Tag Archives: graduate

Grad Student Summer: Tepoztlán Institute

By: Enmanuel Martínez

This past summer, I traveled to Mexico in order to participate in the 2015 conference meeting of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. The small but celebrated town of Tepoztlán, Mexico (accessible via a two hour car or bus ride south of Mexico City) has historically served as the site for the annual, interdisciplinary conference. I first attended the Tepoztlán Institute in the summer of 2014 as a graduate assistant to that year’s conference co-directors, which included Rutgers University Professors Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel and Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, both core faculty members in the Program in Comparative Literature. The conference theme for the 2014 meeting was “Capitalism from Below.” A week-long conference, the 2015 meeting of the Tepoztlán Institute ran from Wednesday, July 22 to Wednesday, July 29. This year, the conference theme was “Migration and Diaspora.” Over 75 persons attended this year’s conference meeting. The participants represented an even mixture of advanced graduate students and college and university professors (plus some family members) from Canada, the United States, and various countries in Latin American and the Hispanic Caribbean.

Tepo 1

Founded in 2003 by Dartmouth College History Professor Pamela Voekel and Lewis & Clark History Professor Elliott Young, for twelve years the Tepoztlán Institute has, to cite the Institute’s official website, worked to “facilitate an intensive dialogue between North American and Latin American graduate students and junior and senior faculty members.” At each year’s conference, participants come together for “real exchange among US and Latin American scholars—typically a very fraught relationship for obvious reasons; and second, to dispense with the professional politicking that reduces so many conferences to livestock shows.” In short, the Tepoztlán Institute represents a unique, annual, transnational, non-hierarchical and interdisciplinary academic union—one such that actively confronts the ideological and geopolitical dichotomies that often pit the spaces of the Global North against the Global South and that separate theory from practice and research from activism. As a participant of the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the Tepoztlán Institute, I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many phenomenal and generous graduate students and faculty members that I would never have met within the national context of the United States or the disciplinary field of Comparative Literature.

Unlike most academic conferences, the Tepoztlán Institute differs in that everyone arrives to the annual meeting having already read the papers of the conference participants, as well as a shared set of theoretical readings that speak to that year’s particular conference theme. The theoretical readings and papers are distributed ahead of time electronically to all conference participants. All the more, paper presenters are encouraged to utilize the theoretical readings in the work they submit to present at the Institute itself.

Tepo 3

Conference mornings are dedicated to group discussions of the assigned theoretical readings. The theoretical readings connect the conference participants across their disparate academic and disciplinary fields, for these readings serve as the shared intellectual base upon which the conference participants go on to discuss and debate the conference theme and their research. Given this year’s theme of “Migration and Diaspora,” the list of theoretical readings include the work of such scholars as: Edward Said, James Clifford, Julio Ramos, Stuart Hall, Brent Edwards, Juan Flores, Elana Zillber, Inés D’Ors, Pekka Hamalainen and Samuel Truett, Paul Gilroy, Saidiya Hartman, Manuel Delgado, and Shona Jackson. Conference afternoons, on the other hand, are dedicated to paper presentations panels. Since conference participants arrive to the Tepoztlán Institute having already read the work of the other paper presenters, presenters are able to utilize their time to do so much more than simply read their work out loud to a potentially cold audience. Instead, the panels take the form of two-hour workshops where the designated presenters are able to receive generous and substantive feedback and criticism from other conference participants.

My panel was scheduled for Thursday, July 23 (the first full day of the conference), and I was fortunate enough to present alongside a good friend of mine, Joan Flores, a current Ph.D. candidate in the NYU History Department. Our panel was titled “Archive Matters / Cuestiones de archivo.” Joan presented a working paper titled “‘Freak Letters’: Finding Diaspora in the Imperial Archive,” while I presented a paper titled “Basement Refrigerators, Cassette Tape ‘Letters’: Reading the Domestic Caribbean Archive in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Ton beau capitaine (1987) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008),” My paper represented a draft of the first half of my first chapter of the dissertation project. University of Massachusetts History Professor Sarah Cornell served as our panel moderator, while Georgetown University Professor of English Ricardo Ortiz, Augustan College Professor of Spanish Araceli Masterson and University of Pennsylvania Professor of English David Kazanjian served as the three respondents. After Ortiz, Materson and Kazanjian delivered their respective comments, the conversation transitioned to a dynamic intellectual exchange between me, Joan and the other twenty-plus attendees.

