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Posts Tagged ‘humanities’

This is my third and final post on the Wahon Literacies workshop held at UCLA & UCSB a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in the previous posts, the workshop was dedicated largely to discussions of book history, and of shifts in scholarship towards a greater appreciation of not just the text (the content), but the book as a whole, in its production, circulation, usage, and material history otherwise. This last post begins with a few scattered different thoughts, but after that, I get into a discussion of what it is we should be doing in our university departments, in our graduate training.

We talked a little bit about connoisseurship skills, though I really would have liked to do more of this. One thing we did touch upon is how to look for damage or defects in the printing blocks. Most often these will appear as tiny gaps in the printed portions; they are especially easily noticeable in the solid black lines that frame every page. Finding such a defect shows that the book is from a later impression, after the blocks have gotten worn to some extent. Finding the same defect in the same place in another copy of the book shows that the two copies were printed with the same block. However, as was explained, finding a copy without that defect does not always mean it is an earlier impression, from a pre-damaged block. Rather, it could be from a later impression, from repaired or remade blocks. Through a technique called kabusebori, a printed page could be used to create new blocks, either as replacements for blocks lost in a fire, or as a means of creating blocks from which to publish pirate editions.

A break in the black frame around a page, indicating a damaged woodblock. Click through for the fuller image.

The workshop ended with each professor sharing some final words of wisdom, and/or anecdotal stories of how they got to be where they are, in terms of academic interests, or approach. Unno Keisuke-sensei shared with us that earlier in his academic career, he had five different advisors, advising him five different things. I share this because I think any graduate student can likely sympathize. Unno had one professor emphasizing that he had to focus especially on thinking about the historical context surrounding whatever text or object he was working on. Another said to focus in on the texts themselves, reading very closely, carefully, and deeply. Another told him to read broadly, surveying lots of texts. A fourth professor told him to focus most on his own purpose, the purpose of his research effort. Finally, his final advisor told him he simply had to do all four at once. This is certainly a pressure I feel myself, to read deeply, but also broadly, while keeping in mind my specific purpose (esp. in terms of theoretical, historiographical, or conceptual angles), but also the broader historical context.

The same page opening as above, loaded with kuzushiji.

Of the entire workshop, one of the things I think I found most stimulating and engaging was a final discussion (in English, thank god) about the role of “Wahon literacies,” in the sense of intense focus on kuzushiji and kanbun reading training, in Japan Studies scholarly training today. This is a narrow element of a broader issue I have been very much weighing and thinking about for years. The focus on theory and broader cross-cultural issues so privileged in American academia means that none of us can ever be truly as expert in our particular fields of specialty as we might be otherwise. This could very easily be the subject of an entire blog post unto itself, and it is certainly something I have spoken about with my officemate, and certain other colleagues, at length. I have been feeling for some time that I would likely be happier in an East Asian Studies department than a disciplinary one – whether History, or Art History – because as much as people love to talk about interdisciplinarity, we don’t actually practice it much, and indeed most of our seminars run along a different axis, trying to address a given theme, or Theoretical or conceptual issue, across many different periods & places, in the hopes I guess of (a) being accessible to as many History students as possible, and (b) because of some disciplinary privileging of thinking & working cross-culturally, cross-geographically, cross-period, as if each of our subjects of study is really just a case study for some broader, more global understanding of broader themes. Sure, there’s great validity to that, but what about moving along the other axis? How much more could we accomplish if we worked alongside fellow Japanologists, in a variety of disciplines, rather than so heavily alongside fellow Historians (or Art Historians) in a variety of geographical and chronological specialties? If we brought together experts on early modern Japanese art, architecture, literature, theatre, music, politics, economics…. now *that* would really be something. This is why the AAS (Association of Asian Studies) conference is so much more engaging and productive each year than the AHA (American Historical Association) or CAA (College Art Association). This is why these workshops at Cambridge, and at UCLA/UCSB the last couple months have been so invigorating. Don’t get me wrong, there is incredible value in just about everything we do, and I am immensely grateful for all that I have learned by TAing World History, Western Civilization, and Writing, and by doing field exams on Chinese history, Pacific & Hawaiian history, and Performance Studies; and I have also learned a lot from some of the random seminars I have taken, such as in travel literature, gender in theatre & music, and museum studies. Historiography was a waste of time. But, I cannot help but wonder where I would be, what kind of scholar I would be, if I had devoted all of that time to studying Japan and Okinawa more extensively, studying kanbun, sôrôbun, and kuzushiji more extensively, and perhaps even taking more courses across disciplines, not that anyone was really stopping me from doing the last.

When we spend so much of our time reading Marx and Foucault, and thinking about transnationalism, post-modernism, and identity politics, and taking courses along disciplinary lines rather than focusing on the cultural and historical context of our specialty, and especially at a university that offers travel funding only for conferences & research, and not for language or workshops, when and how am I supposed to learn how to read this? And to learn about the material culture, political events, and social constructs the text refers to?

