All posts by Maria Elizabeth Rodriguez Beltran

In Memoriam

We write with the sad news that our emerita colleague Josephine Diamond passed away on August 21, 2017.  A former director of graduate studies in Comp Lit at Rutgers, Josephine taught for decades in our program and the French department.  She was a well-known pioneer in the global study of women’s expressive cultures.

A memorial event is being planned for her later this fall.  In the meantime, Josephine’s family would appreciate receiving short reflections from her former students about the ways she affected their lives.  Please send remembrances to andrew.parker@rutgers.edu.

Connected Academics Workshop at Comp. Lit.

By: Gabriele Lazzari

On Thursday, March 30th, students and faculty from Comparative Literature gathered to attend a workshop, organized by Tara Coleman and Carolyn Ureña and titled “Becoming Connected Academics: Career Diversity and Comparative Literature.” Both Carolyn and Tara have recently defended their dissertations, and have been fellows of the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar, an initiative that this blog has been covering since its inception.

The purpose of the workshop was to discuss with students and faculty the valuable work that the Proseminar has done in the last two years of introducing Ph.D. students to various career paths after graduation. The first misconception that was addressed during the workshop is the negative connotation often attached to the label “Alt-Ac” (Alternative Academic), which some still perceive as the alternative (read, second) choice, unwillingly accepted by those who fail to land an (increasingly chimeric) tenure-track job. Tara and Carolyn stressed instead that students should think of other paths as leading to equally legitimate and potentially satisfying careers. Most importantly, they explained how the Connected Academics Proseminar has offered them instruments to reframe their academic and non-academic experience so as to be competitive in a wider job market, highlighting that the skills we usually associate only with a job involving teaching and research can be valuable assets also outside academia.

The workshop stimulated a lively conversation among its attendees. It was noticeable that Jerome Kukor (Dean of the Graduate School-New Brunswick) and Dorothy Hodgson (Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs) decided to participate. Their brief interventions emphasized the importance of an organic interaction between Rutgers administration and the graduate student body for the promotion of career diversity. More than anything else, support from the different Departments and the Graduate School is of vital importance to the success of graduate students, regardless of what career path they end up choosing.

During the workshop, effective ways of exploring jobs and entering the “alt-ac” conversation (as early as possible!) were discussed. Carolyn and Tara presented with great clarity and enthusiasm the objectives and structure of the Proseminar, offering students extremely valuable instruments to start exploring on their own, as well as practical suggestions. Among them: attending panels and networking events organized by the Proseminar each year at the MLA Convention; understanding the importance of social media (particularly LinkedIn and Twitter) in building an eclectic and appealing profile; reading job ads to assess what skills we might already have and which ones we would need to work on.

In this regard, Tara and Carolyn pointed out that each field a graduate student might be interested in (NGOs, publishing, not-for-profit agencies, foundations, administrative roles within academia, etc.) has different requirements and expectations; once again, getting acquainted to them early on is crucial. Realistically, this might require extra-work during our graduate years (volunteering, internships, collaborations etc.) but the payoff–being able to choose a career depending on one’s affective, economic, and intellectual needs–will be surely worth the effort.

Anticipatory Nostalgia: Queering the Hong Kong Handover

By: Penny Yeung

A little more about Penny: Prior to coming to Rutgers, Penny spent four months working for a non-profit, Very Hong Kong, an explorative community project that combines art and urban development by inviting local creatives to transform underused public spaces. She is now eager to continue her research interests in geocriticism and Romanticism, and hopes to further explore the relationship between literature and politics, as well as transnational dynamics of the novel in a Sino-French context. Penny also holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature from King’s College London.

On Thursday, March 2, Professor Carlos Rojas of Duke University spoke to a roomful of audience on the topic of “Anticipatory Nostalgia: Queering the Hong Kong Handover,” as part of the China Lecture Series organized by the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at Rutgers University. This upcoming July 1, 2017 being the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Professor Rojas noted, the occasion is sure to invite critical reflections on how the historical transition will be commemorated and remembered.

