Job Market Series: An Interview with Lina Qu

By Yuanqiu Jiang

On Feb 22, 2019, I interviewed Lina Qu (a recent graduate of CompLit), who, beautiful and glowy as ever, has just been offered a full-time position as a Fixed Term Assistant Professor of Chinese at Michigan State University. Our conversation was about Lina’s experience with the job market. It was mainly conducted in Mandarin. Below is the original conversation and its English translation.

Y: 你在找工作的时候大概的一个经历是什么样的呢?

Y: What has your experience been looking for work?

L: 大概是可能经历了两年的时间。在我把论文写完但是还没有答辩之前,找过一年的时间;然后答辩过后又找过一年的时间。

L: It has been two years since I started looking for work. Between I finished my dissertation and I did my defense, it was one year, and another year after the defense.

Y: 那你觉得答辩对你找工作有什么影响吗?

Y: Do you think the defense had any influence on your job-hunting experience?

L: 我觉得可能那些教授他们,就是those who have been on the search committee, 他们都会说可能现在只会邀请已经答完辩的人参加他们的interview。但是我自己的经验的话,我也没有觉得有那么明显的差异,因为那之前那一年我的论文已经完成了,在等待答辩的状态。然后那一年也是有一两个interview,然后这一年也是一两个interview。但是大概你在进行了第一轮的interview以后,在考虑下一轮的shortlist candidates的时候可能会考虑……因为跟你竞争的人很多,不仅已经答辩完成了,而且还已经工作了一两年。

L: Those professors who have been on the search committee probably would tell you that they only interview candidates who have defended their dissertations. But I personally didn’t feel a big difference because in the second year [of looking for work] I got a couple of interviews; I got a couple of interviews in the first year too. But perhaps after the first-round interview, when you are in the shortlist, you should know that some of your competitors might have already defended, and some of them might even have been working for a few years.

Y: 刚刚讲的那个search committee是什么呢?

Y: What is the search committee you just mentioned?

L: 就是对方学校他们教授组成的一个招聘团队。

L: It is a recruiting committee formed by the professors from your target school.

Y: 那个shortlist像是类似于经过一轮筛选之后的名单吗?

Y: Then is “shortlist” the list of second-round candidates?

L: 对,因为一般现在第一轮面试都是电话或者是Skype。这一轮可能会有10-15个人。哦当然还有另外一种是,像我们这个专业去MLA进行那个MLA interview。这三种形式的interview我都经历过。第一轮之后就会有那个shortlist,大概一般是三个人。然后如果是tenure-track,甚至是有一些fixed-termposition,他们会邀请这三个人去campus visitCampus visit可能会让你去做一个lecture,或者是一个lesson demonstration。但是有一些职位它是没有这个第二轮的,它可能在选出这个shortlist以后就会考虑一下其他的因素。比如说目前对于我们international students来说可能最重要的就是你需不需要sponsorship

L: Yes. Generally, the first-round interviews are phone interviews or Skype interviews. There are 10-15 candidates. Another type of interview is, for programs like us (Comparative Literature), they will do interviews through Modern Language Association. I have been interviewed in all the three ways. There are usually about 3 people in the shortlist, and if it’s a tenure-track position or fixed-term position, they will invite the three people to visit the campus, during which they might ask you to do a lecture or lesson demonstration. But for some positions, there’s no second round, so they will consider other factors to decide which candidate from the shortlist they will hire. For international students, I think the most important factor is whether you need sponsorship or not.

Y: Sponsorship是什么意思呀?

Y: What does sponsorship mean?

L: 就是你的那个working visa

L: It’s related with your working visa.

Y: 哦哦,像如果你是需要一个working visa的话会不会对找工作有影响呢?

Y: I see. If one needs a working visa, will it have any influence on finding a job?

L: Legally他们是不能做这样的discrimination的,但是这应该是一个非常重要的factor。比如说我这个工作它是有所谓的probationary year,试用期这一年他不希望你需要sponsorship。所以你需要用你的OPT

L: Legally they cannot discriminate like that, but this is a very important factor. For example, this job they offered me, it requires a probationary year. During this year they don’t expect that you need any sponsorship, so you will have to use your OPT.

