they are essential towards avoiding the chaos of disconnected mini-narratives. Of course, this is true. And there is, certainly, some merit to the kinds of investigations that question the effect of an actor on an audience, or what (in general) it means to “perform,” or any number of other, similar, fundamental or basic “performance studies” types of questions. However, in the end, I do believe that the argument about ideological impositions being inevitable is a valid one, and that we must either learn to live with that and be okay with it (as we do in all of our scholarship), or acknowledge the serious flaws with any sort of meta-narrative that claims to understand everything from Shakespeare to Broadway to kathakali to manzai, taishû engeki, and kagura, to Native Hawaiian forms of storytelling, well enough to draw conclusions valid to all of these traditions.

What do I have to say myself, in conclusion? I don’t know. There’s just so much here. I think that shifting both the academic discourse and the content of what we teach away from a Westcentric-perspective is of profound importance.

Personally, I am far more interested in the specific case – in kabuki, or Noh, for those things that make those particular artforms particularly interesting. My own scholarship will never address the “big questions” on a global scale, nor those that operate on a particularly fundamental level, nor those on a theoretical one. Some of these questions, many of these questions, are quite valid and of great importance. But I also am very hesitant about arguments that claim to speak for all traditions, all cultures, overlooking the possibility of counter-examples, of difference.

I guess I still stumble, or quibble, on the point of it being world “theatre” history. Sure, if you’re going to restrict your comparative studies to those art forms that match certain criteria – the focus on entertaining an audience, and lack of religious ritual purpose being a key one to my mind – then I suppose you could go and call it “theatre” history. Otherwise, if you’re going to include all sorts of ritual dances, then perhaps you’d be better off calling it “world performance history.” Yet, this still produces problems. Noh, for example, is very widely accepted as a form of “theatre” or “drama,” but is highly ritualistic, with a powerful spiritual component, and even in kabuki, which is absolutely a popular entertainment form, there are many ritual or ceremonial performances, which once may have been thought of as truly being performed ‘for the gods’ yet which are still today associated with bringing good luck, good fortune. And perhaps most problematic, ironically, is modern (Western) experimental theatre and the like. No one would argue that this is not theatre. And yet, it often disturbs, confuses, or thought-provokes rather than entertains, and often lacks discernable plot or characters, as well as, perhaps, costumes or sets. If we are to include this in our definition of “theatre,” but exclude cham dances or kagura performances not meant to be performed in secular contexts, on a stage, for an audience, then how do we define theatre? I guess I’ve set it up for the religious/ritual element, and/or the presence of an audience, to be the key deciding factor. But is this the case? Is this something we can agree upon? How do we define “theatre” in a non-Eurocentric, and culturally sensitive way? How do we approach and study theatre in a globally-minded way, guided not by Eurocentric assumptions? Or, do we not care that we are working based on Western assumptions?

Reading this article has gotten me quite curious, and interested, to go out and read more about contemporary historiographical debates on these subjects. How do we address “theatre history” or “art history”? How do we address “world history”? How should we maybe be doing it better? There are, I am sure, pages and pages and pages of journal articles on these subjects… Perhaps the 2004 issue of Theatre Survey, a special issue focusing on historiography, might prove a good place to start.

1) Tillis, Steve. “The Case against World Theatre History.” New Theatre Quarterly 28:4 (2012). pp379-391.

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Some time ago, there was a lengthy discussion on the Pre-Modern Japanese Studies mailing list, about the inclusion of kanji (Japanese/Chinese characters) in scholarly publishing.

For some reason, there seemed to be a widespread belief that including characters is somehow more difficult or expensive for publishers, and that many publishers are resistant to the concept. This is why we so often see either no kanji at all, or lists of kanji way in the back of the book, like from back in the days when everything was done on typewriter and characters had to be hand-written in, then photocopied or something. Well, surprise surprise, technology has advanced since then. And if I can type in a combination of English letters と日本語の字 and then publish it on the web, or print it out on my home printer, without any extra work *at all* to deal with layouts or “harmonizing” the size of the text, then so can any publisher. Right?

An excerpt from Hashimoto Yu’s essay/chapter “The Information Strategy of Imposter Envoys from Northern Kyushu to Choson Korea in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” in the edited volume The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. (Angela Schottenhammer, ed.) Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008.

Maybe scholars who’ve actually worked with publishers in the past have some special insights into this that I lack.