Professor Rojas opened his lecture by way of a discussion of Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archeology of an Imaginary City. Atlas was published in 1997, the year of the handover, and reprinted along with three of Dung’s novellas in 2011 as part of what is now known as the V-City series (V-City being the shorthand for Victoria City, a fictional stand-in name for Hong Kong). The preface of the V-City series provides a suggestive perspective to rethinking time: using an imaginary vantage point in the future to reassess the present and the past, and taking an imaginary vantage point in the past to assess the present and the future. The upshot is a troubling of the present as a stable reference point.

Rojas then turned to the notion of “déjà disparu,” put forth by Ackbar Abbas in his elegant and seminal monograph Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997). “Déjà disparu” posits that in Hong Kong’s case, culture and identity are articulated—paradoxically—at the brink of their disappearance. Their formation always already entails a belatedness; their manifestation, in this sense, borders on the spectral—as something already lost, or in the process of becoming so. In Rojas’s theorization he coupled this with Freudian conceptions of fetishization and deferred action. The temporal dimensions in both Abbas and Freud allow for a theorization of the forms of remembrances, both anticipatory and nostalgic, set into motion by the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid out the provisions for Hong Kong’s handover to China. As Rojas pointed out, the signing of the 1984 declaration triggered a concern with imminent loss, which in turn, ended up generating what would then be lost.

Drawing on the notion of queer futurity and utopia in Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive and José Esteban Munôz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Rojas further argued that a queer perspective of the handover may offer ways to think about alternative potentialities and possibilities of the future. Professor Rojas illustrated this through close readings of three works created right around or shortly after the handover: Wong Kar-Wai’s film Happy Together (1997) (paired with a reading of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno); Fruit Chan’s film Made in Hong Kong (1997); and Dung Kai-Cheung’s novel Works and Creations (2005). Rojas argued that in all three, depictions of futurity are delinked from heteronormative visions of youth and childhood. Diverging from narratives of conventional reproduction, these depictions challenge notions of linear time and seem instead to align with queer futurity. There is a turn to the past to critique the present, while being simultaneously resonant with desire for the future. Optimism exists, Rojas asserted, albeit one that is mediated through a meld of fear, anxiety, and frustration.

Professor Rojas’s talk provided provocative insights into how trauma may be revisited, reenacted, and possibly transcended. Prior to the lecture, Professor Rojas graciously shared his time with a group of graduate students, during which the conversation ranged from contemporary gender issues in China, comparative literature and methodology, to the vexed yet productive intersections between postcolonial and national discourses.

LaGuardia Community College: Serious about Social Justice through Teaching

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. She will be co-facilitating a workshop on connected careers with Tara Coleman on March 30th. You can read her previous post here.

By: Carolyn Ureña

In January, this year’s Connected Academics proseminar visited LaGuardia Community College, where Rutgers Comparative Literature alumna Dr. Tara Coleman teaches in the English Department. She joined a panel of professors and administrators who shared with us their passion for teaching as an extension of social justice and emphasized the ways that teaching in community colleges affords the opportunity to impact the lives of students on a daily basis.

During the visit we learned a number of striking statistics from LaGuardia’s President, Dr. Gail Mellow:

  • More than 50% of college students attend community colleges.
  • Most low-income, black, and Latino college students attend community colleges.
  • Specifically at LaGuardia, 60% of students are foreign-born, and 87% are English language learners.

Realizing that so many college-bound students move through the community college system before attending four-year colleges sheds new light on our own emphasis on student diversity at Rutgers, and suggests that we as teachers should consider the fact that community colleges are for many students an important part of their educational trajectories.

Humanists, Dr. Mellow told us, have the power to create world that people want to live in, and working at a community college afford the opportunity to transform the way these students see their futures. We heard again and again how highly motivated and appreciative students are of their professors. At LaGuardia, service and committee work bring faculty and administrators together to actually implement change and organize programming that impact the entire community. Social justice and equity are not abstract concepts; they are the bread and butter of the every day.

So how does working at a community college count as an “alternative” career? Another way to ask this question might be, why aren’t discussions about teaching at community college more prevalent in graduate programs? One reason, Dr. Mellow suggested, is that as with other alternative careers, faculty may not know much about the work that goes on at community colleges. And yet, as I listened to the panelists describe their experiences I got the sense that many members of our graduate community would actually find this work not only appealing but also very much in line with their commitments to expanding access to high-quality education to diverse student populations.

Teaching is Essential, but Research Remains Important

If you are interested in working for a community college, remember that teaching is paramount. It will be more important to demonstrate your growth as an educator–something you can do by seeking opportunities to teach the same course multiple times–rather than simply a variety of one-off courses. Be proactive and ask a professor to observe your teaching and write you a letter of recommendation well in advance of when you will actually need it.

A common misconception about teaching at community colleges is that faculty research takes a backseat. At LaGuardia they value innovation in the classroom as well as scholarly engagement; professors have a higher teaching load than at research-driven institutions, but they must nevertheless attend conferences and remain abreast of their fields.

Reflect on your Goals

The greatest lesson from this visit was a call to ask ourselves, early and often: What are we actually doing in graduate school? Why are we here, and what is the purpose of getting a doctoral degree? Is the only purpose to become a prominent scholar? Or, are we here because we want to truly democratize knowledge and increase access to quality education?

This is not to suggest that we view the four-year college (or the community college) as a monolithic entity — each school is different. The key is to take the time to reflect and ask yourself, what kinds of institutions and careers will allow me to fulfill my goals? As the Connected Academics initiative is working to make clear, depending on what you aim to accomplish, there are a multitude of careers and paths you should consider, both inside and outside the academy.

Reflecting on the Purpose of the PhD at Ithaka S+R

This is the third in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. You can read her earlier posts here and here.

By: Carolyn Ureña

Carolyn is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and a 2016-2017 Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow. Her dissertation develops a critical framework for understanding the ways in which a sustained encounter between disability studies, the medical humanities, and the racial phenomenology of decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon can generate new conceptions of health and healing.

As a Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow, I have really appreciated the opportunity to meet with organizations outside of the academy that have hired humanities PhDs who are passionate about the work they do. Recently, our conversations have become especially inspiring, as we’ve engaged in lively discussions regarding the purpose of graduate education itself.

In November we visited Ithaka S+R “a not-for-profit service that helps the academic community navigate economic and technological change” that is part ITHAKA, the organization behind the well-known academic database JSTOR. Such mission-driven organizations are important for PhDs-in-training to explore because, as we discussed during our visit, PhDs have a strong desire to do something that matters and to contribute to the broader good, both within and beyond traditional career paths.

Ithaka S+R seeks is to improve student outcomes, increase college access, and reduce costs for college student. Acknowledging that recent institutional hiring patterns, including the increased adjunctification of the university, are not a viable long term solution, the group works with higher education organizations–university, libraries, learned societies–to develop qualitative and quantitative studies to better understand which policies are working best toward advancing the particular institution’s goals, especially with regards to issues of diversity, talent management, and cross-institutional collaboration. For example, this might include developing and disseminating surveys on faculty demographics as well as crafting ethnographic narratives that are then analyzed to better understand how to improve outcomes for students. One of their most recent projects is the American Talent Initiative, which includes 30 partner universities and which “seeks to substantially expand access and opportunity for talented, lower-income students at the nation’s colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates.”

A highlight of our visit was an exciting discussion about the purpose of the dissertation, a conversation that even made its way onto Twitter. How does the use of the document change when preparing for employment in the academy, or outside? Can we break down the components of what it takes to write a dissertation to better understand its value? These questions are open-ended, but what remains clear after our visit to Ithaka S+R is that it will be increasingly important for graduate students to be able to dissect the components of what it takes to make a PhD, in particular what skills we gain that are applicable across fields and disciplines. This shouldn’t be too difficult, though. As proseminar fellows were reminded during our visit, crafting arguments, analyzing evidence, and developing and organizing information are among our most valuable humanistic skills.