To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the Comparative Literature and Culture program

The chair of Brandeis University’s Comparative Literature and Culture program, Professor Pu Wang, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the Comparative Literature and Culture program, its future and himself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


I was doing my comparative literature Ph.D. at NYU. To be honest I hadn’t known Brandeis very well before coming here. But, Brandeis gave me this offer and gave me this opportunity. For me, it was a really exciting journey coming to New England to teach both Chinese literature and comparative literature. I admire the history of Brandeis, even though it’s short. The shortness of Brandeis’ history is rooted in a very important 20th-century experience and I am a scholar of 20th-century politics and literature. So I think there is, [even] though I came here just because of the opportunity, a deeper affinity with the Jewish experience.


What languages do you speak?


I am a Mandarin Chinese native speaker. I was born in a Northern province of China not far away from Beijing. I grew up in Beijing … and then I went to college at Peking University …. I’ve always aspired to this deep combination of Chinese identity and cosmopolitan life. So why come to the United States? I had two fellowship offers for [my] Ph.D. studies. One was in East Asian studies, and the other was in comparative literature. I decided to go to NYU for comparative literature rather than going to Columbia [University] for East Asian studies …. So I speak English and I started to learn French when I was a college student at Peking University. I was persuaded to learn German while I was at NYU. CUNY [City University of New York system of schools] has a great program for German reading knowledge. [Additionally,] … I have been failing in learning Japanese …. I have to say, on top of Chinese, I have a secret kind of love for French. Comparative Literature is … about your interest and passion to try out different languages.


What do you wish students knew about Brandeis’ Comparative Literature and Culture program?


One thing about Comparative Literature is our faculty. Just go over the long list of our affiliated faculty members, and you’ll see we have so many faculty members in the English department, in the Romance studies department, … [and] in classics. They are experts in their fields, and at the same time, they speak other languages. They excel in comparative literature. So everyone who’s doing national literature culture is already doing comparative literature. You might already be [studying] competitive literature without knowing you are a good candidate for this program.


What language do most students end up taking to fulfill the department’s language requirement?


That’s why this program is so exciting, but at the same time so daunting because you need to take content courses in languages other than English …. [There’s a pattern:] you can always find great courses in French, Italian and Spanish. Romance studies has always been central to higher education in our modern times. If you are Russian, you’d better know French to read one piece [of literature]. But at the same time, we also see a process of decentering. We have more and more courses taught directly in non-Western languages. For example, I’m teaching a Chinese literature course directly in Chinese.


What can you tell me about COML 100A – Introduction to Global Literature?


This course is an eye-opening process, the rite of passage into Comparative Literature. It’s not an entirely theoretical course, but sometimes students get that kind of impression. It’s because, through this course, we want to be conscious of our global existence in literary and cultural terms. So right now this course has been undergoing a lot of changes in recent years and … [at] the hands of professor David Powelstock. This course is a great experience because first of all, it’s no longer just an introduction to Comparative Literature. It’s comparative literature and world literature and global literature in general. So it’s not like we’re going to read … the whole library of Harvard and Yale …. It needs to have an overview of how we are going to engage literature globally and comparatively. There has always been a feature of this course that we’ll have one major instructor but this course will feature a great number of affiliated faculty members …. So for example I will sit in on one session of this semester’s … [course] to talk about my perspective on what Professor Powelstock has been discussing with students.


How is the Chinese education system different from the American education system?


I think … there are a lot of similarities as well as important differences. If you just go online [and] take a glance you may see a lot of conversions of the two systems over the years because China’s higher education tries to imitate North America’s higher education system. North American higher education has remained the standard globally. At the same time, there are some radical differences [between the Chinese higher education system and the North American higher education system] …. One thing that is most relatable to our students: when you come to a Chinese university as a freshman you will have to choose a major immediately. [Here,] the most popular major is undecided, right? So that’s a huge difference. The disadvantage is quite obvious in the Chinese system, but there are also advantages. [Students] will have a very coherent experience …. In the United States … we give more freedom. We attach more importance to students’ free will and creative development. But in China, the courses you take are … more structured. So if you choose one major, … in China, you will have a very clearly laid out path of work courses to take this year, this semester, next semester and so on. [But] that is changing. That is the Chinese system nowadays tries to give students more freedom, but that kind of more structured base of students’ academic training is still there …. [At Brandeis,] you have a COML 100A, but you can decide to take it your sophomore year or junior year or even senior year. It’s more an experience of self-development …. The liberal arts education model means a kind of more engaging and active participation [from] students in [the] classroom and outside [of the classroom too]. In the Chinese case, the liberal arts model is not everything. So they have more structured knowledge acquisition in which student participation sometimes cannot be fully [realized]. So I do see pros and cons in … [both of] these models …. [Additionally,] in the European system, in the Japanese system and in the Chinese system the best universities are publicized universities, whereas [here they are] private institutions. And [in America] we have private higher education institutions that are as rich and powerful as a small country…. In this regard, the U.S. is radically different.


Is there anything that you wish that the students knew about you?


I wish our students also knew me as a poet. I’ve been very active in poetry writing in Chinese, but my work is not sufficiently translated into English. So students will not directly see my existence [as a poet] because they see me as a scholar …. But I also want them to know that I’m a poet and I see that creative life as essential not only to my identity but also to my existence.

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