In any case, the Japan-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET) now has a nice short guide online outlining the arguments for and against the inclusion of characters in English-language texts, summarizing the advances in technology, and some material on how (and when) to include macrons and diacritics.

This doesn’t exactly put the subject to rest, as I think many publishers are likely more resistant than they ought to be, nor is this a full and thorough Style Sheet. But it’s something. Meanwhile, there is apparently some kind of fourteen-year-old Japan Style Sheet available from SWET, but only by contacting them and requesting a copy… Monumenta Nipponica’s Style Sheet is freely available online, however.


On a completely separate topic, we have an interview with kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, the new Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. (Kumu means “teacher”; I tend to think of it as something honorable and worthy of serious respect, like sensei, though I don’t presume to be all that knowledgeable about the nuances of Hawaiian language or culture.)

This position comes as part of an initiative to create more positions for experts in Hawaiian traditional indigenous knowledge, in various departments throughout the university. A few years ago, I might have thought it to be all hand-wavey, and to be a obvious ploy at political correctness. But, in my time at Hawai‘i (oh, how I miss it there), I think I’ve come to a better appreciation of these things. It’s actually pretty cool to have traditional experts in the Law School, and in the Medical School, if only to help their graduates interface better with local communities who distrust anything that smells even slightly of colonialism.

An ‘oli and hula performed as part of welcoming ceremonies for students at the East-West Center in Honolulu, August 2011. Kumu Hula, Mapuana de Silva; Hālau (group/school) Mohala ‘Ilima

Hawaiian culture is, of course, one very much steeped in oral tradition. They did not have a written language until Europeans came, and so stories, history, morals, beliefs were all communicated via oral tradition, and through hula and other performance forms and ritual – so it absolutely makes sense that we ought to have a Hawaiian theatre / performance program beyond that which exists in the Dance department. I don’t know quite what “Hawaiian theatre” looks like or will be like, or whether kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua is planning on drawing from something wholly traditional, or doing something more contemporary in form and style, but either way, I think it very neat that we (they) should have a Hawaiian Theatre track running alongside the very successful Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian ones. People come from all over the country – and beyond – to study kabuki or Beijing opera at UH, and for those who want to study Hawaiian and Pacific Islands theatre forms, if UH didn’t have it, who would?

I also thoroughly enjoyed this interview because we can see quite clearly in it how people in Hawai‘i speak – even esteemed kumu like kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua. You can really sense the distinctive culture and attitudes in the way Troy and kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua speak in the interview, using very laid-back and friendly English, but also native Hawaiian phrases with serious cultural power.

Even though I never studied Hawaiian Studies, or got involved in cultural practices or the like at all, I do really miss living somewhere with that kind of special cultural and spiritual identity. Living in Hawai‘i, like living in Japan, is something really special for a boy from New York whose parents scarcely ever did much traveling and whose grandparents most certainly never traveled or saw the world the way that we can today. My apologies to Santa Barbara, but you’ve just not got that same energy, that same character. I have a number of friends who have very little interest in staying in Hawaii any longer than they have to, and I don’t blame them, but I surprise myself, I truly do, that I have come to like it there, to appreciate what I had there, and to very much want to go back. Maybe when I do I might get to see one of kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua’s performances.


Finally today, we have an “open review” scholarly volume entitled Subjecting History. The concept is an interesting one – Prof. Trevor Getz and Thomas Padilla have posted the beginnings of a scholarly volume online, and are asking viewers, readers, to add their comments, which will then get added into the publication. They are also soliciting Chapter Proposals (deadline Nov. 15 2012), on topics related to questions of self-reflection on the discipline of History.

They ask, “how well does academic scholarship represent the past? Does it align or conflict with nonacademic ways of understanding the past? What are ways that academic scholarship can better represent the past without appearing to ignore interpretations that run counter to it?”

Personally, I’m hesitant to comment on the site, as anything I write there could end up in the formal, hardcopy published version of this book, and I just don’t know that anything I have to say would be perfectly well-phrased and perfectly well-thought-out enough for me to want to do that. Besides, these kinds of historiographical, philosophical, meta-analysis kinds of things make my head spin.

But I do think it a very interesting project. Go take a look, check it out.

