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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Academic Autobiography (1d)—Working the Field

One year ago on Round and Square (25 September 2011)—Styling Culture: Dashes and Hyphens
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Academic Autobiography"
[a] Steering RF
Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on John King Fairbank's autobiography:
Working 1          Working 2          Working 3          Working 4          Working 5

IV—University Fieldwork
Another example can be found in John King Fairbank's desire not only to learn everything he could about modern China but also about those who were studying it. On his way back to the United States after his first stay in China (from 1932-1936), he “arranged to stop at every existing center of Chinese or even Far Eastern studies on our route eastward to London, to meet the China people and ascertain the state of the art.”[1] He began in Hawaii and continued at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Chicago, Michigan, Yale, and Columbia, finding “not much going on in Chinese studies, and very little ability with Chinese among the faculty who were there, with the exceptions I have already noted."[2]

This, too, is vintage Fairbank, expressing his genuine desire to learn more, but an equivalent desire to size-up the competition, as well.  Such behavior can be seen even early on in Chinabound, when he discusses his educational strategies at several points.

          In the four institutions where I spent two years apiece, the formula for 
          academic success, as I plotted it out, was first to establish one’s identity as 
          a top scholar. That meant in the first year disregarding people and “activities,” 
          which invariably involved one with people and might even lead to time-
          consuming conversations with them! In the second year, however, one should 
          branch out and know everybody.[3]

          Spending some weeks in Scotland, London, and Paris in the summer of 
          1925 further focused my view of the world as many-centered. Sioux Falls 
          already seemed a place I had come from. A picture of me, looking like any 
          other unformed young man of eighteen, appeared in the New York Times.
          I felt sure I was going to get somewhere. So were most of my classmates,
          of course, but that was their business, not mine.[4]
With students and colleagues (not to mention himself), he was adamant about the importance of writing and research. He speaks convincingly of the importance of good teaching, but has little patience for the rhetoric one finds in some colleges today extolling the virtues of total commitment to teaching. He was building a field, and he felt that books made the real impact and led, in any case, to better teaching and a more informed public.

          In my first years of teaching in Cambridge, I took Harvard U. for granted.  It
          was like a gymnasium on whose barbells and flying rings an athlete could 
          keep working toward his championship. It was an efficient environment in 
          which to pursue books and ideas. Some specialists talked more, wrote less, 
          and were often inspiring teachers. Others talked less, wrote more, and 
          became top professors. At the last hurdle to tenure, the written word 
          outweighed the spoken. This produced controversy, but to me the issue 
          seemed simple.  Writing is more durable, can be more influential if enough 
          people read it, and can’t easily be published if it becomes as repetitious as 
          teachers may become.  This suited me personally because in my new field 
          there was a lot of basic data and new understanding to provide.  Books were 

Books were needed, but so, too, was a mechanism for publishing them. Fairbank’s methods (and obvious fascination with the “growing” process) were complete, from “planting” to “harvest.” He taught seminars, and was committed to making them meaningful exercises in research and criticism. He had little patience with the kind of seminar (all too common, even in his day) in which students “[bat] the breeze, proving nothing, wasting everyone’s time.” His Ch’ing Documents seminars, in Fairbank’s grand vision for his field, led to the publication of Papers on China, where seminar papers led to the first fledgling publications for many students and “foreshadowed books published years later.” Fairbank’s students, in short, were taught to think of both their careers and “the field” as a whole, just as he had done.
[c] Leading RF

Calling the choice of a seminar topic “as crucial as the choice of a spouse,” Fairbank encouraged his students “to see themselves as book writers from the start.” Had he not paid as much attention to the institutions that would drive Chinese studies as his own career (despite his occasional protestation), there never would have been mechanisms to get students into print and to create waves of new knowledge. The East Asian Institute at Harvard University has published several hundred volumes in the Harvard East Asian series, and several other major presses followed suit, creating a connection between scholars and readers that was not available in the time of Fairbank’s graduate studies. That work is one of the reasons why virtually every China scholar in the United States is connected to Harvard. In Fairbank’s own words:

          Here again we were lucky at Harvard to be on the ground floor, producing 
          teaching candidates who were also authors and became available just as 
          jobs opened up around the country. At a rough estimate, East Asianist 
          Ph.D.s from Harvard went on to teach at seventy-five or so institutions; 
          and sometimes several Harvard graduates went to one place, like half a 
          dozen at Ann Arbor.[6]
[d] Growin' RF

Luck had little to do with it; focus and drive were more effective. Sometimes Fairbank had to pry manuscripts from the hands of graduate students and assistant professors. Stories abound about Fairbank’s enthusiasm for new text (and we should not forget that he created a great deal of it himself), but it is perhaps best told in his own words. It is possible to see a combination of genuine care for students’ careers combined with a fierce desire to promote knowledge of China at even the cost of an “imperfect” manuscript. Reflecting the very different worlds of tenure and promotion in those years, Fairbank himself did not publish his own thesis (a monumental study of the treaty port system from 1842-1854) until 1953, fully seventeen years after he submitted it for his doctorate.

          Of the many things one can do for a graduate student, the most important 
          may be to help get a book finished. The bond between student and 
          manuscript is sometimes stronger than between the sexes. There are other 
          men or women in the world but a manuscript is uniquely one’s own. To 
          stop working on it is like giving up breathing or eating. It may be finished, 
          accepted, revised, edited, and awaiting publication, yet the author can’t let 
          go of it even though his worldly advancement depends on it. The problem 
          then is to get possession of the manuscript and break the umbilical cord by 
          simply putting it into production. Once at Princeton, when a tenacious 
          young instructor let me see his manuscript, I picked it up and got out the door 
          with it. It made a good book and helped his career.[7]

Click here for the other posts in this Round and Square series on John King Fairbank's autobiography:
Working 1          Working 2          Working 3          Working 4          Working 5
[e] Finished RF
[1] John King Fairbank, Chinabound (New York: Harper Collins, 1983), 3. 
[2] Chinabound, 3-4.
[3] Chinabound, 3-4.
[4] Chinabound, 3-4.
[5] Chinabound, 3-4.
[6] Chinabound, 3-4.
[7] Chinabound, 3-4.

Fairbank, John King. Chinabound. New York: Harper Collins, 1983.

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