Without the fear of judgment or ridicule (something that seems almost impossible to avoid at other national literature conferences), I was able to use my time at the 2015 meeting of the Tepoztlán Institute to openly discuss my concerns regarding the scope and direction of my first dissertation chapter. With my panel respondents and attendees’ feedback in mind, I am now working on completing the second half of the first chapter of my dissertation, which represents an analysis of scenes of domestic archiving in contemporary Caribbean literature through the lens of contemporary archive theory. I am now looking forward to showcasing my research at my Program in Comparative Literature graduate student colloquium presentation, which is scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, November 3, 2015. Until then!

Grad Student Summer: Language Study in China

By: Virginia L. Conn

Virginia China 1

Chinese culture spans thousands of years of history and encompasses numerous ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority groups, all of which contribute to the national dialogue. Much of this valuable history, however, is contingent upon oral histories, many of which are fading away (or being actively suppressed) as Mandarin becomes increasingly standardized. This is especially true of the oral histories of minority groups; dependent upon human memory and the spoken word, the only way to preserve these valuable histories is through oral fieldwork and, often, through reading and preserving items of popular culture, such as songs, films, and comics. My own academic work deals with the impact that access to new technologies—such as the internet, social media, and texting—has on oral traditions, especially those of multilinguistic groups (such as the Hui people’s use of xiao’er jing, for example, or those Uyghurs who use one language for business and bureaucracy and another for religious matters). To engage with this type of linguistic production, I needed to be able to document and understand the artistic styles or linguistic textures through which cultural memories are conceptualized, performed, and passed on, as well as analyze the context of the community life in which they are presented. It’s critical to my ability to effectively perform a systematic collection of living people’s testimonies that I speak their language, without going through a translator to collect and preserve their memories. To this end, I spent the summer in China at Soochow University, using funds from the Mellon Foundation and the Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship.

Virginia China 2

From June to August I was fully immersed in Chinese language study—class from eight to four, followed by at least four hours of homework a day. The classwork was the least intensive part of the program, however; I lived with an older Chinese woman, a native of Suzhou who had lived through some of the most turbulent periods of China’s history and was delighted to engage with me on all levels of conversation, from table manners to current governmental policies. Living with this woman was indescribably valuable in learning more about the language and culture, especially the ways in which daily life has been affected by rapid technological and economic progress (both for better and for worse). Her native language was not Mandarin Chinese, but suzhou hua, a “dialect” of Suzhou that she did her best to teach me (without much success, I’m afraid). Ideally, once I acquire a more comprehensive grasp of Mandarin, I will also begin studying several Chinese minority languages, but for now the summer program at Soochow University was absolutely necessary to improving my Mandarin skills to a point where I will be comfortable enough in one language to begin branching out into others.