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Somehow, despite going to the Metropolitan Museum basically all my life, I never realized before that they have a research library. Walk in through the main entrance, make like you’re going to go up the big main staircase, and then instead go left, and boom, there it is, the Thomas J. Watson Library. It’s a non-browsing library, meaning you have to request the books you want through a request system; there are minimal shelves to walk along and browse to just sort of see what you find. Though, if you’d like to do that, there’s the Nolen Library, on the ground level, accessible via the Education Entrance (over on the left side of the building, not up the big steps on the outside).

The entrance to the Watson Library, in the Spanish courtyard/patio room to the left of the main staircase. Image from Watson Library’s Facebook page.

Most museums, you might be surprised to learn, do in fact maintain libraries. Some are more accessible to the public than others, and some are distributed throughout the museum’s curatorial departments rather than stored in a single place. The Freer-Sackler’s library is collected in one place, for example, but I know the Asian Art library books at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are held within the offices of the Asian Art department, and there’s no librarian or reference desk or anything like that within those offices – just the shelves, directly accessible by the staff. If there is a single central library of the MFA, I’m not sure where it is (turns out it’s down the street, at a completely separate building). I gather the Met has departmental libraries like this as well, but, in any case, the Watson Library is a nice, centralized place where researchers – not just museum staff, but anyone above college-age who registers and is there to do serious research – can make use of books from any of the Met’s libraries.

And what a library it is.

Some of the new sections of the American Wing have computer terminals where visitors can search through the collections, and the libraries. Poking around in there one day, I discovered that the Metropolitan’s libraries have a surprising number of relatively obscure books that I thought I should like to take a look at – mainly stuff about Okinawan painting, which kind of surprised me given how limited the Met’s own collection of Okinawan works, and how limited their history of doing exhibitions about Okinawa. And, I discovered at that time how easy it is to register to use the library, and to make requests for books. I went home and browsed more seriously, went through the online registration process, and electronically requested several books. Within a few days, I had emails telling me my books were ready.

I walked into the library, and spoke first with a librarian at the entrance, who helped me finish the registration process and get oriented with the library. She could not have been kinder, more friendly, more welcoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with the rest of the museum, at all, but as soon as I stepped into the library, it was like a whole different world, where suddenly I was no longer just one of a gazillion faceless visitors, but was now a respected, valued, researcher. All of the staff I spoke to were just unbelievably kind and friendly, beyond any other library, even, that I’ve ever used.

At many libraries, you have to go up to a desk and give them your name and they’ll provide you with the books you requested. Nothing wrong with that. But here, there are a series of shelves, organized alphabetically, and you just pick up your own books. There’s an openness to this approach that implies, I feel, a degree of respect, and of belonging, and of access, that you’re not someone we need to protect the books from, or protect the library from, but rather that you’re someone we trust, and welcome. Just as if I were a regular, or as if I were staff or something. Walk in as if I know what I’m doing, find my name, take down my books, as if I’ve done this a hundred times. There were a number of small side-rooms, and I’m not sure what all of them contain, but one seemed to be the main reading room, with maybe 16 or so nice big wooden tables for you to sit and do your work. There are outlets, free wifi, and access to a wide range of electronic resources, such as JSTOR. This last bit is especially wonderful, as I know that many other museums do not spring for JSTOR or other such resources for their staff, let alone for visitors. It can be very expensive, of course, to maintain subscriptions to such services, and with such a relatively small staff (tens of curators, maybe, at a large museum? Far less, of course, at a much smaller institution), there is a compelling argument to be made that it’s not really worth it, especially when each department, or each staff member, requests or requires various additional databases or resources for their specialty area… There is a certain logic to it, especially when it comes to the financial bottom line, but at the same time, I cannot help but think it bordering on the absurd that museum directors, department chairs, and curators prominent in their field, who need to do research in order to write catalog entries, gallery labels, etc., need to ask their interns & volunteers – college kids with access to JSTOR, etc., through their schools – to get articles and such for them. So, it’s really great that the Met provides this resource not only to its own staff, but to visiting researchers. Anyone who works at any museum in the city that doesn’t provide such resources for its own staff can come to the Met and get access.