Y: ——,所以说你去Michigan State第一年是用OPT吗?

Y: I see. So you’re on OPT for your first year in Michigan State?

L: 对,然后它后面会给我H-1B,这已经是非常ideal的状态。因为我这个职位不是tenure track,如果是对于tenure track的话这些问题可能不是那么严重。可是我另外一个今年做的tenure track的一个positioninterview,我跟它interview之后,就还发邮件跟我确认我需不需要visa sponsorship,就是应该说这个对他们来说一个非常大的concern。有一些广告会specify说你必须有working authorization才可以申请,这个working authorization就是指你eitherOPT,或者是有其他的green card什么的。然后你自己需要make sure you have working authorization。然后一般你在网申的过程当中他们就需要问你这个问题,就会说“do you need visa sponsorship”

L: Yes. Then they will give me H-1B. This is already a very ideal situation because this position is not a tenure-track position, for which visa might not be of that much an issue. However, after an interview I did for a tenure-track position, the university still sent me an email to confirm whether I needed visa sponsorship or not. I think it means sponsorship was still a huge concern for them. Some job advertisements may even specify that you can only apply when you have working authorization, which means you should either be on OPT or have something like a green card. Then you have to make sure you have working authorization. For this type of jobs, they will ask you “do you need visa sponsorship” when you do their online application.

Y: 你觉得在找工作的过程中对你最有帮助的是什么?

Y: What have you found most helpful during the process?

L: 老师给了我很大的帮助。

L: Professors, they helped me a lot.

L: 就是我觉得申请工作当中虽然更多的是看你个人的表现,但是其实它是一个teamwork。比如说首先就是你的教授要跟你写推荐信,你要跟他们去把deadline的这个事情处理好,因为其实他们很忙。而且很烦的是不同的工作它们的application process完全不一样,它们用的portal,就是那个门户网站也不一样。有的用学校自己的employment的一个网站,有的用通用的那种interfolio之类的,然后有些会要求你把所有东西都发到一个email address,就是非常混乱的一个状态,完全不同的申请的方式。那你自己可能要把这个work out,怎么能让教授更明确地知道这些方式,然后明确的deadline可能要提醒他们。因为他们能在deadline之前及时帮你提交推荐信,这个是一个非常重要的因素,很多工作会说在你的材料不齐全的情况下,包括你的推荐信,它是不会review你的申请的。所以在这个方面它其实是一个teamwork。另外就是当你得到interview invitation的时候,可能你去准备的过程中,老师帮你做一个mock interview,或者是你的peers能够帮你做mock interview是很有帮助的。因为你自己的perspective是非常有限的,他们可能会指出一些你没有准备的东西。比如说我在interview之前宋老师,Janet,还有Jorge他们都有帮我做准备。因为他们很有经验,所以他们知道一般interview会问什么问题。然后他们就听一听我回答当中有什么好的和不好的地方,能够帮我变得更好一些,甚至帮我想一些应对各种问题的策略。另外我同时也跟我的朋友,就是把我准备的东西讲给他们听,然后他们去帮我润色一下。

L: I think though your own performance matters the most, applying for a job is a teamwork. For example, you need recommendation letters from professors. You have to coordinate the deadlines well because professors are busy. Also, different jobs have completely different application processes. They might use different portals: some universities have their own employment websites; some use websites like Interfolio; some will ask you to send all your materials to an email address. You need to work out a good plan: let professors know about these portals; remind them when deadlines are approaching. Some employers will not review your materials until you have all the required ones, which means you should really make sure the professors submit the recommendation letters in time. Another thing I’d like to mention is that when you get an interview invitation and are preparing for it, it is helpful to do mock interviews with your professors and peers. Your own perspective is limited; other people can point out certain aspects that you neglect. For example, before I did my interview, Professor Song, Janet, and Jorge all helped me prepare for it. They are very experienced and know what questions are generally asked in interviews. Also, they can help me know the good and not-so-good aspects of my responses, then I can improve them. They also helped me to devise strategies to deal with various questions. My friends were really helpful as well. I rehearsed what I prepared in front of them, and they helped me polish it.

