Grad Student Summer: Institute for World Literature in Cambridge, MA

By: Ke (Coco) Xu

After Beijing (2011), Istanbul (2012), Cambridge/ Boston (2013), Hong Kong (2014), and Lisbon (2015), this summer the Institute for World Literature met again at Harvard. Since its inauguration in Beijing, this summer program has been a place where genuine thinking and heated debates about world literature are happening. Led by David Damrosch, 14 scholars and over 150 student participants from more than 30 countries gathered for intellectual exchanges over the course of four weeks.

This year, the program ran from June 20th to July 14th. Each participant had the chance to choose two from a total of 14 seminars, each of which met four times a week for two consecutive weeks. The seminars were led by prominent scholars in the field; some held broader thematic concerns, such as Eric Hayot’s “The Small and the Large” and David Damrosch’s “Grounds for Comparison.” Some represented more specific topics, such as Bruce Robbins’ “Cosmopolitanism, Atrocity, and Time” and Reine Meylaerts’ “Multilingualism, Translation and World Literature.” Participants were also expected to attend colloquia, panel discussions, and lectures, where they had more time to talk about interests and concerns of their individual research experiences.

As one of the founding members, Rutgers has always been part of this growing program. With Rebecca Walkowitz’s seminar “Close Reading and World Literature” and up to four graduate student participants, Rutgers contributed greatly to this year’s IWL event. Participating as a graduate student from comparative literature, I found the experience at IWL especially valuable for the scope of its theoretical concerns, as well as for the cultural diversity that it represents.

lecture

Each compressed in two weeks, the two seminars required intense work and preparation. However, IWL granted its participants with free and unlimited access to the Harvard libraries and museums, which proved to be very convenient for study and research. In class, I benefited a lot from professors’ theorization of world literature and the various perspectives that the diversity of my classmates’ cultural background made possible. Thanks to the event’s general atmosphere of friendliness, openness, and generosity, discussion and conversation went beyond the classroom. During office hours there were always lines in the waiting room, and before and after classes small gatherings of chatting students were everywhere to be seen.

seminar

Another indispensable part of the IWL experience are smaller meetings called colloquia, where participants with similar research interests get together to talk about their ongoing work each week. In my group “World Literature and Translation II,” there were 12 students and scholars. When it was my turn to present, I gave a presentation on the Chinese artist Xu Bing and received many interesting responses. In a more casual atmosphere, colloquia provided participants with an opportunity to think together and help each other, which eventually opens up new perspectives and brings back unexpected inspirations.

In addition to seminars and colloquia, twice a week the IWL hosted lectures and panel sessions given by participating and guest professors. These events  allowed all participants of the program to gather together and meet each other. Many graduate students found the two panels on publication and the job market helpful, and the warm responses during Q&A sessions confirmed the success of the lectures. (Here is a link to the video of some of the lectures of IWL Harvard 2016.)

job-penal

The panel on job market.

As a bonus for the hard-working participants, IWL also arranged optional museum visits and beach outings, an addition to the fun of staying in Boston. Given the intensity of the program, in recollection I consider the closing of IWL in the middle of this July a start, rather than an end, of a quest for the answers to the many questions the Institute has made me ponder about. I will definitely keep thinking about the themes we have discussed during a very productive month in my future studies, and I look forward to keeping in touch with the friends and colleagues that I have met during the program.

 

Graduate Students Discuss Academic Professionalization with Professor José David Saldívar

By: Enmanuel Martínez

One the morning of Friday, March 4, 2016, graduate students in Rutgers University’s Ph.D. Program in Comparative Literature gathered for an informal, albeit intimate, post-graduate-student-conference meeting with Stanford University Professors of Comparative Literature José David Saldívar. The previous evening Professor Saldívar delivered the keynote address “Negative Aesthetics and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” thus concluding the day of events of the 2016 Program in Comparative Literature graduate student conference Urban (De)Coloniality and Literature.

