Since I entered graduate school, most of my scholarly research has been in areas of sinology with almost no practitioners in the West.* I have presented occasionally in the Far East, where there is a bigger “market” for these fields, but the trouble and expense to get there makes it hard to do often. I founded and ran an annual conference for some years in the U.S. where the few of us could meet and present our research, but it eventually ran down as the senior members became less able to travel. Now the two most active of us who remain have tended to present papers once or twice a year at a general sinology conference. We’re heard there with welcome and great politeness, and non-specialists generally ask thoughtful (but non-specialist) questions. I think both my colleague and I have good reputations among those people, and we enjoy their company.
But all this is not enough. Neither of us is ever challenged by the audience in an intellectually productive way because there are never any specialists in the audience. Being challenged productively is the chief outcome that makes it worth presenting at a conference, and it is not happening.
I have to find some way to involve these people emotionally in my research questions — if they aren’t able to challenge me critically on my own expert ground, then I have to take my presentations into theirs. So I have taken the talk I’m supposed to be giving at the end of this week and wrenched its content around so that what I discuss is at every step something about which a literature specialist should have an opinion.
It’s fair to say that this community’s support of my work is what got me tenure, since if my department had sought truly expert opinions on my work in the U.S., almost the only people who could have written letters of evaluation would have been disqualified as past collaborators. And I generally try to present topics that are technically founded but of reasonable interest to a well-educated sinologist. I try to show clearly not only the question I am trying to answer but also its premises and context and the implications of the answers I propose. But, once more, none of that is enough to create relevance in the minds of people who are not trained in the technical groundwork of the field.
My college linguistics teacher, Robert Austerlitz (1923–94) used to offer training in what he called “linguistics in the service of literature” — meant to draw the interest of purely non-quantitative Humanists and, surely an emblem of weakness, to prove the relevance of his discipline to a hostile academic administration.
* Comparative-historical Chinese dialectology and classification; epigraphy and the history of the Chinese script; intellectual history of Chinese linguistics; medieval Chinese prosodic practice. Please see this “About Me” page for a bit more detail.