Y: 你可以给其他要进入就业市场的比较文学系的学生提一些建议吗?

Y: Could you give a couple of suggestions for other Comp Lit students about to enter the job market?

L: Just try your best but prepare for the worst.

Y: OK.

L: 这个我觉得这个心理的建设其实是很重要的。要不然你的过程当中会有太多的自我怀疑,然后你在自我怀疑的时候其实是不能够最好地表现自己的。那你去避免这种情况最好的方法就是你先有一个心理建设,先把工作市场搞清楚,把你自己的期待明确,在你不断遇到挫折当中很快地调整你的心态,去准备下一次的申请和面试。当然最重要的就是要在way before你需要的时候就build up your resume.

L: I think preparing your mind for the difficulties is very important, or you will doubt yourself very often in this process. When you doubt yourself, you will not be able to demonstrate your talents properly. To avoid this, you really need to be prepared: know the job market as well as your own expectation, adjust yourself quickly after setbacks and start to prepare for the next application or interview. Of course, the most important thing is to build up your resume way before you need it.

Y: 你有尝试过申请不是在美国的工作吗?如果有的话,那是一种怎么样的经历呢?

Y: Did you/Have you tried applying to jobs overseas? What was that like?

L: 我自己的话没有特别多的申请的经验,我可能申请过一两个比如说香港和英国的工作吧。因为如果这些它是面向国际招聘的职位的话,流程大概跟美国的学术招聘是基本相似的。而且他们也是都要求是英文的材料,所以至少是申请这个步骤我没有觉得有什么特别大的区别。我也没有进入过面试的环节,所以后面的情况我不是那么清楚。但是,有一个事情就是,因为每个国家的学科分类是不一样的。那比如说每个国家地区对于像什么是China Studies就会有不同的定义,然后它有不同的划分,所以它的这个招聘的条件对于你的要求可能跟美国大学会有一些不一样。尤其是对于teaching这一块可能就非常不一样,因为毕竟是教育体制的不同嘛。所以你的申请材料可能会要非常的不一样。比如说像香港的职位他们就是会让你写非常长非常具体的research plan。然后美国的很多学校会让你写非常详尽的teaching plan。即使是那些research universities它们的工作也是需要你至少是一个balanced的状态。所以可能你准备的时候这些材料的侧重点不太一样。

L: I myself don’t have much experience in this regard. I have applied for one or two jobs in Hongkong and the UK. When they are hiring people internationally, the procedure is very similar with what we have in the US. They also ask for materials in English, so I think at least the application part is not that different. I haven’t been interviewed by international employers, so I don’t know what happens after the application. However, one thing I do know of is that every country classifies disciplines and fields differently. For example, different countries and regions have different definitions for “China Studies”, and they might have different requirements as well, especially in terms of teaching, since educational systems vary as well. As a result, you might have to prepare very different application materials. For example, positions in Hongkong will ask you to write really long and specific research plans. And many institutions in the US ask for really detailed teaching plans. Even for those research universities, they still want that you’re in a balanced situation, so you have to emphasize different aspects of your skills during the application process.

Y: 对于你的新的职业生涯你最激动的是什么?

Y: What are you most excited about regarding your new professional stage?