Finally, the scanners at the Watson Library are incredible. For me, personally, scanners are so crucial. I do not know yet what I’ll have access to at the UCSB libraries when I start my PhD there next month, but especially when it comes to journals and other non-circulating materials, I love to skip out on paying for photocopies, and scan (for free, and in color) anything and everything I want or need, to be used later. The Univ. of Hawaii Hamilton Library has some pretty nice flatbed scanners over in the Science Wing (aka the Hamilton Addition), which have easy-to-use software that allows you to scan to PDF and create whole PDF documents instead of folders full of JPEGs. But, the scanners at the Watson Library are easily the best, most incredible scanners I’ve ever seen. They use some kind of overhead camera or scanner, so that you place the book open, facing up, which puts a lot less stress on the spine and the pages than squashing it face-down against a sheet of glass. The camera uses a laser-finder to determine the focus, and scans it very quickly, digitally determining how to divide the scanned image into left and right page, and arranging them into a PDF. The system sometimes has difficulty, when the book isn’t centered properly, when it’s too big, or when you’re not holding the pages down flat enough, but otherwise I have never seen an easier-to-use system. One giant button that says Scan, and another giant button that says “Save to USB or Email”, with smaller buttons nearby with an array of easy-to-understand and easy-to-use settings options.

When I had some difficulties with the machines, I asked one of the librarians, “oh, excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you, but..” and she could not have been more friendly and polite about it. There was not the slightest indication that I was in fact interrupting or bothering her – she was so helpful, so accommodating.

All in all, I was blown away by my brief experience with the Watson Library. It is such a wonderful, welcoming, friendly place to work. If only I were more permanently/regularly based in New York, now that I know about it, I would make use of this library all the time. For any of you looking to do any kind of art history research, I very much recommend that if you find yourself in New York, you take some time to check out not just the NYPL or Columbia or whatever other resources you might normally think of first, but to also give the Metropolitan a try. Given how difficult it can be to get into Columbia’s libraries, to request things from off-site at NYPL, or to wait and wait to get things from ILL at your own home institution, the Watson Library can be a beautiful, wonderful resource. And such a nice, relaxing space, too, to feel welcomed and to get your work done.

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I have just read a thought-provoking article which was published in the NY Times today. Susan Engel’s report documents an experiment, or a project, undertaken this past Fall semester at a high school in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, where a small number of students were allowed to essentially create their own curricula, their own schedules, their own assignments; to research the content of the courses themselves and teach each other, and then to give one another evaluations – no letter or number grades – all with consultation and guidance from teachers.

The concept, as presented in the article, is compelling, and Ms Engels makes some excellent points about the ways in which our educational norms as practiced today fail to prepare kids for the so-called “real world.”

…our current educational approach doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.

We want young people to become independent and capable, yet we structure their days to the minute and give them few opportunities to do anything but answer multiple-choice questions, follow instructions and memorize information. We cast social interaction as an impediment to learning, yet all evidence points to the huge role it plays in their psychological development.

I agree with this whole-heartedly. Still, I am skeptical of a project such as this, especially if it were to be extended to an entire school, or proposed as a model for what high school should be (something this article is not explicitly suggesting, but…).

The idea of letting kids define their own curricula, teach themselves, etc. fails on one major point – namely, that I think the vast majority of high schoolers can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them in terms of their education, just like some of them may not have grown out of hating vegetables yet.

Much of the point of high school is that there is a certain body of knowledge that is essential for being a productive member of society, educated adult, and responsible citizen. (There are of course other aspects, too, which plenty of studies have argued, such as the function of public schooling to instill a sense of national identity and patriotism, but let’s put that aside.) … I have profound issues with the high school English class canon of literature, but that also aside, I think it profoundly important that students at the high school level not simply study what they want to study, but that they actually get a solid foundation in chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, US history, “world” history (that’s a whole other can of worms, there, but nevermind), critical writing skills, etc.

And of course there’s the argument that high schoolers can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them, which I have to say I agree with. Sure, there are those who are responsible young adults, looking forward to their adult lives and thinking in a mature manner about the value of school, but there are many more who are of the “I’m never going to use this in my real life” school of thought, not recognizing or appreciating the value of a well-rounded education, or of the ways in which social studies, foreign language, math and science do show up in everyday life in the adult world.

But getting to my point, I found this article especially thought-provoking for me, as it relates to my thoughts on the grad school experience. Graduate school is meant to prepare us for careers as professional academics (or, the credentials can be applied to any number of other career paths, but as you know if you’ve been through grad school in the humanities, for the most part it is funneling you towards that one destination) – it is meant to teach us how to be independent researchers. Yet, we are still quite restricted. We read what is assigned to us, we study the subjects that are offered as courses, we are limited in our research & writing by schedules and deadlines (how many times have I felt I could do a much better job on a paper if only I had more time?), and even when we are working on our thesis or dissertation, there are numerous restrictions as to the kind of research that is expected of us, the format it should be in, the language that should be used. What constitutes “good” research or “proper” academic writing seems, sometimes, more restrictive than it needs to be.

