Centering the human experience

Centering the human experience

 Office of the Dean September 24, 2019

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu to lead UCI Humanities Center

Founded in 2014 as UCI Humanities Commons, the renamed UCI Humanities Center continues to empower faculty and graduate student research across the School of Humanities while bringing new focus to issues of public concern that humanities scholarship can help to illuminate. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, professor of Asian American studies, has recently taken up the directorship of the Humanities Center. Under Wu’s leadership, the center is launching a signature event series called Conversations That Matter. Taking up a theme each year, the conversations—among UCI faculty as well as outside speakers—consider the most pressing issues of our day. This year, the series theme is “Borders and Belonging.” It will kick off on October 8 with a panel discussion around the question, "Who Belongs? Who Decides?" The event also includes an open house of the Humanities Center’s physical space in Humanities Gateway.

Wu is the author of Dr. Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity (University of California Press, 2005) and Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era (Cornell University Press, 2013). She is currently working on a biography of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress. Here, Wu discusses her vision for the UCI Humanities Center.

How does it feel to be the new director of the UCI Humanities Center?

It's an incredible honor. Our previous director, Julia Lupton, has played such an incredible role in the school and university in enabling creative research projects. I felt like I could go to her and just say, "I'm thinking about this" and she'd find a way to help me do that work. I'm really attracted to that type of goal—of nurturing and supporting humanities research and teaching—and fostering intellectual communities.

When I think about the power of the center, all I have to do is think about how it has affected my own scholarship. Every year that I can think of, especially when I became chair of Asian American studies, the Humanities Center has supported me. When the Department of Asian American Studies celebrated its 25th anniversary, the center helped fund a series of events; when I finished an anthology on gender in the transpacific world, the center both provided funding for that book publication and also facilitated a gathering of some of the authors; and when I wanted to launch the UC consortium on the study of women's, gender, and sexuality histories in the Americas, the center helped fund me.

The center has been transformative to my career and has enriched my time here at UCI.

What are your hopes for the new UCI Humanities Center?

The overarching goals of the center are to spark knowledge, foster intellectual communities, and inspire conversations. We spark knowledge by supporting faculty and graduate student research; we foster intellectual communities by facilitating research clusters, scholarly collaborations and other activities that unite our scholars across disciplines; and we inspire conversations through our programming.

I'm really engaged by the idea of “conversations that matter.” I think it showcases the value of humanities research, thinking, and the questions that we pose and how they have an importance in our society. With that in mind, the center will host a signature-event series each year under the umbrella of “Conversations that Matter.” This year, our theme is “Borders and Belonging” because that theme resonates with some of the most important issues and moments taking place in 2020: immigration, the 2020 presidential election, the census and the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage. We launch the series on October 8th with our first event, titled “Who Belongs? Who Decides?”

Our programming is a chance for us to share the humanities method of analysis, substance analysis, and our capacity for storytelling with the broader public. Ultimately, we're not just creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake—we really want to have a public impact.

Why does the theme “Borders and Belonging” matter to you and what do you hope attendees take away from it?

I am an immigrant who has experienced marginalization. And, in my field of Asian American studies, so much has been shaped by both immigration flows and efforts to prevent immigration into the United States. Asian immigrants were the first people who were restricted from coming into the U.S., so I often talk about Asian immigrants as being the first undocumented migrants. Aside from that kind of personal and also intellectual connection, I see it everywhere in our society right now. I think about the children who are being put in cages, who are being separated from their families. I think about people who are fleeing wars and traumas and then they are in turn incarcerated. These are really important issues that we need to discuss collectively as a society. And here's a chance for the humanities to take the lead on these conversations.

I hope we can all collectively develop some tools for thinking about these issues—maybe they're intellectual tools, maybe they're emotional tools, maybe they're cultural tools. But we're facing a collective crisis. We need the language and the analytical concepts and the space to do some collective thinking and hopefully move towards some creative and empathetic responses.

This is what a university should be doing: equipping the next generation of leaders as well as our local community. We should serve as a beacon to help people address these really pressing questions.

Why is a humanities center the place for these types of conversations?

The humanities help us to imagine in other ways and not to assume that the solutions that are provided now are the only solutions possible. The humanities allow us to place human beings and human concerns at the center of our discussions. They mobilize our full capacities—our emotional and intellectual capacities—to be able to create something better than what we have.

Why is UCI a great place for these conversations?

UCI is located in one of the most populous counties in the United States. Orange County is an incredibly diverse county in terms of class, in terms of race, in terms of culture, and our student body really reflects that. UCI is an AANAPISI (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution) and an HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution). It also serves a number of students who are first in their families to attend college. So we're kind of a microcosm of California society and of the broader United States as well. We already have this incredible community that consists of diverse peoples and backgrounds, so we have an amazing opportunity to use that as a basis for saying this is how we might model a better society.

The center will kick off its series on Borders and Belonging on October 8th (information here). Follow #UCIConversationsThatMatter for the latest news and events from the center.

Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI