Revamping Research: Celebrating the Career of Dr. Joseph R. Allen
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The Department of Asian Languages and Literatures (ALL) at the University of Minnesota is flourishing, due in no small part to the diligence and determination of Prof. Emeritus Joseph R. Allen. "The department is in great shape," Allen says. "Enrollments are strong across almost all our classes, the new Arabic program is doing very well, we have two McKnight Land-grant Professors in the department, our graduate students have been very successful finding positions … I could go on." He founded the department in 2000, and he has served as the department's chair in 2000–2008 and 2013–2016. Though Allen has led an impressive career, he remains humble and gives plenty of credit to those who helped him along the way.
Allen laughs as he recalls stumbling upon his field during his time as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. "I needed a liberal arts class, and the only thing that fit my schedule was Chinese poetry," he explained. "I knew nothing about it; I walked into it absolutely blind." He ended up loving the class. In fact, Allen credits his professor, a young PhD named C.H. Wang, for stoking his interest in the Chinese language. After earning his undergraduate degree in elementary education, he packed up his bags and followed Wang to the University of Washington in Seattle to pursue a PhD in classical Chinese literature.
The next stage of Allen's career path was fairly straightforward. PhD in hand, he landed a position at Washington University in St. Louis, which remained his academic home for about 15 years. He recalls that it was a very rewarding job, but that he grew hungry for something new. "When you hit the middle of your career, you can do two things," he explained. "You can just plateau and cruise, or you can run up against a wall of some sort and take on some sort of challenge or change. Fortunately for me, the challenge I took on was putting together the ALL department at the University of Minnesota. Coming to Minnesota was the best decision I ever made."
Allen is a firm believer in the value of research and has ensured that it plays a substantial role in the ALL department. "Research creates knowledge, and it is something that keeps you intellectually alive," he says. "When research and teaching come together, it can bring a classroom to life. It makes you a better teacher, and it can even make you a better person." One of his more recent and significant research activities was a trip to the Shanghai Library in 2011, where he made a remarkable discovery. "It was complete happenstance that I encountered the literature textbook of a middle school student from Shanghai in the 1940s," he laughed. "It was full of everything she had written: all of the marginalia, all of the doodling, even an exam paper—It was very rare." It was this discovery that brought to life the publication of Allen's essay "Nana's Textbook: Building a National Literature in Chinese Middle School," which was published in 2015.
He cannot emphasize strongly enough that his travels and discoveries would not have been possible without grant funding. Unlike research in the sciences, Allen argues, a relatively small amount of money can go a long way for research in the humanities—but that even modest funding can be hard to come by. Allen demonstrates his confidence in ALL's research faculty by establishing a fund devoted to making research more accessible for them. "The goal is to simply have money available," he said. "There won't be any national or University-wide competitions for it. It will just be money dedicated to the faculty here who are all good enough to simply get it."
Allen has handed over the departmental reins to new chair Christine Marran, a trusted colleague whom he praises for her great ideas and her work in ecocriticism and gender studies. Marran is motivated and excited about her new responsibilities, and she understands that she has big shoes to fill. "What I have always admired most about [Allen] is his ability to be such a prolific and interesting writer, while running a department at the same time," she explained. "His productivity is impressive and inspiring."
Though Allen is officially retired, he still volunteers much of his time as the director of the University’s Chinese Flagship program. He enjoys spending his newly-attained free time with family, working in his garden, biking the hills of Missouri, and continuing his research, but he also misses the role he once played in ALL. He has enjoyed being at the front lines of this University for sixteen years, but he knew that it was the right time to step down. "There are two times to get out of town," he says. "One time is when things are falling apart, and the other is when things are going right. I'm retiring because right now things are going right."