Prof Spotlight: Chang discusses literature, love, sacrifice

Courtesy of Heesok Chang

This week, we have the pleasure of getting to know English Professor Heesok Chang over email. Aside from looking snazzy in his suit vest and glasses, he is part of the English, Media Studies and Urban Studies departments and loves British Literature.

The Miscellany News: How did you first become interested in English Literature?

Heesok Chang: I’ll answer the “how” as a “when”—more specifically, with an anecdote about when I declared my major.

My favorite book about the profession is John Williams’s campus novel “Stoner,” set in early 20th-century rural Missouri. There is a scene early on in which the protagonist William Stoner must tell his parents, who have sent him to university to study Agriculture so he can rescue their livelihood from ever-worsening drought, that he won’t be returning to the farm with them. It’s graduation day. He must also confess that he abandoned his applied science courses sophomore year to take, of all things, literature classes and, moreover, that he intends to pursue a Masters in English. The reaction of his mother and father—their stoic disappointment, emotional restraint, and, after several awkward moments of silence, taciturn approval (the father says something like, okay, I don’t know anything about any of this, but if you want to stay here and study books, that’s what you should do)—is heartbreaking.

This scene resonated with me. My parents are academics, so the circumstances are very different. There was never any question I would be going to college. But as the eldest child of first-generation Korean immigrants, my eventual decision to major in English unnerved them. My father, who is a mathematician, knew I had no facility for his gift, nor for any of the other STEM disciplines—but English Literature? Stoner is not surprised by his parents’ surprise. But I was taken aback by my own parents’ reaction. I pressed them on it. My father eventually said what Stoner’s father said (okay, go ahead), but before that he confessed their concern. I told them I thought I was pretty good at English Lit. No, it’s not that they doubted my ability; rather they were skeptical about how I’d be received. Stoner’s parents must be thinking along the same lines: how will this farm boy make out on this obscure path he’s chosen for himself. My parents were thinking about race, not class, but the perception of disadvantage is parallel.

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to answer your question in this way. Perhaps to suggest that there is no avowal of interest, no decision to go this way rather than that way that does not involve, at least for some, the bewilderment, love and sacrifice of others. And this other, larger story interests me more than the story about self-discovery.

The Misc: What kind of classes do you teach? Do you have a favorite one?

Chang: I’ve very much enjoyed teaching a section of ENGL 170 called “Tools for Reading.” In a seminar in Toronto years ago, Jacques Derrida began a class by saying “What is reading? Less than ever do I know what reading is.” I had no idea what he meant at the time. And I’m still not sure I’m understanding the enigma of reading in the way he understood it. But certainly I find the operation of reading to be more mysterious than ever. One way I’d describe that mystery is in terms of a wideawake disavowal along the lines of: “I know perfectly well these are just words on paper and yet, somehow, as my eyes pass over them, I am transported.” No one has ever, to my knowledge, fully explained this act of transference; no one has sufficiently accounted for the virtual as something other than the fictional, the false, the simulacrum, and so forth, that is, as a kind of reality in its own right. Sorry, this is a long-winded way of telling you that my favorite class—recently—has been the class on the techniques of storytelling. I plan to develop its themes in a course I’m teaching next year called “Storyworlds.” It will be a kind of primer on narrative theory and practice and of interest to anyone who wants to tell their story (or others’) in various media forms.

The Misc: Are you currently working on any research project?

Chang: Yes, I have several pots on the stove. I’ll mention the one that’s closest to boil: a book chapter on how the New York world fairs prepared the way for Montreal’s magnificent Expo 67. It comes out of a seminar I periodically co-teach with Lisa Brawley called “The City in Fragments” (another favorite class!) I argue that every world’s fair promises the future, not only the advent of new technologies, gadgets and commodities, but the transformation of daily life in the form of remade cities. Revisiting Walter Benjamin’s claim that the intoxicating utopian energies of yesterday’s modernity may be retrieved from its melancholic ruins, I probe the grounds of Flushing Meadows to question the legacy of New York’s world fairs, with a particular focus on how Expo ’67 responded to those legacies. Did they announce the home invasion of fantastic technologies or simply the coming of more world fairs? Did they help us imagine a repaired world or did they mortify the city in the image of the exhibition itself? The answers were the promise of how Expo planners considered daily life might be remade in the reimagined city of Montreal.

The Misc: If you could give students one piece of advice, what would it be?

Chang: I’d say: “Get outside!” in multiple senses. Most obviously, in the sense of get outside the gates. I like very much the recasting of “field work” as “community-engaged learning.” Getting outside the Vassar bubble also entails breaking the habit of administrative consolation. Don’t look—or don’t only look—to the college to assuage your grievances and make you feel at home. On that point I would say get outside also means inhabit the stance of the exile and the emigré, the drifter and the dropout all—those who, whatever their material conditions (which are of course paramount), are not at home where they happen to live. I don’t mean do this as an experiment in empathy, but as a prescription, a lens, for critique and empowerment. Edward Said was fond of citing St Jerome who says the strong person is at home one place in the world, the stronger person at home everywhere and the strongest at home nowhere. Last but not least of all, I mean get outside yourself. I fear we are failing those students who want pursue a course of study in which they encounter only themselves. James Wood says that reading makes us better noticers. Whatever reading is, I think that’s true. Get outside, then, in the sense of look outwards (not only and always inwards), cultivate an eye for the bristly particularity of the external and of the external as it greets us as text, be this on our screens or lovingly retrieved from the stacks. For there is nothing outside of that outside that is the world.

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