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Speechless in Sichuan

Speechless in Sichuan: Adventures during the OAH China Residency Program

Julie Greene

With support from the OAH and the American History Research Association of China (AHRAC), I had the good fortune to spend a week at Sichuan University in Chengdu in June, lecturing on “Social Responses to U.S. Industrialization.” I was selected for the OAH/AHRAC China Residency Program, funded by the Ford Foundation. Over the years, through my work co-directing the Center for Global Migration Studies with Ira Berlin at the University of Maryland, I’ve learned how international collaborations and dialogue can benefit my own and, by extension, my students’ intellectual lives. So, I was delighted to join the roster of scholars representing the OAH in China through this residency program. Our workshop focused chronologically on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. We met for six hours each day for five days, with a lengthy lunch break in the middle. Thirty-two graduate students and faculty from across China participated in the workshop. It was a great honor to work with everyone at Sichuan: the participants came well prepared and ready for a complex exploration of the topic and brainstorming about areas that would benefit from more research. The result? A highly productive week of intellectual exchange and collaboration.

Before the workshop began my husband Jim Maffie and I had already experienced some amazing adventures. We began in Hong Kong so that I could meet with labor sociologist Professor Pun Ngai, give a talk at Hong Kong University, and explore possible connections for a project on global labor migration being led by my Center. We then traveled to Shenzhen to tour manufacturing districts with activists from the organization Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior as our guides. Shenzhen is one of the centers of China’s remarkable industrialization, and I wanted a firsthand look at labor relations there to enhance my understanding of the world’s largest working class and also to help me make comparisons in my Sichuan workshop between Chinese industrialization today and that of the United States one hundred years ago. After visiting Shenzhen, we spent a week exploring mainland China on our own, traveling to Guilin, Yangshuo, and Beijing. Seeing and learning so much about China was awe-inspiring and, indeed, it left me speechless at times—in more ways than one.

We arrived in Chengdu on June 8 and were met by Sichuan University Professor Yu Wang and graduate students Xiong Jianyu and Shuhuan Ren. During the weekend that followed, they treated us to a tour of important sights in and around Chengdu, including the spectacular Jianchuan Museum Cluster in the town of Anren. On Monday morning Shuhuan Ren met me in the hotel lobby and accompanied me via motorized tricycle to our first day of lectures and discussion. I should note that Sichuan University is huge, with approximately 100,000 students; even though our hotel sat just half a block from the campus, it still required 15 to 20 minutes to travel across campus to our workshop classroom. Once there, we were met by Professor Zujie Yuan, a scholar of U.S. populism and labor reform, who introduced me to the class and presented me with a beautiful gift—a framed silk brocade painting of pandas—before I had done any actual work! I began the seminar by telling the students a bit about myself and distributing small gifts from the States—Ghirardelli chocolates and postcards featuring historic covers from the New Yorker magazine—to everyone (those were a hit). I also thanked them profusely for working in English throughout the week, acknowledging that this required an extra level of intellectual work on their part and that I was not only aware of their labor but also grateful for it.   

Correspondence with Professors Wang and Yuan had given me a sense of the grad students’ and faculty’s specific areas of interest as well as the level of English fluency I should expect. They reported that previous OAH workshop leaders had divided each day by lecturing all morning and then discussing the key topics all afternoon, but I decided to tweak that approach. I wrote two or three lectures for each day and planned a discussion to follow immediately after each one. Thus, the day was broken up with discussions happening throughout the day. When I selected readings for each day, I included a couple short secondary articles and three or four primary sources, thinking that the latter would be helpful in generating robust conversations. I began each discussion by articulating key questions about an article or one or two primary sources, and then gave students five to ten minutes to discuss these among themselves. This allowed more reticent students to share their ideas and gave everyone a break from having to communicate their ideas in English all the time. Something in all this seemed to work well. I had been warned by previous lecturers in China that it would be hard to generate productive discussions, either because of shyness among the students or because of the language barrier. However, throughout the week we had terrific conversations, with the students asking questions and providing insights that helped push my thinking as well as theirs in new directions. Indeed, the discussions proved to be one of the most productive aspects of the week. And this meant students were learning from one another as well as from me

There developed one significant challenge to my week at Sichuan University: I became, literally, speechless. After the first full day of lecturing and running discussions, I awakened, on Tuesday morning, with nothing more than a horrible, hoarse whisper. Whether due to dry air on airplanes, urban pollution, talking too much, or the famous spicy hot pot cuisine of Chengdu, I had lost my voice. (The doctor we consulted thought all those factors had contributed, and said that she often treats professors with this problem.) Complete disaster loomed! 

Professor Wang whisked me off to a hospital on campus, stayed with me as a translator while the doctor examined me, and then he or Shuhuan Ren took me back to hospital five more times in the coming days so I could inhale a small dose of steroids to ease the inflammation of my throat. The doctor advised me not to say a single word for the next seven days but that, of course, was impossible. However, lecturing was also impossible. What to do? Luckily for me, I was traveling with a smart philosopher who not only possesses a keen understanding of history but also has known me for a few decades and has listened to me talk about all aspects of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: my dear husband, Jim Maffie. He had planned to spend the week in a combination of tourism on his own and some work in our hotel room. But now he rose to the occasion and took over as lecturer for a few days while my voice recovered. I had prepared PowerPoint slides to accompany my lectures, putting all my main points as text on the slides to help students who might be struggling with English. Since I wouldn’t be able to extrapolate on those points in person, I stayed up late each night to add more information to the PowerPoints. Jim then presented them to the class and often found ways to add colorful examples based on his own knowledge or stories I had shared with him. For example, when we talked about nineteenth-century European immigration, the German 1848ers popped up on the PowerPoint. Jim spontaneously shared the story of how Dr. Julie Greene’s own great-great-grandfather had been imprisoned in Marburg, Germany, during the revolution of 1848 for his anti-government speeches and had escaped prison to flee to the United States. I hadn’t planned on mentioning that, but it certainly brought the 1848ers to life in a new way for the students. When we discussed Jane Addams and the tension in the history of social work between liberalism and pragmatism, Jim added a mini-lecture from his own disciplinary standpoint on the history of the two philosophies.