I have had professors get upset with me that I have not taken fuller advantage of the resources here on campus; people I know online, on forums and such, who are not in grad school, get upset with me when I post about something without taking advantage of the extensive resources on campus to research it properly first.

But I rarely feel that I actually have the time to be doing that kind of on-the-side research. I’m constantly doing homework or readings or papers for class, and I do indeed often wonder when it is that I will have the time to go and take fuller advantage of the resources here on campus, to research whatever topics I feel like, rather than the topics directly related to my proposed thesis topic, or the topics directly related to whichever classes I happen to be taking that term. And I’m not talking about squeezing in time here and there in between classwork or thesis research; I’m not talking about side projects. I’m talking about having the full-on free time, no other responsibilities, the opportunity to make the side projects the main focus, and to have fully free days, or weeks, to go to the library and study whatever scattered different topics may appeal to you at that moment, and to write about them.

I can’t remember the last time that I felt like I had the free time, and the freedom more generally speaking, to go and fully delve into a topic totally unrelated to classes, to my thesis, to my stated choice of field or specialty, and to do so without having to cleave to the strictures of what my professors might judge to be “proper academic writing” or “quality scholarship.” Well, actually, I can: the dramaturgy efforts I have been doing for our upcoming kabuki play here on campus fit that description quite nicely. No pressure to write it up as a proper full paper with deep thorough analysis and evidencing the requisite degree of engagement with theory, but the freedom to just investigate whatever aspects of the play I want, to keep jumping from one point of interest to another, to in the end, ideally, come up with something that in aggregate can be collected together to form a body of knowledge about this play, its setting, and the cultural and historical context within which it is set (and the context within which it was written and originally produced).

I love taking classes. I am not one of those people who just can’t wait to be done with classes so that I can move on to the dissertation. In fact, the thesis, or dissertation, terrifies me. And, I suppose I can’t really complain about any lack of freedom in choosing which classes to take – my program is far looser than most, in terms of having any kind of stepped mandated set of required pre-requisites to take as your singular defined path through the program. I don’t have to take intro, then micro and macro, then X Y or Z like Econ students, for example. I love taking classes, learning from experts, learning from presentations and discussions and not solely from books. I love being exposed to different subjects, and having professors get you interested in things you would not otherwise have been interested in, or known to look for, or thought to look into. But, at the end of the day, there is a strong feeling of strictures that make the whole grad school experience for me far less like the academic community of independent researchers it could/should be, and far more like merely an extension of undergrad, which is in its own ways merely an extension of high school. I cannot count the times that a class has gotten me interested in investigating a certain topic, but then I couldn’t do so because term papers were coming up, and I’d already picked a different topic, and I had to focus on that, and had no time for side-projects.

As I sit here, I have a 200-page book on my desk that I have to read for class, a pile of books about kabuki that I want to read but can’t right now because I have to read that 200-page book for class, and because these kabuki books not only have nothing to do with my official coursework assignments this term, but also have nothing to do with my chosen thesis topic. And I can forget about going to the library to go research anything else, such as the Mongol invasions of Ryukyu or anything about the Hachisuka clan of Awa province – I have a 200-page book to read, and a paper to write on 1930s neo-traditional painting in Republican China. … And then, next year, I’ll be devoting myself to my chosen thesis topic of depictions of Okinawa and Okinawans in (mainland) Japanese art, 1600s-1930s, sticking closely to the requirements and expectations of my advisor and of the academic community at large, with little time or freedom to go off on a tangent and investigate the painter Yamamoto Hosui, who apparently was sent to Okinawa in the 1890s by the Meiji Emperor himself as part of some kind of secret mission.