L: 我觉得可能最让我期待的是你的position的改变给你所带来的从一个graduate student然后到一个faculty的这种职位的改变,可能会给你带来的一些新的体验和启发吧。我觉得虽然我们在读书期间也一直在教书啊,也在做研究啊,但是可能还是更多的以一个研究生的身份,博士生的身份在做这些。那当你的positionality改变的时候可能你会有一个新的视野。你可以更多地去掌控你想要去做的研究方向跟你想要教学的内容啊方式啊。然后这种的话可能会给你一些更多的自由,当然不是说完全的自由,而是说更多的自由,能够让你真正地把无论是你的研究还是你的课变成由自己来掌控的一个经验和工作吧。这个可能是让我最期待,我觉得最不一样的地方。就是你的职位的改变给你带来的自由度。

L: I think I’m most excited about the position change: from a graduate student to a faculty member. I think it will be a very different experience and inspire me differently. Though we’re also constantly teaching and doing research when we’re graduate students, but a different positionality may give me different perspectives, when I have more control on what I want to do research on and the content and style of my teaching. It might also mean more freedom; of course, it will never be absolute freedom, but comparatively speaking, the freedom of researching and teaching of my own will. This is what I’m most excited about and what I think would be the most different experience: the change of positionality and the freedom brought by the change.

Y: 好!谢谢丽娜!

Y: Great! Thank you, Lina!

L: 强调一下international students这块。因为系里面一方面不了解,另一方面他们也没有渠道去了解。但是这是每一个international student要面临的问题。就是如果你的最终的目标是待在美国工作的话,你要思考你怎么样在找工作的这一段比较漫长的时间中去maintain你的legal status。那这是你自己必须要去take care的一些东西,所以如果是我去年就答辩了,然后用我的opt的时间再找工作,那么我现在拿到的这个工作的offer我可能就不qualified。因为他们第一年不想要给我sponsorship,而opt只有十二个月。但是如果你可以毕业论文答辩跟你的工作能衔接上,然后你给自己至少有这个opt十二个月的时间是可以用来工作的,不论是对你还是你以后的雇主来说都会是一个好的选择。

L: I still want to emphasize something regarding international students because our program doesn’t know much about it and doesn’t have the resource to know about it. However, if your goal is to find a job here in the United States, you will face this issue sooner or later: how to maintain your legal status when you are looking for work – this is something you have to take care of on your own. If I had defended last year and used my OPT to look for jobs, I would not have been qualified for this job offer I currently have because they don’t want to give me sponsorship in the first year: OPT will only last for 12 months. If you can streamline the process of defending your dissertation and looking for work and use OPT for actually working, it will do both you and your employer a favor.

Y: 所以你是在拿到这个job offer之后才申请的opt还是之前就申请了?

Y: When did you apply for the OPT, after or before you got this job offer?

L: 我现在的情况是我会五月份的时候才开始申请opt,然后就等于说我五月份正式毕业以后才开始opt,然后opt从八月份开始。我八月份会去那边工作,这样时间就会配合得很好。这样在我的opt有效时期内我可以在那边工作一年,接着他们就可以sponsor我的H-1B。我也希望系里面以后在策略上可以有什么帮助国际学生的地方,关于这一点我要特别感谢Andy对于我的支持。

L: I will only start to apply for OPT in this May, which means I will apply for it after my graduation. And the OPT will start in August, when I actually go to Michigan State and work there. In this way I can work for a year while my OPT is still valid, then they will sponsor my H-1B. I also hope the program can devise some strategies to help international students, speaking of which I have to thank Andy in particular for his support.

Brown Bag Lunch on “Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity”

by Rudrani Gangopadhyay

Comp Lit’s Brown Bag Lunch series returned this Spring on February 14th with Professor Efe Khayyat (CompLit, AMESALL) presenting his brand-new book Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity: The World According to Auerbach, Tanpinar, and Edib. The book poses —and answers—a question about who else was in Istanbul at the same time as Erich Auerbach, and what alternate genealogies of Comparative Literature could have been traced on the basis of their work, had the one tracing back to Auerbach not been institutionalized by the Academy. In interpreting Auerbach’s work against that of his colleagues at Istanbul University in the 1940s, Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) and Halide Edib (1884-1964), Khayyat’s book simultaneously sheds new light on Auerbach’s work and on modernity in the non-European world.