I have to admit that it was hard for me to keep quiet while Jim presented my lectures, and I didn’t always succeed. I jumped in to add points during the lectures here and there, and I still ran the discussions each day. Students had to put up with my awkward voice, but I think they enjoyed seeing how Jim and I, with great help from Professors Wang and Yuan and their graduate students, managed to work together, to find ways to communicate despite the laryngitis, and to make the workshop a success. Professor Yuan worried that using my voice too much might cause permanent damage to my health, so he insisted I take one afternoon off to rest. In my place, he presented a lecture to the class on recent developments in U.S. historiography, and then Professor Wang led the class in a discussion of that day’s readings. Based on reports I heard from students, that made for a very effective session and helped them feel more connected to Sichuan University’s faculty. It might be something for the OAH to encourage in the future—i.e., having local faculty take responsibility for a lecture or an afternoon session during the week. The afternoon off also helped my voice and by the final two days I was able to participate much more fully, effectively co-lecturing with Jim in the mornings and taking over by myself each afternoon.

On the first day of our workshop, I began by introducing the topic and discussing the historiography on U.S. industrialization; in the afternoon, we explored the economics of industrialization and the transformation of capitalism. We devoted the remainder of the week to labor and working-class history, social and political reform, immigration, and global approaches to U.S. history during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (spending one day on each topic). We examined secondary readings by scholars including Shelton Stromquist, Maureen Flanagan, Charles Postel, Noam Maggor, David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, James Grossman, Mae Ngai, Daniel Rodgers, and yours truly; primary sources included such documents (or excerpts) as the Omaha Platform, the Knights of Labor Constitution, Haymarket anarchist Michael Schwab’s Address, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, Jane Addams’ Democracy and Social Ethics, W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Migration of the Negroes,” Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, and the Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark  and U.S. v Bhagat Singh Thind. Throughout the week, the recently published Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, edited by Christopher McKnight Nichols and Nancy C. Unger, was an invaluable resource.

There were several highlights in our conversations that week. We had a very stimulating discussion comparing the populists’ Omaha Platform and the Knights’ Constitution—and the ways both reflected prevalent ideas around producerism and the labor theory of value. When it was time to consider Taylor’s description of his encounter with the “mentally sluggish” Schmidt (the laborer who became the test case for Taylor’s development of scientific management), I asked for volunteers to come to the front and act out the exchange. This generated much fun as two grad students brought Schmidt and Taylor to life, and an intense conversation ensued. But perhaps the sources that most amazed the students, and generated the liveliest discussion, concerned white, native born Americans’ responses to Asians in their midst. After a lecture on the important role of Chinese immigrants in sparking not only exclusion laws but also the rise of a vast immigration bureaucracy, students were fascinated to examine the racial parameters around citizenship and naturalization, as reflected in the Wong Kim Ark and Thind cases. We analyzed those Supreme Court decisions as well as Madison Grant’s xenophobic anxieties, and had a powerful conversation about possible avenues of research into Asian immigration and citizenship.

Over the course of the week, our discussions often ranged widely, exploring not only the history of U.S. industrialization, but also how the discipline of history differs from other humanities and social sciences, as well as research methodology, the interpretation of evidence, and writing techniques. The students were also very interested in contemporary American politics. The day we focused on immigration, for example, one student asked: “What is it like to be an undocumented immigrant in America today?” This led to a long conversation about contemporary immigration politics, deportation, and rising xenophobia. Such forays into the twenty-first-century United States stimulated all of us to think about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in new ways.

I am very grateful to my hosts at Sichuan University: Professors Zujie Yuan and Yu Wang and graduate students Xiong Jianyu and Shuhuan Ren. They made sure I had everything I needed for the seminar, generously accompanied us everywhere, and ensured that my health challenge was not a source of anxiety. They enriched our time in Chengdu by sharing informal conversations about their own historical research and writing, and their sense of life and work in China. At the end of the week I returned home inspired and energized, and with many new friendships. The hard work and intellectual sophistication of the Chinese graduate students and faculty taking the workshop inspired me. On the last day, as we concluded our work, I told the 32 students to keep in touch. “You have a friend—and a teacher—in Maryland,” I said. But the fact is, I left feeling that I had dozens of teachers in China as well. As we probed the secondary and primary sources and discussed new avenues of potential research, my own understanding of U.S. industrialization changed and expanded in numerous ways. The experience proved to me once again that intellectual collaboration across borders is truly invaluable.

Julie Greene is a professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also codirects the Center for Global Migration Studies. Her work focuses on U.S. labor, immigration, and empire, as well as transnational and global approaches to history. She is the author of The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal (2009), winner of the OAH James A. Rawley Prize for the best book on the history of race relations. Greene is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Posted: July 17, 2018
Tagged: OAHistorian, Speakers Bureau, Teaching