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Essay on Chinese literature and capitalism

In 2010, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, who is serving a 30-year term in an undisclosed prison near Beijing. Last year, the Swedish Academy selected for the literature prize Mo Yan, a pen name that means being silent. The latest joke in China sums up the two divergent fortunes of the country's only laureates: one is called silence; the other is silenced.

If the earlier prize had angered the Chinese government, the most recent one puzzled Chinese literary critics. "Why Mo Yan?" everyone asked during my recent three-week lecture tour in China. Someone suggested that I was partially to blame because I had included the author in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. In truth, Mo Yan had gotten his lucky break much earlier when his early novel Red Sorghum was turned into a hugely successful movie, and a second lucky break in an excellent Swedish translator.

This answer didn't quite satisfy my audiences, who found this writer, who tends to revel in seemingly archaic rural worlds, out of touch with their own urban experience. The only person in China who is happy about both Nobel Prizes is Tong Quingbing, a professor of literary theory at Beijing Normal University, who taught both Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan there and who is known to boast about his two famous students.

The Chinese Government and many Chinese don't count Nobel Prizes for Chinese living abroad, often because they and their works are banned. And yet the literary production of the Chinese diaspora, especially in the United States, is too significant to be ignored, and Chinese scholars are now paying attention to writers like Ha Jin. Even though he is barred from returning to China, Ha Jin can now see some of his novels, for example his most recent Nanjing Requiem, favorably reviewed in China.

During my lecture tour, the topic of greatest interest was capitalism. How did American writers respond to the convulsive forces of industrialization and capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, my Chinese hosts and students wanted to know? I offered as resonant examples writers like Frank Norris, whose Trilogy of the Wheat described the power unleashed by the Chicago Stock Exchange and Eugene O'Neill's Hairy Ape, which identifies with the awe-inspiring energy of a steamboat. I described this literature as "capitalist sublime" because writers like Norris and O'Neill approached the overwhelming power of capitalism in ways similar to how 18th century philosophers described unimaginably large numbers and overpowering storms.

When I traveled through China on the sleek bullet train at 200 miles per hour past a landscape of power plants, factories, and gigantic developments, I understood why Norris and O'Neill resonated. Chinese newspapers revel in records, the speed with which the latest battery of high-rises has been built, the latest increase in production. Everywhere, superlatives abound. At the same time, the human and environmental costs are becoming more difficult to ignore. Writers like Frank Norris or Eugene O'Neill didn't have any illusions about the destructive powers of capitalism, either; the sublime was a way of understanding that as well.

I was struck that my Chinese audiences had a rich experience of the capitalist sublime, but they were less familiar with the most hard-nosed defenders of capitalism like Joseph Schumpeter, whose term "creative destruction" fits the current Chinese experience better than any. Ayn Rand was completely unknown as well, though my description of her novels and theories resonated with the harsh face of capitalism in China. Rand's glorification of egotism, by contrast, led only to gasps of astonishment.

The biggest problem for urban Chinese right now, and the subject of the latest set of superlatives, is the explosion of housing prices. Everyone talked about it, on trains, over dinner, after lectures. Those who are priced out are kicking themselves for having waited too long while others rattle off the latest increase in home values (10 million rmb, one teacher told me, about 1.6 million dollars, for a modest Beijing apartment). Students complain that they will have to find work at home because they will be forced to move back with their parents. Those who buy rely on family networks to raise the funds for the down payment. Small wonder that a play like David Mamet's Glengary Glen Ross, the best American work on real estate, is of interest here.

The future of Chinese letters and its relation to world literature is closely bound up with the country's experiment in marrying its one-party system to market capitalism, what the Chinese now refer to, with a chuckle, as "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" (a modification of the official "socialism with Chinese characteristics"). Who will describe its new heroes and new victims? How will writers — and other artists — capture the powers,  the superlatives, the destructions, creative and otherwise, of this new brand of capitalism?

The next Chinese Nobel Prize in Literature will probably not be a writer of rural life, like Mo Yan, but a Chinese David Mamet aiming at the world's largest housing bubble. Or, if we are unlucky, an Ayn Rand with Chinese characteristics.

Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University and general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature. He is at work on a travel book about world literature.

 

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Winners of Bancroft Prize Announced

Columbia University on Monday announced two winners of the Bancroft Prize for books about history. The winners are:

  • W. Jeffrey Bolster, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, for The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).
  • John Fabian Witt, Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale University, for Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012).

 

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Essay on the people who made one student welcome at a university

I was a lousy high school student. I graduated ranked three spots from the bottom half of my class, half-assing even my underachievement. I never had much interest in high school academically and so, I thought, no interest in college. And I didn’t go to college right away, not really. I took a few meandering courses at the local community college and worked for $6.50 an hour in a local camera shop. But after six months of that work, barely covering expenses in a shared rental house and all the while hearing about my friends’ college experiences, my motivation changed. I wanted to go to college, but was still anxious about whether or not I could hack it.

I applied to several colleges, all with a mind toward getting very far from my home in Virginia. One of the places I applied to was the University of Iowa. Generously, my mother bought me a plane ticket to go visit the university in February. I had never even been to Iowa before.  Just prior to my departure I told one of my former high school teachers about my upcoming trip. She suggested that I should look up an old colleague of hers who had once worked at my high school during my visit to the University of Iowa, where he worked at the time of my trip. I said I would and didn’t think much of it. It was one of those things you say you’ll do to be polite, but without ever really intending to follow through.

The time for my trip arrived. I had never flown alone before and dozed on the plane during the trip to Iowa, but I woke suddenly when the pilot announced our descent into the Cedar Rapids airport. Cedar Rapids? Where was that? I knew that the university was in Iowa City, and had, in my naiveté, simply assumed that I was arriving in Iowa City. The airline ticket had listed my destination, somewhat ambiguously, as simply Cedar Rapids/Iowa City. I hadn’t made any arrangements ahead of time except to reserve a spot at a hostel for the nights of my visit.

When I startled-to on the plane, my knowledge of Iowa geography was so absent that I didn’t even know how far apart the two cities were. Three miles? Three hours? My worries amplified when I began to consider my budget. I had about $100 in cash to pay for my lodging, my meals, for anything that might come up, no credit or ATM cards. An expensive cab ride or shuttle trip would bite into my already meager funds.

Somewhere in between disembarking from the plane and the baggage claim I figured out, I think from a wall map, that the distance between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids was about 30 miles. That was the distance I needed to cover. I took stock of my options. A 30-mile cab ride was out of the question. I would inquire about shuttles after I grabbed my bag. If I couldn’t find a shuttle, I decided that I would hitchhike. I had no appointments scheduled until the next day. I also had never hitchhiked before.

At the baggage claim most of my fellow passengers were rumpled businessmen in rumpled businessman clothes. While I waited, I struck up a conversation with a young woman who looked to be about my age. It turned out that she was a junior at the university, and had been on the same connecting flight that I had. She was an actuarial science major (I nodded knowingly but had to look that one up later) and was returning from Boston where she had been interviewing for an internship.

In the course of our awkward waiting-for-bags conversation, I managed to bring up my transportation dilemma.

“Where are you staying?” she asked.

I told her about the makeshift hostel in the Methodist church downtown. Unsurprisingly, she hadn’t heard of it. I must have seemed worthy of pity because, to my shock, she offered to give me a lift all the way into Iowa City. Naturally, I accepted. We left the baggage claim after an airline worker informed me that my bag had been left behind during my connection in Chicago and would have to be delivered to me later.

En route to her car, which was parked in one of the long-term lots, we made polite conversation, which primarily consisted of me asking questions about the university and the city. At one point she, having learned where I was from, asked what it was like growing up so close to Charlottesville, Virginia and the University of Virginia.

I told her that it was great, particularly if you stayed the hell away from the fratty parts of town. I launched into an abbreviated (for me) tirade against the entitled, east coast "Greek" culture that galled me when I was a townie high school student. (Still galls me some.)

Thus began an important lesson for me in knowing one’s audience before responding pointedly to an innocuous question.

The young woman stopped, turned directly to me, and glared. Despite the numbingly cold Iowa winter day, I thought for a moment that I could feel piles of plowed snow in the parking lot melting behind me from the heat. "I’m the vice-president of my sorority," she said slowly, deliberately, before turning away from me completely and continuing toward her car.

For a moment I didn’t know whether or not to keep following, but I did. Her initial congeniality never returned, but she still gave me a ride into Iowa City, and we returned to talking mechanically about the university for the duration of the 35 minute ride. Once in Iowa City, she dropped me off in front of the Methodist church where I was staying and wished me luck before I thanked her for the ride and we went our separate ways.

The hostel was really just a bunch of cots set up in the church’s activity room. During the day the cots were folded up, packed into a corner, and the room was used for various church activities. So, the "hostel," while accommodating my budget, wasn’t a place I could go crash at during the daytime. Those of us staying there were only allowed in during the evenings, basically during sleeping hours.

Even though I was only in town for two full days, I had a lot of open time to fill, and not much money to help out. And it was very, very cold, at least to my thin blood.

For lunch one day I went into a little pizza joint that, unbeknownst to me, was an Iowa City institution, at least among students, named The Airliner. It was a little past the normal lunch hour and nearly deserted. The hostess seated me in a booth next to a family. The father looked vaguely familiar. Red, balding hair, and an unmistakably obvious limp when he rose to go to the restroom. Then it dawned on me — he was Dan Gable, the collegiate and Olympic wrestling legend and the then-recently retired coach of the Iowa wrestling team. I waited for what seemed like an opportune moment to interrupt his meal, and found it as he and his family were finishing up and preparing to leave.

