Humanitas: Centering East Asian studies, reveling in Parisian cathedrals

In the latest Humanitas, we explore gothic cathedrals, celebrate a barrier-shattering Yale scholar, and remember a Hollywood stuntman’s civil rights legacy.
Bookcover showing agothic cathedral.

R. Howard Bloch’s new book, “Paris and Her Cathedrals.”

In the latest edition of Humanitas, a column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, we catch up with a Yale scholar who was recently elected to a leadership role at the Modern Language Association;  celebrate a major honor for The Yale Review; bask in the glory of the Gothic cathedrals of northern France; remember the civil rights legacy of one of Hollywood’s first Black stuntmen; and glean insights from a Yale dean on the link between consumer capitalism and religion in the United States — and why she believes you can explain any religious concept through the lens of Oprah Winfrey’s celebrity.

For more, visit an archive of all arts and humanities coverage at Yale News.

Moving East Asian studies from academia’s ‘margins’

In her research and teaching, Yale professor Tina Lu focuses on Chinese literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, a field that she says is too often regarded as “extraordinarily niche” in American universities. But a new leadership opportunity for Lu with the Modern Language Association (MLA) suggests that these outdated notions are fading.

In December, Lu, the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), was elected as MLA’s second vice president. She’ll serve in that role for one year, after which she will spend a year as the group’s vice president. Then, in January 2025, she will begin a one-year term as its president. Founded in 1883, the MLA and its more than 20,000 members from more than 100 countries work to strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature.

Tina Lu
Tina Lu

In a personal way, I’m proud and grateful that the membership of the MLA is making a statement about how the study of East Asia and of China is not marginal to its work, but central,” Lu said.

In her new role, Lu says she is eager to include even more Asianists into leadership roles and to encourage her colleagues in the teaching of languages and literature to be part of MLA’s work. In particular, she feels strongly about making space for teachers of East Asian languages.

The pandemic era, she says, has highlighted the importance of supporting teachers. An era marked by a resurgence in Asian hate, increased demands on family members, and interruptions of normal schooling, she said, has offered a stark reminder that scholars and teachers are not “disembodied brains” but rather real people with human ties and obligations.

But Lu regards these challenges as not just hurdles, but as “spurs to critical thinking and imagination.”

Even as I have spent decades studying materials that might seem obscure to others, I’ve always been motivated by a conviction that as humanists, scholars, and teachers, we’re all tied by deep concerns — fundamentally, our desire to listen to other human beings, meeting them in their own languages, whether they live in the past or the present,” said Lu, who joined the Yale faculty in 2008 and has been head of Pauli Murray College since 2017. 

In the last few years — for reasons Yalies will understand — I’ve been inspired by something the jurist and writer Pauli Murray once wrote, ‘When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them,’” Lu said. “I want to be quick to say that I haven’t felt excluded — but I can’t wait to start working with my new big circle and am eager to help draw as large a circle as I can.”

National honors for The Yale Review

The Yale Review (TYR), the storied literary magazine that in recent years has been reimagined for the digital age, last week was named a finalist for The American Society of Magazine Editors’ (ASME) annual award for fiction. The National Magazine Award is considered the top honor in the magazine industry.

TYR was recognized for “The Front House,” by Cord Jefferson, “Regular Visitors,” by Monica Ferrell, and “The Postman,” by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu.

Yale Review fall 2022 cover

It’s the second consecutive year that the Yale quarterly was named a finalist for an ASME award; last year it was recognized in the Essays & Criticism category for “The Wrong Daddy” by Jeremy Atherton Lin. Prior to last year The Yale Review, which for more than two centuries has published works by some of the most celebrated writers and poets of their times, had never been a finalist, said editor Meghan O’Rourke ’97.

The awards put us up against every other magazine in the country, including The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker — so we are extremely excited by this recognition,” she said. “We are honored that these writers lent their exceptional talents to our pages.”

The Paris Review received the top award for fiction.

Religion, consumer capitalism, and Oprah

Growing up in a Wisconsin household and community that were, as she describes them, vestiges of the American socialist movement, Kathryn Lofton was drawn early to questions of what is needed to change peoples’ consumer, moral, and political decision-making, she recently told the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s “Key Conversations” podcast.

For her, the pursuit of these questions took form in the study of religion in the United States. In her scholarship and teaching, Lofton, who is dean of humanities in the FAS and also FAS’s interim dean, has examined the relationship between religion and consumer capitalism, explored the history of Protestant modernism and fundamentalism, and probed how the history of religion in America interacts with popular culture, corporations, race, and gender.

In the podcast, Lofton discusses how her experience as a “red diaper baby” shaped her intellectual journey, why so many religious concepts can be explained through Oprah Winfrey’s celebrity, and how she encourages free and meaningful classroom debate at a time when it can seem tempting to avoid difficult conversations.

The fact that I say something you disagree with is only the beginning of the conversation,” said Lofton, the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies and professor of history and divinity. “What we need are rituals of exchange that create the possibility of hearing the full range of speech acts — not only as rational conveyances of thought but also as feeling words.”

A new glimpse of Parisian cathedrals — from every angle

For decades, Yale’s R. Howard Bloch has studied and visited the Gothic cathedrals of northern France. Along the way, he has introduced these spectacular monuments to generations of students, both in his classroom and during tours of the cathedrals themselves. But he has long been bothered by the lack of a suitable compendium to the cathedrals — something more than what you’d find in a guidebook but more accessible than a scholarly tome.