New Grad Student Profiles

 This year,  three new graduate students join the Comp Lit community. I recently had the privilege of speaking with them and getting to know more about their backgrounds and interests. Welcome Gabriel, Maria Elizabeth, and Coco!
Gabriel profile
Gabriel Bamgbose is a published poet and Fulbright scholar. While studying English at Tai Solarin University of Education in Nigeria, Gabriel took creative writing courses as well as literature courses, which helped him develop his poetic voice. He began publishing his poetry in literary journals and in 2014 he published his book Something Happened After the Rain. He is also the founding editor of the Ijagun Poetry Journal, an online international poetry journal. Gabriel also holds an M.A. in English [Literature] from the University of Ibadan. Before beginning the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, Gabriel spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at NYU. He taught Yoruba language and culture and enrolled in graduate courses in Africana Studies. Gabriel’s research interests include African women’s writing, poetry, postcolonial theory, and feminist theory. He sees his creative writing as another way of doing theory and often uses his poetry as a different way of engaging in critical work.
Maria Elizabeth profile
When Maria Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán began studying at CUNY after moving to New York from the Dominican Republic, she took courses in a wide variety of disciplines. She realized that all of the courses that interested her, despite the diverse subject material, had one thing in common: excellent professors. This discovery led her to pursue a career in teaching. As an English major, Maria Elizabeth began to study the work of Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives. The study of the Civil War was completely new to her, and she says, “I fell in love with it.” In addition to written slave narratives, she also became interested in visual culture including pictures and paintings depicting slavery. Then, a professor recommended that she take a course on the Greek and Latin roots of English to improve her language skills. That course sparked an interest in the origin of words, and Maria Elizabeth began to study Latin, eventually pursuing a double major in English and Classics. At Rutgers, Maria Elizabeth plans to continue to develop her interests in slavery and visual culture. She also hopes to expand her research to earlier time periods and geographical areas in order to study visual representations of slavery in the Caribbean and South America.
Coco profile
Coco Ke Xu has been surrounded by international literature from a young age. She recalls reading classics like Les Miserables and Oliver Twist at a very young age under the influence of her parents. Coco studied English Literature at Sun Yat-Sen University in China, where she also had the opportunity to study other languages including French and Latin. In her third year, Coco participated in an exchange program and spent a year studying German intensively in Cologne. While in Cologne, she also took courses in the English department, in particular a class on Heidegger and the poetry of being. Through this course, Coco became interested in seriously studying literary theory. Upon returning to Sun Yat-Sen University, Coco continued to develop this interest by auditing courses in the philosophy department. At Rutgers, Coco plans to pursue research in translation theory. She is interested in studying the challenges of transcultural and translingual communication and in particular how to respond to these limitations.

Grad Student Summer: Archival Research in China

By: Lina Qu

I was one of the lucky graduate students generously funded by the Mellon Foundation to conduct my two-month archive research in China in the summer 2015. My dissertation on Chinese women’s narratives on hunger demanded extensive readings of Chinese women’s fictional and nonfictional publications over time, including original periodicals and first-edition books. Lack of such resources at Rutgers and in the US generally compelled me to conduct on-site research in China. I chose two sites, Beijing and Shanghai, for their enormous resources accessible in public libraries and university libraries. Over the two months I visited Shanghai Library, Shanghai Archive, Fudan University Library in Shanghai and Chinese National Library, the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature, and Peking University Library in Beijing. I was able to read sources ranging from newspapers and magazines in the 1920s to the cutting-edge academic monographs just published in 2015, from which I gathered valuable first-hand “data” for my dissertation. Some of the materials even inspired me to start my second project on journalism and feminist knowledge production.


With the development of technology, a large part of archive has been digitalized. A physical encounter with the material archive does not only retrieve the Benjaminian aura lost in the digital photos, but also discloses other useful information such as the paratext. Archival research has in itself higher value than just generating “data.” In my case, the reconstruction of Chinese women’s discourse on hunger is only possible if we look beyond the literary canon, which more often than not are accessible to the public outside the archive. Instead, we have to look into “minor” writers and “minor” works of canonical writers. These writers and works have been marginalized or even have gone obsolete in the grand discourse. The archive enables us to revive a historical and cultural memory by and of women, which will be an intervention on the androcentric and hegemonic discourse. In this sense, archival research can be a feminist methodology with tremendous epistemological value.