"Excuse me, are you Dan Gable?" I asked.

"You must be a wrestler," he said, knowing both the scope and the limits of his own fame.

"I used to be," I replied, knowing that I didn’t have the talent to walk-on to a team like Iowa’s. Wrestling might have been the only thing that kept me from dropping out of high school, which I seriously considered at one point.

Gable graciously introduced me to his family, including the hostess, who turned out to be his oldest daughter. He signed an autograph on a paper napkin for me to take back to my old high school coach. Then, creaking out of the restaurant on his mostly-destroyed hip, he followed his family out into the street. I paid my check and went back out into the Iowa cold and wind a few minutes later.

After two days of wandering Iowa City in the bitter cold, I had done everything constructive I could think of. I had met with advisers in the English department, as well as a university admissions officer. I had wandered through bookstores without buying anything for slightly longer than was polite, and walked around the city bundled up against the cold for as long as I could stand. I was such a rube, in fact, that I didn’t even realize that, simply to stay warm, I could have hung out in the university library’s periodicals room for hours. I didn’t know such places existed, and that you could just walk right into them.

Partly out of boredom, and partly as an indoor project to stay warm, I decided to go in search of my high school teacher’s grad school friend and former colleague.

I knew he was in the School of Education, and went to the education building, Lindquist Center, which is a rat’s maze of a university building, vexing even to some of those who know it well. After some time navigating the building’s counterintuitively arrayed halls, I arrived at the office that had been listed as James Marshall’s on the directory in the lobby. The office door was open. A man was hunched over several boxes of books in the middle of the floor, either packing or unpacking. I couldn’t tell which.

I knocked on the frame of the open door. "Excuse me, Dr. Marshall?"

"No," the man replied, with a look that must have reflected my own confusion. “He’s in the dean’s office now,” he said with a tilt of his head, both of his hands still full of books. He gave me directions for navigating to the other office.

I, of course, had no idea what a dean was. My ignorance was my shield, and I continued down the hall to the dean’s office, not only unaware of who or what a dean was, but also unaware of the fact that many people typically work in a dean’s office, which is more like an administrative compound than the more humble faculty office I had just visited.

When I entered the much larger dean’s office/compound, no fewer than three faces of the secretarial/admin variety turned from their work to look at me. “Could I please see Dr. Marshall?” I asked, quickly, and I thought cleverly, deducing than none of these three women were him.

“Do you have an appointment?” their leader asked.

I stammered. "Uh, no, I just want to talk to him."

This, judging from her reaction, was an answer that does not typically win one an audience with busy, important folks. Luckily for me, Marshall’s office door had been open the entire time, and he had been listening in.

"Is that a student?" he nearly shouted, still unseen to me. "Send him in." The captain of the secretaries nodded in my direction. I proceeded forward.

I went into the office, and gregariously, Marshall asked what he could help with. Little did he know, he was already helping — his office was heated.

Falteringly I explained that I was visiting the university and had been a student at Western Albemarle High School, and that Kathy Sublette had suggested I look him up.

He beamed. He asked me about my high school, where he had once worked, almost 20 years previously.

I had to talk around those questions, for, with a few notable exceptions, like Sublette’s class, my experiences hadn’t been very good. In the course of our conversation I told him about my mixup at the airport and the young woman who had given me a ride into town.

"How are you getting back?" he asked.

"Well," I told him, "I heard there’s a shuttle, but it doesn’t run early enough to make my flight. So, I figured I’d go up tonight and just sleep in the airport."

He grimaced a little. "The Cedar Rapids airport is pretty small. They close at night. They aren’t going to let you sleep there."

"Oh." As I said, I was pretty naïve.

"What time is your flight?" he asked.

"6:30am."

"Hm, United? You connect in Chicago?"

“Yeah,” I responded.

"I’ve taken that flight a million times. Brutal. Where are you staying?" he asked.

I told him about the weird hostel in the Methodist church.

"Tell you what," he said. "Be ready at 5. I’ll pick you up."

"Really?" I was incredulous.

He assured me that it was no problem, and we made a bit more small talk before I left. Things were looking up.

Right on time the next morning Marshall picked me up. During the ride in the morning dark, our conversation was a bit more earnest, and I opened up about my anxieties as to whether or not I could hack college work.

Marshall told me about his own experiences as a first-generation college student at Indiana University. He assured me that Iowa was a really down-to-earth university, with really down-to-earth students, like the one who had given me a ride. I could hack it, he assured me.