With his new book, “Paris and Her Cathedrals” (W.W. Norton, 2023), he aims to fill that gap, offering something akin to “a walk around these high churches” to give a better sense for what it feels like to be there.

I attempt to capture some of the wonder that we experience when standing before or inside the Gothic cathedrals of northern France,” said Bloch, Sterling Professor of French and Humanities in the FAS.

He also explores how the cathedrals came to be, how they changed the world around them, how they have endured, and what they mean today. Specifically, he focuses on six famed cathedrals — Saint-Denis, Notre-Dame, Chartres, Sainte-Chapelle, Amiens, and Reims — revealing their history, mythology, and the splendor of their architectural detail.

In a review, Publishers Weekly lauded Bloch’s “infectious enthusiasm and vivid descriptions,” adding,  “Throughout, Bloch evokes a sense of what has been lost to fire, storms, war, and time, including the ‘sound, like angels, of a solo singer or choir’ that once reverberated through these cathedrals.”

Bookcover Big Man.

Telling the ‘Big Man’s’ story

The first time Yale’s Tim Shea heard Willie Harris share his life story was while listening on his car radio to a segment of NPR’s StoryCorps in 2016. Hearing the passion and conviction in Harris’s voice, Shea felt that more people should know about his experiences.

Harris’s story was an improbable one. Growing up in rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, he had endured pervasive racism and prejudice, only to find a different kind of discrimination when he arrived in Hollywood to work as one of the film industry’s first Black stuntmen. Over the next few decades, in addition to his work in Hollywood (including in Clint Eastwood’s iconic 1971 film “Dirty Harry”), Harris fought racist hiring practices that barred Black stuntmen and stuntwomen from working in the film industry, helping to create the Black Stuntmen’s Association, and eventually helped many of his contemporaries become top performers.

Soon after hearing the radio broadcast in 2016, Shea, who is a senior learning experience manager at the Yale School of Management (SOM), found Harris’s phone number and called him at his home in Las Vegas. He told Harris that he wanted to share his story, and over the next few years the two talked dozens of times. The book that emerged from those conversations, “Big Man: An Incredible Journey from Mississippi to Hollywood,” captures Harris’s journey from the Mississippi cotton fields to his civil rights advocacy. It was co-authored by Shea and Harris, who died in November 2021.

My hope for Willie's legacy is that he is remembered as a person who never gave up.” said Shea. “He is just a really great example for all of us to just say ‘I see something that needs to be done and I'm going to do it.’”

Shea will discuss the book and Harris’s civil rights legacy during an event at SOM on March 7. The event will also feature a community conversation about race moderated by Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale, one of the nation’s leading urban ethnographers. Anderson is author of several award-winning books, including most recently “Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life.” Learn more about the event.

Comic returns for a night of traditional Japanese storytelling

Comic Shinoharu Tatekawa ’99 will perform on campus on March 30, but don’t expect a typical standup set. As a master of rakugo, a traditional genre of Japanese comedic storytelling, Shinoharu will remain seated on a cushion at center stage.

His performance will be part of an evening of traditional Japanese storytelling sponsored by the Council on East Asian Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The event, which will take place at 6 p.m. in the auditorium at 53 Wall St., features performances of rakugo and rokyoku, a genre of traditional Japanese narrative singing. In addition to Shinoharu, Tamagawa Nanafuku, Irifunetei Sentatsu and Hirosawa Mifune will also perform.

Rakugo performers share complex comedic stories involving two or more characters while seated and often with a folding fan or a hand towel as the only props. In contrast, rokyoku often involves sad tales delivered in a sing-song voice accompanied by a three-stringed shamisen.

After graduating from Yale, Shinoharu worked in a corporate setting for three years before he decided to pursue a career in rakugo.

I never thought that I would be a rakugo performer during my Yale days,” he said. “I didn't even know what rakugo was back then. I fell in love with this genre of comedy after I returned to Japan and decided to quit my job to become an apprentice.”

Following 17 years of training, he became a “shin-uchi,” or master-rank rakugo performer. “After my apprentice years, I am starting to appreciate what I learned here at Yale: to question, to challenge, to enjoy making mistakes,” he said.

The audience can expect two distinct varieties of performance, Shinoharu said. “Rakugo and rokyoku are different from each other, and different from the types of comedy you have in the U.S.,” he said. “I won’t explain too much now. All I can say is, it’s live, and we’re all excited to share that moment with you!”

Faculty books win MacMillan Center prizes

Two Yale faculty members — Susan Rose-Ackerman and Lucas Rambo Bender — have received international book prizes from the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, a Yale hub for promoting teaching and research on all aspects of global affairs, societies, and cultures worldwide.

Rose-Ackerman, the Henry R. Luce Professor Emeritus of Law and Political Science, received the center’s Gustav Ranis International Book Prize for best book for “Democracy and Executive Power: Policymaking Accountability in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France” (Yale University Press, 2021). Bender, assistant professor of East Asian languages and literatures in the FAS, was awarded the Gaddis Smith International Book Prize for best first book by a Yale ladder faculty member for “Du Fu Transforms: Tradition and Ethics Amid Societal Collapse” (Harvard University Press, 2021). The awards are named for two former directors of The MacMillan Center.

Written by Kevin Dennehy, Susan Gonzalez, Kevin Han, and Michael Cummings.

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