If not now, as an MA student, then when do I get to really be free to take full advantage of the resources here, and to be fully free to pursue my own research? I imagine it’s not going to be much different as a PhD student – you still have to pick one single topic for your dissertation, on which to focus for 3-5 years, and to stick to the forms and styles and modes demanded by your advisor. Is there time, and leeway, to research other topics? … Do you get to do that as a professor? Is that the time that you get to be finally free to research whatever you want, on whatever time schedule you want? Somehow I doubt it…

So, in short, I am wondering if it might not be advantageous to have a similar experiment at the graduate school level, allowing students, once they’ve taken their foundational courses and “theories and methodology” requirements, to set their own schedules, to go out and do whatever research they want. And to have discussion sections that aren’t about the professor making sure that you “got it” or making sure that you’re contributing properly, but rather discussions that are truly engaging, and that have that engagement as their primary chief goal. I had some excellent discussions with visiting grad students at a conference here recently, as we sat around and drank beers after a day of sessions, switching from topic to topic, not being controlled by any professor nor sticking to any one set of assigned readings, but just talking, and having a more engaging conversation about Japanese history than any I’ve had on this campus before or since. Isn’t *that* what grad school is supposed to be about?

I want to be free to read the books that interest me – not just those related to one set topic I’ve proposed for my thesis. I want to write papers based on those books on my own time, on my own schedule, of whatever length and style and form and content as I feel the subject – and my thoughts on the subject – demand. I don’t want to be nailed down to a single topic, even a topic of my choosing, for a year or three or five. And I don’t want to limited by the expectations of my advisor or of the academic community as to how much theory I have to use, or how I have to argue it, or whathaveyou.

… I guess, maybe if I really really devoted myself to such things, and didn’t spend time blogging, or on Facebook, or on these kinds of kinds, I suppose I could in theory find the time to do more side research. Is that how it has to be done? That the real work, the real independent research, has to be done in those rare scraps of time in between assigned readings, term papers, attending class, thesis research, and other official responsibilities? Is that how it has to be done, that the real discussions only happen outside of class, over coffee or beer, when you put aside your other responsibilities?

From the outside looking in, I imagine it feels like grad students are independent, initiative-taking, scholars working on their own independent projects. But let me tell you, from the inside, as a grad student, I feel constantly overwhelmed by responsibilities and obligations, to my classes, to projects I have officially taken on, to my thesis, and I do not feel that I ever am free to act independently on that initiative, to be the independent scholar I want to be. No matter what I am researching or working on, there are always other things that intrigue me, that pull at my attention, and which I feel I am forbidden from pursuing, due to time pressures or other expectations, obligations, and restrictions.

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I’ve been taking a course on research methods in Japanese sources this term. It’s amazing the resources out there that one would never otherwise know about…

(1) Union Catalogue of Early Japanese Books (日本古典総合目録)

I never suspected that such a database existed, so accessible and easily searchable. Looking for a kabuki play? a samurai clan’s records? records of the trade at Nagasaki? an Edo period novel? You can search for it here, and find out which libraries have handwritten manuscript copies (写本), and which compilations or anthologies contain a modern typed up (活字) copy.

It’s pretty incredible. All these things which I never thought I’d ever be able to find, suddenly available (almost, not quite) at my fingertips.

I searched for Gosannen Ôshû Gunki, a kabuki play composed in 1879 for the special occasion of a visit by former US president Ulysses S Grant to Japan. Performed only once, so far as I knew, I assumed that there was no written record of the script – kabuki, so far as I was told, never tended to keep scripts, the plays being pretty fluid, changing a bit every time they are performed. But, search for it I did, and there it was: original (woodblock?) printed copies in numerous libraries, including Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Waseda University, Geidai (aka Tokyo Univ of the Arts), the National Diet Library, and the collection of Shôchiku (the kabuki production company). And! a typed version of the document available in an anthology called 続帝国文庫並木宗輔浄瑠璃集 (zoku teikoku bunko Namiki Sôsuke jôruri-shû; Collection of Jôruri plays by Namiki Sôsuke, Imperial Archives, continued). Finding that anthology might not be the easiest thing to do, but, for a document I suspected never even existed to begin with, that’s really something.

(2) Want to read a certain Japanese story or novel, but aren’t sure if an English translation exists, what it’s called, or who it’s translated by? Want to translate and seek to publish a Japanese story or novel, but aren’t sure if someone’s beaten you to it?

日本文学翻訳書誌検索 (Japanese Literature in Translation Search), powered by the Japan Foundation, is another very interesting and useful database.

You can choose from a great many languages, not just English, and search by Japanese author, title, publication year and/or keywords, and find whether the book in question has been published in translation.

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