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CLA Dean's Medalist Joseph Allen

A profile of Chinese studies scholar Joseph Allen
April 12, 2016

If a teacher is to be judged on his students’ merits, then Professor Joseph R. Allen, chair of the Department of Asian Languages & Literatures has much to be proud of. “In the current generation of students, there will be many with Chinese skills superior to mine, and that’s great. We’re training the best of the best.”

As founding chair of the Department of Asian Languages & Literatures (ALL), Allen sees the fact that his students will supersede him as a natural progression, something he anticipated when first establishing the department, as well as a reflection of the broad cultural, economic, and political changes that have impacted his field throughout his career.

Unlike students today who are competing in an international market where China is a major player, when Allen became interested in Chinese studies, “I had no good reason to go into it. When I was first in graduate school, we couldn’t even go to China.”

He credits an exceptional mentor for fostering his interests and his academic training and as he was finishing his graduate studies, things began to change; China opened up and by the time he was a young professor, Allen was leading tours there for the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. The experiences were illuminating, but his language proficiency made him stand out.

“I think creativity in leadership is absolutely essential:
to be able to think innovatively, coming up with different—
unexpected, new—solutions. Give me a problem and I
want to find the solution. It’s part engineering and it’s
part creativity. Some attempts have failed but some
have been huge successes.”

“When I was first going to China in the ‘80s, it was seen as exotic that someone with green eyes could speak Chinese. Now I go up and speak Chinese to people and it’s nothing, it’s common. I think it’s a good change, and it’s certainly a very different world from my days as a student.”

Allen notes how the shifting political tides opened up new avenues of inquiry for his research. He traced his interest in classical poetics into the modern era, not only translating and researching modern and contemporary poetry, but also the intersection of the two, such as in “From Literature to Lingerie: Chinese Classical Poetry in Taiwan Popular Culture,”  and “Nana’s Textbook: Building a National Literature in Chinese Middle School.” He also moved from poetic language on to other cultural codes, such as urban space in “Taipei Park: Signs of Occupation” and photography in “Picturing Gentlemen: Japanese Portrait Photography in Colonial Taiwan.”

But leadership in times of political and academic change is not necessarily easy. Recruited to start the department in 2000, he confesses that the early years were challenging, but calls it, “The best move I ever made.”

Much like the mentor who deeply influenced his life, Allen was able to find and nurture young talent. “Part of our job was to hire a whole new department of mostly young, new PhDs and these people were doing research that was very different from how I was trained. Their work was exciting and changed my own thoughts about research.”

From those early days ALL has grown into a very successful department by any standard. It currently teaches six languages and has 300 majors and minors; 3,000 enrollments a year; a diverse faculty that is highly recognized (including two McKnight Land-Grant professorships); and regional dominance in its language programs, as led by the Chinese Flagship, a rigorous, federally-funded program that trains students to attain the highest professional level of Chinese language.

Of Allen’s many accomplishments—including diverse publications, national research awards, and winning the 2014 Joseph Levenson Book Award for Taipei: City of Displacement—the establishment of the University’s Chinese Flagship is a major highlight. The Flagship is only one of 12 in the country and is quickly becoming a national leader; there are currently 35 students in the ambitious program, with that number expected to rise to 80 in four years.

“We’re training the most elite young professionals who will be working in China,” he says. “They come from all over the university: scientists, engineers, social scientists, artists, students in the humanities, and business majors. It’s been very exciting for me to have the chance to interact with them, as an administrator and as a teacher. They’re really fabulous students.”

Given his enthusiasm for his field, his students and the department, it is perhaps surprising that Allen will be retiring at the end of this academic year. But with 11 years at the head of ALL (he took a break as chair from 2009-2012) and after 16 years of commuting to and from St. Louis, Missouri, he is ready to spend more time with his family and go back to the creative, poetic work that drew him into Chinese studies as a young man.

He also feels ready to turn over the reins to those he helped mentor. “I look forward to this younger leadership bringing in their creativity and taking the department to a new level—I don’t even know what that level is—but it’s the level that I can’t do. It’s their job and it will be exciting to see them take the department to that next stage.”