Interview with NYU Shanghai Provost, Joanna Waley-Cohen

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Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?

I’ve been teaching the history of China at NYU since 1992. From 2009 to 2012 I chaired the History Department, and I was also very involved in the original establishment of NYU Abu Dhabi – I designed the history curriculum, and I was involved in hiring the first three historians there. I’ve also twice taught Abu Dhabi’s January term in Shanghai, and have had a lot to do with Global Network University students. So, because of that and my professional interest in China, I was asked to be the founding Dean of Arts and Sciences here.

Why have you decided to study China, and what is your interest in China?

I decided when I was 18 that I would do something at university that I would never have the opportunity to do again. So I decided to learn Chinese. It was definitely a life changing experience. Then I had the opportunity 40 years ago to come to China for the first time. I spent a month here in 1973, and that was even more of a life-changing experience than learning Chinese. We took the train to China across Siberia. It took nine days to get here from London and we arrived during the waning years of the Cultural Revolution. It was definitely different from anything any of us had ever encountered. It certainly solidified my interest in China, although as a historian my interest in China is more in the longer ago past.

What part of China’s longer ago past are you most interested in?

Mostly the 17th and 18th century. The Qing Dynasty at its height. I find it interesting that it was really one of the great empires of the world in the 18th century. The world was getting increasingly connected, and one of my strongest interests is the connection between China and the outside world. Although simplifying it down to a duality of inner and outer is a bad way to talk about it.

I’m interested in trade, as well as artistic, scientific, and religious exchange. Things that happen at the low levels as well as the highest levels, and how they impact peoples’ lives in ways they don’t always notice. My graduate dissertation was on Chinese law in the 18th century, because I had been a lawyer before that. That is something I’m coming back to. My other academic interest is in Chinese food culture.

Do you do a lot of comparing of China as it was historically and China as it is now?

Not very much. It’s easy to say, “Oh, this is just the same as two hundred years ago”, but the context is always so different. You can sometimes see echoes or a foreshadowing of something, but I think it’s a dangerous thing to compare the past and present too much, because it suggests that nothing changes. Things do change.

Do you have a lot of stories you tell your students when you are in class about your experiences in China?

I do tell them stories, and some of them are about myself. I say to them things like, “When I first came here, Pudong didn’t exist, it was just a marshland.” I tell them about my first journey here. At the time, everybody was wearing Mao suits, and we were told not to bring skirts. They said, “All women in China wear pants”, so we just brought pants, but in the countryside all the women were wearing skirts! They said to us, “We find it very hot to wear pants, why don’t you wear skirts?” I tell them funny little anecdotes like that.

What is your personal mission? What are the important things to you as an individual?

I would say my personal mission is to be honest and kind above all else, and to try to figure out what the right thing is to do in any given situation. Perhaps because I’ve been studying China for so long, I believe in reciprocity to the greatest extent possible. I think that’s one of the most profound parts of Confucian ideas, that you shouldn’t do to others what you wouldn’t want to have done to yourself. Another thing that is part of my way of looking at the world is the realization that things are connected in unexpected ways, and you have to try and find those connections.

What do you think of the students we have?

They are amazing. Sometimes I think they were very brave to come to a university that didn’t exist. I think they’ve had an extraordinary opportunity to create something out of nothing, as we have. Sometimes I’m reminded that they’re just 18 years old, though, and there’s a lot they don’t yet know. But they’ve been hard working, thoughtful, and sincere in really impressive ways.

I’m incredibly impressed by and proud of their developments, which I’ve been able to observe over the last year. In terms of their language ability, confidence, their maturity, it just takes my breath away. The Western and Chinese students are also melding together a lot. We’re very conscious of that in theory, but they’re making it happen in practice. It’s really wonderful to see.

How do you feel about NYU Shanghai’s progress to date, where do you see areas for improvement, and where do you see it going?

It’s extraordinary that we’re already at the end of our first year. Things have gone quite well on the whole. Of course, we’ve made mistakes, and every day we see ways in which we could do better or rectify something. Some of the things you want to change are very small and some of them are very large, but the large and the small are so interconnected that you can’t move one thing without moving everything else.

Many things have got better this year. Our communication is much improved, for example. We have a better idea of what’s going on, and our planning is clearer. We have a lot more meetings with students. In our Tea Talks, I get together with students and find out whatever they’re concerned about. They talk with me about academic matters, they talk with Tyra Liebmann (Dean of Students) about student life, and Tyra and I talk all the time. So, we have a much better sense of how things are going from the students’ perspectives.

It is a curious balance to find, because education is not driven by the consumer or a consumer activity. Students give us suggestions, and we always consider what they say. Sometimes we think “That’s a good idea”, but other times we feel we might know better than they do about their education and what we’re trying to provide for their education. This is a very creative interaction. The exciting thing about NYU Shanghai is that we’re so small and new, so we can do a lot of things that aren’t possible in a larger institution. It’s easier to make changes.

You’re responsible for structuring the curriculum and the future of the curriculum at NYU Shanghai. What is your vision for the curriculum?

At the moment we don’t have departments because we’re so small, and one of the wonderful things that has come out of that is the constant cross-disciplinary communication and interaction. In New York, I hardly knew anyone in the science departments, but here, I talk to our science faculty all the time, and everyone else as well, no matter what their academic discipline. We also have our weekly lunch seminars that everybody comes to. Historians listen to talks by physicists, and scientists listen to talks by historians, and so on. This is really intellectually stimulating.

We really hope to create a university where people talk to each other across disciplines. For example, we’re hoping to hire a philosopher of science, so philosophy and science will have a strong connection. There are interactions between economics and neuroscience, between literature and social science. I think if we can keep these links between disciplines as we continue to build the curriculum, and keep people very connected, then that will be a distinctive feature of NYU Shanghai.

If funding was not an issue, what would you envision for the school?

I would try to provide opportunities for students to travel and do interesting things. I think even in a globalized world, the opportunity to travel and see the way people live in different cultures at first hand is absolutely unparalleled in terms of learning. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to provide that for our students.

This Spring Break we provided support from the Dean’s research funds to take two groups of students on alternative spring break trips to do volunteer work. One group went to Sichuan to work for Habitat for Humanity, and another group went to Yunnan to work with HIV-AIDS affected families, and many of them wrote to me and said, “This has really been an incredible experience. I would like to be able to do more.”
I think what I’d really like to do is buy more time. There aren’t really enough hours in the day to do all of the things we want to do, but that’s one thing I can’t buy.

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