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Professor Pauline Yu: Enriching Life and Work with the Skills of the Humanities

Professor Pauline Yu is president of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), a federation of humanities-focused organizations which in 2013, collaborated with The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation to launch fellowships in Buddhist Studies. The foundation’s three-year grant (2014–16) of US$6.7 million empowers the ACLS to help selected scholars export its vision of a global network of Buddhist scholarship. In 2014, Prof. Yu was appointed to the foundation’s board of directors, and at a symposium hosted by the University of British Columbia in July this year, she met the first-generation fellows of the Program in Buddhist Studies.“The two full days of probing and spirited discussion among the fellows and a group of senior faculty advisers were truly inspiring. I’m certain that the young scholars’ intelligence and energy will invigorate the field for decades to come,” she said. Equally striking for her was the extraordinary diversity of subject matter

and methodologies, from Northern Wei (386–535) female patrons to the social activities of Japanese nuns in the early modern period. “Our projects range from highly focused and philologically demanding textual studies to studies informed by historical, comparative, or cross-cultural approaches,” she continued. “The interdisciplinary impulse and impact are impressive. It also seems to me that the field of Buddhist Studies is unusually rich in digital resources.”

Professor Pauline Yu. From vimeo.com

Prof. Yu is confident that interest in Buddhist Studies spans the globe, and this is certainly the case in the UK. From 2010–11, I was studying for a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). That single year was formative and immensely enjoyable, and made me a keen student in the power of constructing history and narrative. Of course, I was inevitably challenged regarding the practical use of mastering Buddhist history or philosophy (though not as often as one would think, since everyone else at SOAS does something similarly quirky). It is the constant challenge posed to anyone who chooses the humanities or the arts: a choice to enrich the life of the mind at the expense of impoverishing career prospects.

This supposed dilemma became ever-louder background noise during my time as a university student, especially after the global financial crisis of 2007–08. I was in the middle of my undergraduate studies in religion and theology at the time. It was three years after the financial crisis, at around the same time I was at SOAS, that I read up on student debt and realized how it was crippling so many students and graduates in the US and other countries. New statistics from May this year­­ have engendered increasingly anxious scrutiny of the financial or professional “worth” of degrees, with sobering statistics appearing in The Wall Street Journal: “Almost 71% of bachelor’s degree recipients will graduate with a student loan, compared with less than half two decades ago and about 64% 10 years ago,” it warned in a report. This is a crushing prospect for graduates even in “lucrative” degrees like the STEM subjects, and even holders of MBAs and finance degrees are outstripping demand. In this sense, humanities graduates are actually the rarity, with unique value propositions and skills that employers cannot find elsewhere.

Prof. Yu is skeptical about the narrative of a “useless” arts qualification in any case. “I understand that uncertain times lead both parents and students to seek what they think will provide security. But I think we have to keep pointing out that there’s a difference between short-term gain and long-term benefit. A liberal arts education will provide more breadth, enable more intellectual open-mindedness and flexibility, and inspire more creativity than an education treated as mere workforce training,” she offered.

“And there are studies that show how well humanities majors do economically, over the long term, compared to students in many other fields: we should do more with this kind of data. We have to keep making the point that education is for life, not for a career. Courses in the humanities provide you with the habits of mind that will serve in almost any context: the ability to communicate, to analyse, to interpret, to evaluate, and to empathize. Human beings confront on a daily basis the questions that literature, philosophy, and religions have always explored: basic questions about the meaning of existence and how one can lead a good life,” she insisted.  

She admitted that her own interest in scholarship was not motivated by career goals. “Going into academe was not a career decision, so you can see how different the mind-set of my generation was! I went to graduate school because I liked being a student, and that was the most obvious way to keep being one. I had no intention of being a professor, but while in school I discovered that research and teaching could be a job, and I thought that was pretty wonderful.” 

The board of the American Council of Learned Societies. From acls.org

Her own degree was on classical Chinese poetry, particularly on the work of the Tang-era man of letters Wang Wei (699–759). “When I finished my degree I found that there was only one position in the country in my field and I didn’t get it.  Fortunately, however, I managed to get a job in a broad humanities program in a large public university. From there I eventually made my way back into my area of specialization and an eminent graduate program, but I have always been grateful for the experience I gained teaching those undergraduate survey courses in both Western and Chinese humanities.”

Good luck, hard work, and talent will always be factors in the future of any graduate, not just those who read History or Religious Studies. Prof. Yu’s advice is to keep in mind that even as the necessity of hard work is an attitude everyone can share, good luck is not as rare a resource as one might expect. “Remember the names of successful people who learned from or were educated in the humanities. Steve Jobs famously credited his drive for elegance in product design to a college course he took in Chinese calligraphy. The new prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has a BA in Literature from McGill University. It’s important to keep reminding others about the backgrounds of such leaders: there are more than you might expect, and many will readily attest to the value of what they studied.”

The third year of the Ho foundation’s ongoing Program in Buddhist Studies will feature a new cohort of foundation fellows, and Prof. Yu has high hopes for them as well. “Every project and every scholar supported by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies contributes to building a community of scholarship with worldwide reach and impact,” she stressed proudly. “From translations and interpretations of classic Buddhist texts to sociological analyses of contemporary expressions of Buddhist traditions, our fellows advance the field of Buddhist Studies and enrich a host of other disciplines as well.”

True to her ideal of recasting the arts as a wise choice for the student seeking a promising career as well as an enriched life, the ACLS prepares programs that address the milestones of a typical scholar’s career—from completing the doctoral dissertation and a post-doctoral residency to research and writing, to collaboration on international projects. “I’m also pleased with the scope of the programs we now conduct,” she continued. “We also have a competition for seeding new faculty positions. Sustaining this range of programs is our top priority. I should note that our competitions for fellowships and grants develop through conversations with scholars. In designing programs, we listen to our colleagues carefully so that we can meet real needs.”

Again she acknowledged that the landscape has shifted since her student days. “There’s no question that the environment in almost every field of human endeavor, not just in university teaching and scholarship, is becoming more competitive. But I don’t think there’s a magic formula for getting ahead,” she told me. “Obviously it’s important to spend the time it takes to learn something very well, and with the utmost integrity. But I also think scholars should seek to expand their repertoire and horizons, to explore other areas, to cross boundaries. Our advisers counseled the dissertation fellows to venture out of narrow national and linguistic confines as much as possible. I think scholars in the field of Buddhist Studies are exceptionally broadly prepared and very able to do that.”

She advises humanities scholars to always treasure the ability to situate what they know best in a larger context, and to speak to different audiences. “Sharing your work with colleagues is one easy way of testing and extending your reach, and teaching, obviously, is the other. Being able to inspire young undergraduates is terrific training for speaking to a larger public, and expanding that audience is not only good for one’s career, but for the field, and the humanities, as a whole.”

Far from being in danger of extinction (despite challenges in public funding and student enrolment), the future of humanistic inquiry is more vital than ever. To study and teach the humanities is not only a public service: it is an exercise in self-exploration and understanding. For Prof. Yu, Buddhism, with its experiential approach to seeking the truth, is very much a part of the humanities enterprise.

“The lessons taught by the study of history are legion. And, of course, studies in the humanities are crucial to understanding the importance, value, and scale of human diversity. Being exposed to how others, in different times and places, have grappled with these issues cannot but assist us in dealing with our own.”

See more

Congratulations, Class of 2015. You’re the Most Indebted Ever (For Now) (The Wall Street Journal)
The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies (ACLS)
Rediscovering the Women of Northern Wei with Stephanie Balkwill (Buddhistdoor Global)

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