Auerbach’s work, of course, draws upon Western literary cultures and Christianity, demonstrating a clear genealogy that can be traced all the way from the Gospels to Virginia Woolf. One of the things that Khayyat’s book sets out to do is to see how the genealogy looked from the Muslim world, and if there could be similar continuities between the Quran and modernist poetry. To do this, the book turns towards Auerbach’s illustrious Turkish colleagues—Tanpinar was a critic, poet, and novelist, and Edib was a feminist, a humanist, a soldier, a novelist, and a historian—and their works, which focus on Islamicate cultural histories in the Middle East and South Asia. Auerbach’s interest was in realism, and he went all the way back to The Bible to find a humanistic origin for it. Similarly, from Tanpinar’s perspective, there was a way one could, and should, read the Quran as literature that shows a continuity between it and contemporary literature. Edib, on the other hand, was interested in a comparative view of the literary histories of South Asia and the Middle East.

Interestingly, even though these figures were working together at the same university at the same period of time and were covering literatures of a large part of the world, they do not mention each other in any of their work. Khayyat’s book brings these three figures together and interprets their works as part of a collective. Thus, he opens up new dimensions to conversations about comparative literature, literary modernity, translation, and world literature. Congratulations to Professor Khayyat on this important and timely intervention!

Rafael Vizcaíno “On the Postsecular and the Decolonial”

by Yingnan Shang, with editorial input from Rafael Vizcaíno

On Wednesday Nov. 28th, 2018, students and faculty from the Program in Comparative Literature convened on the fourth floor of the Academic Building for the second and final colloquium of the fall semester on secularism, postsecularism, and decoloniality by doctoral candidate Rafael Vizcaíno. Having just returned from a short stay at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as part of the inter-university Critical Theory in the Global South initiative (itself part of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), Rafael began by sharing his experiences concerning the ongoing dialogues between critical theory and decolonial thought and practice on both sides of the border.

These initial comments were appropriate prefatory remarks for Rafael’s presentation. It focused on part of a chapter of his dissertation on the theoretical relevance of philosophical, literary, and theological production of 20th and 21st century Third World thinkers and intellectuals of color, particularly women of color, around the question of epistemic decolonization. Rafael’s broader work investigates the discourses and practices of decolonization across disciplinary and categorical frameworks. The goal of his project is to systematize a transverse engagement across disciplines and beyond the institution of the university. Through this approach “new epistemic, methodological, and categorical frameworks can be crafted to understand the world-historical processes of today, in a way that such alternative scholarly practice does not reproduce the coloniality of knowledge, which has forged the academy as the sole producer of valid critical or scientific knowledges over the last five centuries.”

Rafael mentioned that the spark that ignited his research on the postsecular has been the rise of visibility and the connections between what is often called religious fundamentalisms and conservative political movements all over the world. Hence, his chapter is not a study on these recent historical developments, but a questioning of the epistemic frameworks used to talk about these and other related processes, such as processes of modern secularization. In particular, Rafael asked what it could mean to “decolonize” the conversation on the roles of religion and secularism in contemporary global social and political processes. Given the aforementioned rise of religious movements as political actors in the global public sphere, Rafael argued that scholars across the social sciences and humanities have accordingly started to re-think the idea that western modernity is no longer (if it ever was) “secular”. Many of these discussions have fallen under the umbrella of what has come to be known as “the postsecular turn” in method. While they have been very productive in unmasking the disciplinary and methodological limitations of secularity as an implicit presupposition of scholarly practice, according to Rafael, these discussions have had almost nothing to say concerning the connection between such disciplinary secularity and the “coloniality of knowledge”. This gap has allowed Rafael to position his own work as providing a decolonial intervention into the analysis of the postsecular.

For Rafael, perhaps no other intellectual formation has made as many strivings towards a decolonial critique of secularism as women of color feminisms have done. Accordingly, the second half of his presentation engaged the work of the Chicana lesbian writer Gloria Anzaldúa, particularly her concept of la facultad and the performative way in which it is theorized in her Borderlands/La Frontera. Rafael sees in Anzaldúa’s work an explicit attempt to make a “politically-committed and spiritually-rooted scholarly practice that dismantles the secular/religious divide in a process of epistemic decolonization that aspires to theorize and bring forth new forms of being and knowing beyond those available in modernity/coloniality.” In the work of Anzaldúa and other women of color thinkers such as Jacqui M. Alexander and Sylvia Wynter, Rafael sees a conceptual redefinition of the postsecular from the perspective of epistemic decolonization. In their works the connections between secularity and coloniality are made in a way that being postsecular necessarily entails decolonial thinking and doing. This is different from how postsecularity is discussed by mainstream European and North American philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists.

Rafael’s talk was followed by a one-hour session of questions and answers where several topics were raised, such as the relationship between religion and spirituality, the secularity of close reading and its relation to decolonial and postsecular disciplinary practices, as well as the relationship between spirituality and irrepresentability. After a lively discussion and many insightful inputs from professors and colleagues alike, everyone proceeded to a table of food and wine and carried on with the philosophical ruminations. Many thanks to Rafael on bringing a revelatory topic to the evening, and congratulations to him on a very successful colloquium!

 

 

 

 

 

“Heaven Rained Millet and the Ghosts Wailed at Night”: The Invention of a Genre Socialist Science Fiction

by Milan Reynolds

It was a red-tinged evening in late October, students and faculty gathered to hear Virginia Conn read and speak about her first chapter – the beginning of a compelling dissertation about socialist science fiction in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (1918-1986). Virginia proceeded to give a fascinating presentation on the linguistic roots and narrative particularities of sci-fi within each country and the ways in which politics and literature reciprocally shaped each other. Beginning from a point of analysis that asserts socialist sci-fi is qualitatively different from non-socialist sci-fi as well as the more widely recognized genre of socialist realism, Virginia described how those differences produced material effects and constructed individual and national consciousness in specific ways.

The constraints imposed on writers by both socialist governments included limiting the scope of works to a “near-future reality” of roughly fifty years and ensuring the plausibility of scientific speculation. Virginia also traced the origins of the genre through the multiple translations that the word “sci-fi” went through in its passage between countries. In fact, China was using the genre category of science fiction before its popular adoption in English literature. These strict writing guidelines served specific functions within the construction of each nation and often caused the literature to be dismissed as propaganda, but Virginia made the compelling argument that it cannot only be viewed as such. The works analyzed display a distinct utopian socialist praxis, predicated by science – romantic, revolutionary, and exceeding the bounds and stigma of pure propaganda.

Linking these themes, Virginia brought a modern term into the mix borrowed from Winfried Pauleit: the photographesomenon. Coming from film theory, it describes the surveillance camera image – an “objective view” of the past whose meaning is then written by the future. This illustrates the way that socialist sci-fi evacuated the past by creating subjects defined by an anticipatory “collective view”. One compelling example Virginia drew on was the use of illustrated guides in China that showed how to grow crops and other quotidian, valuable skills that lead to collective autonomy. She argued convincingly that such texts could be linked to socialist sci-fi in its utopian, near future agenda. This led to interesting questions about how socialist sci-fi complicates the genre category of sci-fi. In many cases, the literature used “science” as an educational tool, and “fiction” as a way to draw interest from a wide audience of readers, including using visual materials for populations with mixed levels of literacy. Soviet and Chinese socialism used sci-fi to self-define towards a collective utopian goal. 

The presentation moved into several questions from guests about the trajectories of the genre within each country and how they paralleled or diverged from each other. Virginia emphasized the dynamic exchange of ideologies and tropes while noting their differences and separate progressions as well. Other questions brought up the tension between science and fiction, at least commonly positioned as opposing elements, and how this was navigated in a socialist setting. As the colloquium came to a close, smaller conversations were sparked over food and drinks, everyone coming away with a richer understanding of the history and possibilities of socialist science fiction. Congratulations to Virginia on an amazing presentation!

