Adventures at Sichuan University: The OAH China Residency Program
With support from the OAH and the American History Research Association of China, I had the good fortune to spend a week at Sichuan University in Chengdu in June, lecturing on “Social Responses to U.S. Industrialization.” 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.
Correspondence with Sichuan University Professors Zujie Yuan and Yu Wang had given me a sense of grad students and faculty areas of interest and the level of English fluency I should expect. They said previous OAH workshops had divided each day by lecturing all morning and then discussing the key topics all afternoon, and expected I would do the same thing. 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. 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.
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 (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, Mae Ngai, Daniel Rodgers, and yours truly; primary sources included such documents (or excerpts) as the Omaha Platform, the Knights of Labor Constitution, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, Jane Addams’s Democracy and Social Ethics, W. E. B. Du Bois’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.
There were several highlights in our conversations as the week went on. 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 we got to F. W. Taylor describing his encounter with the “mentally sluggish” Schmidt (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. But perhaps the sources that generated the liveliest discussion concerned white, native-born Americans’ response to Asians in their midst. After a lecture on the 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 naturalization, as reflected in the Wong Kim Ark and Thind cases. We analyzed those 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, discussing 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 and enriched our time in Chengdu by sharing with us in informal conversations their own historical research and writing and their sense of life and work in China. At the end of the week I returned to the United States inspired and energized, 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 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.