At the airport I thanked him repeatedly. I had a lot to think about. He made a good pitch, but, my god, that cold wind.

Iowa was the only university I was accepted to as an undergraduate. I began attending the following fall.

I’m hesitant to try to draw a lesson from any of this.  I don’t want to suggest that what Marshall did for me should be a standard by which we measure ourselves. It was so above and beyond, such an act of generosity, that few of us could live up to such a standard. As important as the ride was, the conversation we had during it, about college life and my own fears, which were based on my mostly horrible high school experiences, was even more important.

What I do know is that both acts of generosity -- a ride offered by a student, another ride and some sound advice offered by senior faculty member -- were emblematic of everything that happened for me at Iowa over the next three years. Everywhere I turned, someone helped me out, from staff in admissions and the registrar’s office to the faculty in the English department, as well as faculty in other departments.

Thanks, everyone.

Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University and a career advice columnist for Inside Higher Ed.

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NHA speakers implore humanities scholars to fight for their fields

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Advocates for the humanities search for the arguments to win federal support, and to stop having their disciplines treated "like a piñata."

Defeat for Plan to Reform Research Overhead Payments

Leading universities such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have successfully lobbied for the defeat of proposed new ways for the government to pay for research overhead, The Boston Globe reported. Currently universities negotiate rates for a percentage of grants awarded that they receive to cover overhead expenses. Harvard's rate is 69 percent, which is much higher than most rates. The Obama administration wanted to shift to a single flat rate for all institutions, but leading universities opposed the idea and it has now been withdrawn.

 

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Academic Minute: Penicillin and the Sexual Revolution

In today’s Academic Minute, Andrew Francis of Emory University explores the role antibiotics played in fueling the Sexual Revolution. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


 

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Judge Backs Complaints of Part-Time Faculty Union at Columbia Chicago

An administrative law judge ruled Friday that Columbia College Chicago had engaged in numerous unfair labor practices in negotiations with the union representing the college's part-time faculty members, which is affiliated with the National Education Association. The judge ordered the college to resume bargaining in good faith, to provide basic information that the union needs to bargain effectively, to compensate the head of the union for classes she lost in what the judge found to be unfair retaliation against her. The judge ordered the college to stop "making regressive contract proposals that retaliate against the union and its members for exercising their [rights]," and to stop "insisting on contract proposals that essentially give [the college] unfettered control over a broad range of mandatory subjects of bargaining, including the effects of decisions regarding those mandatory subjects of bargaining." College officials did not respond to e-mail requests Sunday for comment on the ruling.

 

 

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University of Oregon adjunct fired after altercation with students

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Adjunct at the University of Oregon who was filmed in altercation with student during a demonstration loses his job and is arrested.

Oakland U. Sued Over Reaction to 'Hot for Teacher' Essay

Joseph Corlett is suing Oakland University for $2.2 million for kicking him out after he wrote an essay called "Hot for Teacher" about one of his instructors, The Detroit Free Press reported. The university is not commenting on the lawsuit. His instructor had encouraged students to be frank in their essays, but in this case, some believed he went too far. Corlett maintains that his free speech rights were violated. When Inside Higher Ed wrote about the dispute last year, some commenters said that they sympathized with the instructor and would have been concerned by the student's essay.

 

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U. of California Faculty Leaders Question Outsourcing Plan

The top two leaders of the University of California System Academic Senate on Friday released a letter expressing "grave concerns" about California legislation proposed last week to require the state's public higher education systems to grant transfer credit for courses or programs provided by an approved pool of providers, potentially including programs that are for-profit and have never been accredited. Supporters of the plan say that it will deal with the state's serious capacity issues in which qualified students can't get into the courses they need to graduate.

Robert L. Powell, the chair of the system's Academic Senate, and Bill Jacob, the vice chair, on Friday released a joint letter reacting to the proposal. The letter stated that the leaders of the Academic Senate were not consulted as the legislation was drafted, and went on to identify several concerns.

The faculty leaders state: "First, limits on student access to the courses this bill targets are in large part the result of significant reductions in public state higher education funding, especially over the last six years. Second, the clear self-interest of for profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying. In fact, UC’s graduation rates and time to degree performance show that access to courses for our students is not an acute issue as it may be in the other segments. Lastly, the faculty of the University of California, through the Academic Senate, approves courses for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit to determine whether they cover the same material with equal rigor. There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency."

The letter adds that the "Academic Senate is committed to exploring how important measures of student success, such as graduation rates and time-to-degree, can be improved." And the letter notes that faculty leaders have backed initiatives that include the expansion of online course offerings by the university. But the letter stressed the role of professors. "There is no alternative to the deep involvement of faculty in courses and curricula and the validation provided by rigorous and continuing review of these," it says.

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