The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School

By Rudrani Gangopadhyay

The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School this year, set in Kolkata (previously called Calcutta), was titled “Calcutta: City/Contemporaneity.” I returned to my hometown in June to attend this summer school, incidentally hosted by my alma mater, Jadavpur University. Aside from being my hometown and one of the foci of my own research, Calcutta/Kolkata is also one of the most important urban centers in South Asia, and particularly India. As the erstwhile capital of undivided British India, the city had been at the heart of some of the core debates surrounding colonialism, nationalism, partition, refugeehood, and has consequently also been central to articulations of the same through literature, theatre, and cinema. Even in the decades after the nation’s violent shift to postcoloniality, the city has continued to occupy a unique space in the national sociopolitical and cultural imagination.

Summer school poster

The multidisciplinary summer school focused on contemporary debates informing Calcutta’s intellectual traditions as much as it took note of the physical spaces of their action and their lived reality: streets, coffee houses, bazaars, universities. The summer school format included lectures by notable scholars in the morning, and a seminar style discussion featuring the summer school participants and the scholars where the lecture as well as pre-circulated readings were discussed. The evenings were dedicated to film screenings, live performances, round table discussions, or walks through diverse neighborhoods of the city to get a sense of the urban landscape. The modules of the intensive summer school were ‘The City and the Urban Landscape’, ‘Calcutta/Cinema/City’, ‘City Histories: Deposed Kings, Mobile Labour’, ‘(In)visible Publics’, ‘City and Literature: Printed Worlds’, ‘City and Literature: Voices of the Outsiders’, and ‘The Question of Urbanity.’

Trash in the city

My own favorite module was that on ‘Calcutta/Cinema/City’, featuring lectures by scholars I deeply admire: Kaushik Bhaumik, Moinak Biswas, Subhajit Chatterjee, Madhuja Mukherjee, and M. Madhava Prasad. One of the fascinating aspects of Calcutta and its representations in cinema that have emerged in recent years recognize much of the city through absences of lost times and places. This nostalgic recognition of change in the city is made visible by use of certain set tropes that are becoming increasingly symptomatic of this genre of films: the locations are mostly the same older colonial parts of the city, the buildings are Victorian mansions from these parts of the city, and they emphasize a certain kind of antique object-oriented art design within the interior of said mansions, etc. If these reel tropes evoke and re-manifest certain memories of a particular time in Calcutta, they also ruthlessly erase the present-day lived reality of Kolkata that exists beyond this cinematically codified Calcutta. The conversations about the city and cinema in the summer school surrounding the city’s vexed relationship with space, time, and history were really relevant to my own work.

Calcutta 71 Film Poster

It is the city’s strange inability to be located in a singular place and time at any given time that resonated through the lectures framing the summer school, which opened with a lecture titled ‘When is Calcutta?’ by Partha Chatterjee and closed with one titled ‘Where is Kolkata?’ by Sukanta Chaudhuri. Both lectures made way for more questions than answers perhaps, but certainly opened newer avenues for the research of all those who attended them.

Sukanta Chaudhuri lecturing on ‘Where is Kolkata?’

Aside from the enriching learning experience that were the lectures and seminars, perhaps what I appreciated most are the spaces the summer school created for informal discussions between participants and scholars, during which I got a chance to discuss my own work as well as theirs. I suppose it is unsurprising that this should be the case in a city like Kolkata, a city characterized by adda, endless conversations over tea or coffee that effortlessly goes from one subject to another, traveling through history and around the world without moving in time or space.

Adda at Calcutta Coffee House

I am thankful to the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature as well as the Cinema Studies Program and the South Asian Studies Program for supporting my trip to Kolkata to attend the summer school.

 

Decolonial Research Methods in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Paulina Barrios

A couple of weeks ago, on October 25th the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies with the sponsorship of the Center for Cultural Analysis and the Program in Comparative Literature held a series of activities focused on decoloniality in South Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The final activity for the day was the book presentation of: Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom and Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities. This was held at the community center headed by Lazos America Unida in downtown New Brunswick. The center was organized to accommodate everyone around tables with Mexican sarapes (colorful cloths) and the session was able to start on time at 4.30 pm with an introduction from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres. After speaking to the importance of the work that Lazos does with the Mexican immigrant community in New Brunswick, Prof. Maldonado-Torres presented Prof. Mariana Mora, from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, Prof. Melissa F Weiner from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Prof. Antonio Carmona Báez, President of the University of St. Martin, St. Marteen.