Grad Student Summer: Latin/Greek Institute

By: Joseph Hong

Like many graduate students, I decided to use my summer for language training. As an early modernist interested in the revival of classical texts during the Renaissance, I enrolled in an intensive Latin program that ran from May to August. The program is offered through the Latin/Greek Institute, a collaboration between Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. The courses offered this summer were Basic Latin, Basic Greek, and Advanced Greek. The workload was formidable to say the least and because the program has existed for over forty years the pedagogical methods have been refined to be highly efficient and logistically precise.

In the Basic Latin Program I spent ten weeks with fifteen other students not only learning the entire Latin morphology and grammar but also reading canonical texts by Virgil, Cicero, and Augustine. The first five weeks of the program were spent learning the entire Latin language. Because Latin is an entirely fossilized language, there is a finite body of grammar and word forms that have been codified. This means that one can learn only the words that exist in the corpus of Latin texts. For example, some verbs have only been used in the past tense, and thus we were expected to learn the conjugations only for the past tense even though the verb in question might theoretically be able to be conjugated in all tenses. This first half of the program was arguably the most rigorous, as the program covered in one day an amount of material that might be taught in a month in a typical university-level Latin course.

The second half of the program focused exclusively on literature. During the latter five weeks we read selections from Cicero, Sallust, an entire Book of Vergil’s Aeneid, and selections from Horace. The second half also included an elective course. Students chose between reading St. Augustine, Ovid, or Tacitus. These electives allowed for an opportunity to work in smaller groups and to read more closely into the content and style of the text.

The Latin/Greek Institute demands nearly complete dedication to the program. Students in my program spent a conservative average of twelve hours each day working with Latin, either in class or by working on homework. I can’t deny that the Institute produces results. Most students started without knowing any Latin and all finished the program being able to read Cicero and Vergil by sight.

Grad Student Summer: The Institute for World Literature

By: Gabriele Lazzari

The Institute for World Literature, created in 2011 thanks to the effort of a group of professors and scholars interested in the burgeoning debate around World Literature, was held in Lisbon, Portugal, from June 16th to July 22nd. Organized by Harvard University, and directed by David Damrosch, the Institute meets every summer in a different location, drawing together a wide-ranging academic community for an intense month of lectures, debates, and seminars.


Rutgers, as one of the founding institution of the Institute, has contributed to its development and success, and, since its inaugural session, has funded several students to participate in this intellectually stimulating experience. For graduate students in Comparative Literature the Institute has been particularly rewarding, given its global focus.

This summer I had the opportunity to be in Lisbon for a month and be part of this vibrant event, which I found challenging and intense, and yet, extremely friendly and welcoming. I attended two seminars (each lasting two weeks). Thanks to the diversity of the students and to the enthusiasm of the professors, who listened and coordinated very different takes on the readings assigned, I engaged in lively and inspiring discussions, which have helped me delve into questions that will be crucial for my future research.


Filinto Elísio, Capoverdian poet, delivers a lecture on diasporic Capoverdian writing

Apart from these intense seminars, students and scholars had the possibility to be part of an “Affinity Group.” Depending on one’s specific interests related to World Literature, every participant could choose a group and get together, rather informally, with other students working on similar topics. I personally chose “Poetics and Politics of World Literature” where I presented a paper (everyone is asked to do so) and received extremely interesting feedback. The organization and rationale of these groups is ideal, since every student is given the opportunity to share his or her work as in a conference, but without its formal and (potentially intimidating) setting.

In addition to these activities, the Institute hosted several lectures by prominent scholars of World Literature and by poets and writers, along with panels focused on relevant contemporary debates in academia, such as publishing and program design.

IWL4Zhang Longxi, Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, discusses World Literature and translation

The cultural activities and optional outings offered by the Institute, as well as the touching beauty of Lisbon, made this experience extremely rewarding and fun. The readings, discussions, and lectures have already helped me develop ideas and questions that I will continue exploring. Finally, the Institute has given me the opportunity to build a solid network of professors and graduate students from several cultural and academic backgrounds with whom I hope I’ll continue to be in conversation.