James Miller on the Humanities in China during COVID-19

Duke Kunshan University Humanities Research Center’s Online Transition During Covid-19

In this interview by CHCI Events and Membership Manager, Bill Warner, James Miller, Co-Director of the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu, China, discusses the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the humanities center's events and programing.

Bill Warner: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about the experiences and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic at Duke Kunshan University Humanities Research Center. Could you please begin just by telling us a bit about the Center: when it was founded, where it is located, who it serves?

James Miller: Absolutely! And thank you for reaching out during these difficult times. As a basic introduction, the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) was inaugurated in September 2018 as a platform for promoting arts and humanities research at Duke University’s new joint-venture university in Kunshan, Jiangsu, China, just outside Shanghai. The center has two co-directors: myself, based at DKU, and Carlos Rojas, at Duke. The Center in Jiangsu operates in close partnership with Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute in North Carolina.

When we began operations at DKU, we had only 21 faculty and 250 students in the whole of the undergraduate program, which itself began operations at the same time in 2018. We have been adding more than an equivalent number of students and faculty each year with the hope to have some 900 students and 90 faculty in our undergraduate program by this September.

BW: That's a fantastic rate of growth. Congratulations. What sort of programing has the humanities center created in these first couple of years?

JM: In the fall of last year we put out a call for proposals in order to start three new humanities labs in the spring semester of 2020, and, from the responses, eventually we decided to create labs focused on Freedom, on Third Space, and on Health Humanities. Our plan had been to launch events for these labs in January and February this year, but that plan was disrupted by the spread of COVID-19 in China, the closure of the campus, and the instructions that student and faculty should return to their homes. Approximately one-third of our students, and half of our faculty, left China and scattered throughout the world.

BW: What was the response by Duke?

JM: Duke University immediately stepped up to the plate and enacted a plan to relocate international faculty to Durham, NC, and many of us decamped to a hotel just outside of Duke’s East Campus as a sort of faculty-in-exile. There was a strong collective spirit and a sense of camaraderie among those of us who occupied many of the hotel’s studio suites as we worked with Duke’s Center for Learning Innovation to retool our classes for online learning.

BW: And what about the new humanities center itself? What was the initial response?

JM: Well, the situation presented DKU’s Humanities Research Center with both a challenge and some opportunities. The challenge would be to continue its events and launch its labs online, and to demonstrate that humanities research could continue to be a key strength of this new university even in a virtual environment. The opportunities were twofold: firstly to take advantage of our connection to Duke University to develop even stronger relationships with Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute, and secondly use this enforced Zoomification of our center to launch new initiatives in Digital Humanities.

We could not have done any of this without the wonderful assistance of the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, who offered a shared office, free coffee and moral, logistical and intellectual support to me and my lab manager, the husband of a senior administrator at DKU who had also relocated to Durham.

BW: So, while you and the Center were working to launch these three labs via virtual fora, did any of the programs or events change, or get added to, in order to deal directly with the pandemic?

JM: Two COVID-19 events and activities stand out. The first was a panel on the human, social and political implications of the coronavirus, which DKU jointly organized with Duke. Faculty from both campuses participated in this event that had both an online and face-to-face element. Some 200 people attended the event online, and we are now in the middle of publishing a book based on papers given at this event. The second is a COVID-19 Memory Archival Project created by Benjamin Bacon and Vivian Xu, two professors of digital media. This project runs on the ARCGIS StoryMap platform, and currently features the work of eleven students as well as that of Professor Bacon and Xu. The StoryMap platform is easy to use and offers a rich multimedia experience to document and exhibit the experiences of our students living through the COVID-19 outbreak. The project attracted the attention of our Chinese students who wrote movingly about their experiences of quarantine, their reaction to what was going on in Wuhan, and offered insight into the social media world that mediated their access to information and thinking about the virus.

BW: The archive sounds particularly poignant. In the creation of these new projects and efforts to transition programs to digital form, did the Center need to cancel any initiatives?

JM: The main event that we had to postpone was our Undergraduate Humanities Research Conference on the theme of Hum/Animal. Rather than hold this online, we decided to postpone it until we can have it on campus. As China has now begun to reopen, we have officially announced that the conference will take place on campus from September 18-20. We hope that China’s early transition through the virus compared to the USA will allow on campus programming to resume in Kunshan in the fall, even while this may still be difficult on the Duke campus in Durham.

BW: I am sure we are all hoping for a quick and safe return to our work. Among all of these challenges, I am wondering if you have found any benefits that came from being forced to rethink programs or transition them to other forms.

JM: One good thing to have come from this transition to online programming and research, is that professors across the world seem quite receptive to giving one hour Zoom webinars, or participating in online conversations. Although the borders are closed, paradoxically it seems that I have organized more international events than before, including a series of conversations on interdisciplinarity with Simon Goldhill from Cambridge, Evan Thompson from the University of British Columbia, Thomas Bruhn from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, and Ed Turner, Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton.

BW: That does strike me as a sort of paradox as well, but it is wonderful to hear how people have been supporting one another and diverse programs through these times. As a last question, do you think that your conception of the humanities has changed at all during this crisis, or do you have thoughts about the place of the humanities in the world during crisis?

JM: My final reflection as a humanist, is that no matter how good the technology is, after being involved in online teaching and programming for two months now, now more than ever do students, employees, faculty and researchers crave connection. If every Zoom meeting is a work meeting, then your entire social experience under quarantine will only be a work experience. I find it important to participate in and organize social activities over Zoom to enable the deeper web of human connections to be sustained during this difficult period.