Reflecting on the prior day’s graduate student presentations, formal responses by Rutgers University faculty and graduate students, and questions posed by members of the general public, those present at Friday morning’s meeting turned to the question of professional development in the Humanities today.

The meeting with Professor Saldívar lasted a little over an hour. Overall, the gathering marked a unique opportunity for those in attendance in that students were then welcomed to pose candid questions to the accomplished professor of Comparative Literature on the topic of best professional practices for tenure-track positions in the fields of literary and cultural studies. Several topics that were broached included:

  • the general academic publication standards and expectations past, present and future of graduate students, as compared to those involving assistant and associate professors
  • the postdoctoral fellowships as a process of professionalization
  • general tips to keep in mind when going on the academic job market, including insights on the anticipated (yet highly dreaded) job talk and on-campus visit
  • the craft of effectively negotiating benefits (i.e. moving, research, and travel funds, technology, teaching load, release time, etc.) after formally receiving an academic job offer
  • as a professor, the importance of initially developing—and then actively maintaining—professional relationships with colleagues in your department or program, across various sectors of your home institution, as well as at other research centers, colleges, and universities both in the U.S. and abroad
  • the politics of the academic tenure process, including general measures allowing one to restart “the tenure track clock” if need be by accepting a new job at another institution before actually going up for academic tenure review at one’s previous institution

The morning meeting with Professor Saldívar was as sobering an experience as it was meaningful and galvanizing. In the contemporary moment where some have called for a crisis in the Humanities and where the academic job market for professors of literary and cultural studies remains exceptionally competitive, the more aware that graduate students are about the reality of the academic job market today, as well as the general “dos and don’ts” of academia, the better! Professor Sadívar’s astute comments, generous insight, and expert advice left me and other students in attendance “clued-up” and, thus, all the more empowered to make the best decisions possible when the time comes for us to transition from life and work as advanced graduate student to that as junior faculty.

Translation and Linguistic Conflict: Shawn Gonzales’ Graduate Colloquium

By: Virginia L. Conn

Working at the interstices of multilingualism and translation theory, fourth-year student Shawn Gonzalez presented at the final Comparative Literature potluck and colloquium held at 195 College Avenue. The topic—“Translating Linguistic Conflict in Two Multilingual Anthologies”—served as an immediate reminder of some of the big questions Comparative Literature works to address, and did so in a setting that reminded students and professors alike of their shared community and commitment to such issues.

Working from theories of translation as put forth by Emily Apter and drawing from two collections of translated poetry—Multiples, edited by the English Adam Thirwell, and Paroles d’une Ile/Palabras de una Isla, edited by the Haitian Gahston Saint-Fleur and the Dominican Basilio Belliard—Shawn explored the contested relationship between comparativity and translation by considering questions of linguistic power. Thirwell’s collection, for example, invited translators of various skills to translate intralingual texts that were printed alongside each other.  Shawn argued that Multiples—despite its claims to radicality—actually suppresses linguistic conflict and avoids addressing imbalanced linguistic power relations. Paroles d’une Ile/Palabras de una Isla, on the other hand, in featuring Haitian poems translated into Spanish and Dominican poems translated into French side-by-side on the page, visibly engages the political conflicts between Dominican Republic and Haiti.

In Paroles/Palabras, Shawn argued, Belliard and Saint-Fleur allow for and encourage an analysis of power relations that is historically and spatially grounded. Using the poet Jacques Viau Renaud, a poet born in Port-au-Prince who later moved to the Dominican Republic and claims both locations as his homeland, as a fulcrum around which to destabilize the division between two monolingual audiences, Shawn was able to grapple with the tensions between translation theory and decoloniality.

The evening ended with a discussion of engaging with a new paradigm for translation that’s collaborative by necessity, not just as an aesthetic choice.

Brown Bag Talk with Jeffrey Shandler

On April 20, Jeffrey Shandler, Chair and Professor of Jewish Studies, presented a paper that will be part of a future project on the representation of Jewishness in contemporary American theater. The title of his talk was “Making and Unmaking Jewishness on the Contemporary American Stage.”

Shandler’s discussion focused on two recent productions that raise crucial questions about the the socio-historical and cultural negotiations involved in today’s performance of Jewish identity. The first work he focused on is Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing, performed last year by the National Asian American Theater Company. Shandler discussed how the performance of this classic Yiddish play by an Asian American cast, in complicating a stable representation of ethnicity, asks for a redefinition of what constitutes both “Jewishness” and “Asianness.” The visual and embodied co-presence of these two identities complicates the distinction between what Shandler defined as “ethnic appearance” versus “ethnic essence,” or “ethnicity by consent” as opposed to “ethnicity by descent.”

shandler

The second production discussed was Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman translated into Yiddish, with English super-titles in the background, by New Yiddish Rep. The company’s goal is to resist the disappearance of East European Yiddish theater. According to Shandler, their operation is vertical, since it is meant to recuperate a lost tradition from historical oblivion. At the same time it performs Yiddishness for a contemporary, often non-Yiddish-speaking audience (hence the necessity of English super-titles). Shandler defined the mode of this play “post-vernacular,” and discussed how the choice of performing it in Yiddish is a claim, on the part of the company, about the importance of language and ethnic performance over plot and content.

In conclusion, Shandler remarked how both plays flaw conventions of performing ethnicity and “seek to stimulate artistic and socio-cultural change.” The talk was followed by a discussion about other productions addressing related issues and potential areas of developments for this very promising project.

MLA Connected Academics Proseminar: An Interview with Tara Coleman (part 2)

By: Carolyn Ureña

This is the second part of our interview with Tara Coleman, who participated in the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar. You can read the first part here.

Are there any industries that you were surprised to learn actively recruit humanities Ph.D.s?

I’m not sure if they actively recruit PhDs, but I was surprised to hear that consulting firms love to hire people with a humanities background, because they value the research and communication skills we have. In general, I heard many people from the business world attest to the ways in which their humanities training has helped them find success in their fields.

It seems like a lot of industries don’t necessarily go out looking for PhDs, but it isn’t as uncommon to find them there as you might expect. For example, independent (a.k.a. private) high schools often have quite a few PhD-holders. Research librarians may have a PhD or a Master of Library Science. If you work in any role that is a part of or has dealings with higher education, having the PhD demonstrates that you intimately know the field and how people in it think. It might not be the main reason you get a job, but it can be an asset if you can show you have that on top of other skills needed for the position.

As a bit of a side note, many of us agreed that we had not paid enough attention to humanities centers and foundations before doing the proseminar. When we think about alternative career paths, the same options always pop into our heads: publishing, university administration, high school teaching. But there is an entire humanities infrastructure that supports the work of scholars in a university, and/or brings that work to the public at large. The people who work in humanities centers and foundations, or in archives and research institutes affiliated with universities, do work very similar to that of tenure-track scholars, and yet as graduate students we don’t tend to have a lot of contact with them. These were some of the most exciting positions to me.

Could you tell us about any interesting connections you see between your involvement in the proseminar and your experience as a grad student in Comp Lit?

Hmmm…interesting question! I think that being in Comp Lit and knowing that I would not have the same training as a candidate in, say, Chinese Studies or Film Studies for jobs in those areas, I have always been aware that my advantage would come from having a different combination of experiences, so I have been thinking about developing a diverse skill set all along. Being involved with Comp Lit activities like graduate student conferences and the old Exit 9 were part of that. I’ve also been clear-eyed about the challenges I would face, so I have been mentally prepared for this process. Plus, Comp Lit students have to be creative and industrious in a general sense, which is what you need if you decide to pursue a connected or alt-ac career.

Do you have any advice for graduate students regarding the kinds of opportunities or experiences they should think about cultivating during grad school in order to remain open to and be competitive for an alt-ac job search?

I won’t spend a lot of time on this here because there is a lot to say, and I will be doing a workshop in the fall on just this topic. At that time I will also be able to point you to a lot of resources that my proseminar colleagues are working on now, so stay tuned and come to the workshop in the fall! In the meantime, though, I would suggest two things for anyone who may already be interested in a particular field: make use of your summers and breaks to yes, work on your research and writing so that you can finish on time, but also to start gaining experiences that might help you. For instance, do some volunteer work or write a few blog posts or find out if there are any conferences coming up in the area for that field and go to them. If you have no idea where to even start, we will talk about that in my workshop, but a good place to begin is at the Connected Academics website: connect.commons.mla.org.

 

MLA Connected Academics Proseminar: An Interview with Tara Coleman

By: Carolyn Ureña

Tara Coleman is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature currently finishing up her dissertation on lyricism in contemporary Chinese-language film and poetry. She participated in the inaugural Connected Academics Proseminar this year and attended the MLA convention in January as a representative of the seminar. She is eager to share some of what she has learned, so we thought we would start by asking her a few questions. This is the first part of our interview.

What is the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar?

Connected Academics is a new initiative of the MLA which seeks to broaden the range of professional trajectories on the radar of graduate students. By improving connections between PhD-holders in different fields, they also hope to better integrate work in the humanities from different sectors. It is essentially the MLA’s “alt-ac” group, but they prefer to talk about “career diversity” over “alt-ac,” because “alt-ac” is a bit of a problematic term. Most people use it to refer to alternative academic careers (like working in a university library rather than as a professor) though some use it to refer to alternatives to the academic path altogether (like working in publishing). Whichever way you use it, there has been a lot of pushback against the implication that these careers are “alternative” or “non-traditional” when we know that around half of PhD graduates in the humanities work off of the tenure track, either in a non-tenured university position or outside of academia altogether. Plus, “alt-ac” implies that these careers are a “Plan B,” as if everyone wants a tenure-track job at an R1 university, when that is not always the case.

This year I was part of the Connected Academic project’s first proseminar, which provided PhD students and recent graduates the chance to explore career options firsthand. There were around 20 of us, all from the New York metro area. We applied last summer (the application for next year’s proseminar is due by June 1) and we met six times over the academic year. It was such an empowering and affirming experience, and it helped me stay sane while I was on the academic job market. Although many of us felt a lot of anxiety and frustration about our job prospects at the beginning, it was great to think about options and consider what we really want out of our professional lives, whatever we end up doing. It’s also helpful for those who do land tenure-track positions to be aware of these things for when they advise students of their own down the track.

Each proseminar session met at a different organization in NYC and began with a panel made up of people with humanities training who work there. The panelists talked about what they do, how they got there, and how we might pursue a similar position. The sessions also included short workshops in which we learned specific skills related to the job search, like networking, reading job ads, writing resumes (as opposed to CVs), etc. We broke up into smaller groups for site visits to additional locations and we each conducted a few informational interviews with people in positions that interested us. We shared what we learned through blog posts.

What kinds of places have you visited and what kinds of people have you been able to get to know through your involvement with the proseminar?

Sites included the CUNY Futures Initiative, the New York Public Library, Bard High School Early College, the Frick Collection, the Association of American Publishers, NYU Press, Ithaka S+R (a nonprofit consulting firm for the academic community) and a few different humanities centers and foundations. In addition, I met quite a few alt-ac people at the MLA convention, where two poster-style sessions allowed attendees to just go up and chat with people about their careers.

We met people in all stages of their careers, with degrees from various language and literature fields (and a few historians too). Everyone’s story was different, but they all had to explore and try things out before figuring out what worked for them, and they all had to be open to a certain element of chance and circumstance. They were always encouraging and willing to be a resource for anyone who wanted to further pursue a career in their area. It was especially helpful to hear from people who had recently graduated, because they had practical advice on how things work now. For example, we heard from someone who found out about a postdoc on Twitter and had an interview before the position even appeared on the traditional job list.

Mostly, I think the best contacts I have made have been with the other seminar participants. They are a really inspiring group. Many of them have a range of work experiences and skills in addition to their academic training, and we developed a strong camaraderie in our short time together.