The privileging of broader conceptual concerns also means that scholars in Literature and Art History are today discouraged from doing work on individual works, or individual writers/artists, which used to be the bread & butter of these fields. Obviously, it is for the better in many ways that these fields have expanded past that. But, despite post-modernism telling us that nothing is ever black & white, that all things are a bit of this and a bit of that – or perhaps precisely because post-modernism advocates this more complex view – we cannot seem to be tolerated to go do those kinds of focused studies, even if we do it alongside a broader discipline, or field, which continues to do the broader concepts. As one professor at the workshop pointed out, no one ever did write a focused study in English on Saikaku, the biggest name in the Edo period literary canon, and now that time is past, and it simply cannot be done in the current academic environment. As a result, I don’t really know, since this isn’t my field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no single book, or body of books, that one can go to for anything approaching a “definitive” treatment of Saikaku’s biography or ouvre, but only essay after essay examining his works through this or that theoretical lens, within the broader context of this or that -ism or -ality.

Meanwhile, Japanese scholars continue to put out wonderfully thorough treatments of individual subjects, describing them in detail and depth, without the obligation of coloring the entire project through the lens of a particular capital-T Theoretical approach, or argumentative aim. It’s hard to write anything that can ever come even anywhere close to being the definitive book on a given subject, when every book has to leave out vast swaths of aspects of the subject, simply because they’re not relevant to one’s argument.

Thank god for movable type.

This focus on disciplinary and theoretical training, over intensive linguistic or culture-specific training, explains in part the reason why, to a very significant extent, scholars in the West relied heavily upon Japanese scholars to transcribe manuscripts into movable-type published texts, and to otherwise catalog and detail the complexities of the historical subject. Western scholars, whose language abilities and cultural/historical knowledge paled in comparison to those of these Japanese scholars, then simply read the Japanese scholarship, and based their analytical, conceptual, or theoretical arguments on these secondary sources, combined of course with at least some direct in-person examination of primary sources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find myself doing much the same. Things have surely changed dramatically from many decades ago, when many of the top scholars in East Asian Studies didn’t even read Japanese or Chinese at all, or read modern but not classical, and/or had never traveled to Asia. But, I’m not sure they’ve really changed completely; such, after all, is the conversation we’re having here right now. Here I am, so many decades later, and the resources to learn kuzushiji, kanbun, etc., not to mention to develop true fluency in Japanese like many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries couldn’t even imagine, are so much greater, more widespread, more easily accessible. And travel and lengthy research stays in Japan are likewise quite accessible compared to the days of yore. And yet, here I am, with theory classes, TAing, and all sorts of other things getting in the way of me developing a more truly expert, deep, thorough, expertise in these things. After this workshop, I truly have a renewed drive to get to Japan, and to spend as much time as I can over there from now on, whether in diss research, or as a post-doc. The US system simply does not prepare students adequately in a depth of historical/cultural knowledge, let alone in language skills.

Right: The mission statement of the University of the Ryukyus, emphasizing the search for truth, making contributions to regional and international society, and pursuing peace and cooperation. Things that Shimomura Hakubun and all too many others, with their narrow-minded focus on engineering and corporate competitiveness, would like to see eliminated from Japan’s universities.

Some of the professors at the workshop suggested that as Western scholars have continued to take greater and greater advantage of access to Japan, and as the average level of ability among Western scholars has risen – combined with the demographic shifts in Japan, political shifts de-valuing and even seeking to gut entirely the humanities, and cultural shifts such that fewer and fewer students are interested in historical research – the modes of Western scholarship have come to become more powerful in the field overall. This division of labor has broken down, and Japanese scholars have either chosen, or felt pressure, to really begin paying attention to Western scholarship, perhaps even emulating our more argument- and Theory-driven philosophy. And yet, most Japanese scholars still retain a level of expert knowledge and skill that we do not – having handled hundreds more historical objects than us, having read hundreds more manuscripts, having engaged so much more deeply, in so much greater detail, than we have. For all of these reasons, and others, Japanese universities continue (at least for the moment, under the current trends) to shift towards bringing in more and more international students, and international lecturers. This is a good thing for someone like myself, as I think I’d really like one of those lecturer positions. But it also means you have an increasing body of students who are even less thoroughly familiar with Japanese history & culture, and less skilled in Japanese language, than their native Japanese counterparts. It means that for there to be next generations of scholars who are highly skilled in kuzushiji, and highly experienced in handling historical objects and examining them with a connoisseurial eye (for age, damage, earlier vs. later printings, forgeries, etc.), as the last generations of scholars have been, there is an increased need for engagement between Western scholars & students and these Japanese masters (and not only for Theory!). It is with this in mind that UCLA organized to bring these three professors from Tokyo for this event, and that UCLA is planning additional similar events in coming academic quarters / years.

All photos my own.

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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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