Prof. Mora began with a brief presentation of her book Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities published by University of Texas Press in 2018. Her main motivation with this book was to understand what decolonial strategies Zapatista communities mobilize to fight against the Mexican state’s neoliberal and racialized policies and assert their autonomy. She went on to describe how, despite the state’s denial to speak of race and racism, indigenous peoples are constantly living under violent and racist conditions. For example, indigenous peoples often either work a land they have no ownership over or face state and private actors that value their land over their lives and livelihoods. Prof.  Mora contends that this structural violence and continuous plundering led to the political moment where indigenous peoples from Chiapas decided to rebel against the state.  Embeded in the conversation was also a recognition that this structural violence is a remnant of colonial power and economic structures, such as the plantation system.

She then went on to explain how the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Liberation Army, EZLN) transitioned from an armed struggle and its declaration of war against the Mexican state in 1994 towards a focus on defining and defending their autonomy. This led to building autonomous institutions and a full break from all public systems, including health and education. Prof. Mora was involved in the effort to define autonomous pedagogical methods and educational programs with other academics and members of Zapatista communities. Therefore, for her book she returned to Zapatista communities to co-design her methods with community members and generate a research project that would answer her questions and the communities’ needs. The result of this collective work was a focus on autonomy and the politics of a collective life, tied to a territory and nature, in her own words: “when you are fighting against genocide, the political is the fact that we are alive”.

Prof. Weiner followed this presentation, thanking the invitation and emphasizing how happy both she and Prof. Carmona Báez were to present this book in a non-academic space. She explained that since Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom is about decolonial struggle and resistance she found it extremely important that people beyond the academy become involved in the conversation. She started her presentation by linking New Brunswick itself, and even Rutgers University, to the Dutch colonial past and slavery. Since the book focuses on Dutch colonialism and the struggle to decolonize its narrative and memory, she emphasized the direct connection it has to this Dutch colonial history and its ties to slavery, which are often silenced or ignored. Prof. Carmona Báez then added a personal perspective to this history by drawing on his own experience as a Protestant Puerto Rican from New York and being “spiritually conditioned by the Dutch and Calvinism”. With this context both editors then turned to the book itself, starting with an explanation of the title. They explained how Dutch society was built on specific pillars framed under religion. Thus, Protestants and Catholics each had their own banks, schools, and churches. Other pillars were added in the 19th and 20th centuries based on workers and women’s movements, broadening the definition of identities in the Netherlands. However, all of these pillars were designed to exclude. Similar to Prof. Mora’s description of Mexican racialized institutions and policies, these pillars did not include enslaved peoples or the indigenous peoples whose lands they took. As the title suggests, these pillars should be broken down to liberate the different narratives, histories, and bodies that have been silenced.

They went on to describe a growing movement from the past eight years that focuses on raising consciousness of racism in the Netherlands, despite the constant negation of this reality, and the need to learn these other histories. Both local and international struggles have come together at this particular juncture in cases such as the fight against black face tied to the Dutch Christmas figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and Black Lives Matter in the United States. The editors presented this juncture as an example of how colonial pillars are being smashed across the world. They then turned to the structure of the book and how they consciously went against the traditional structure of having theorists first and then activist authors. As part of their decolonial method in the first section they center activists’ fight against racism with specific suggestions from activist students on how to decolonize the university. The second section is more theoretical and focuses on decolonial thought in the context of Dutch colonial history. They closed by turning their focus to ‘the imaginary of color’, defined as the collection of narratives, (hi)stories, and art expressions, that counter the official story, that counter the pillars. The decolonial imaginary of color is also transatlantic and emphasizes a historical trajectory that reaches up to today. Hence, both these books spoke to the need to smash the concept of a unique History, colonial power structures that remain, and racist pillars that are designed to exclude.