Q&A With Prof. Mu
How did you decide to become a University professor?
It wasn’t exactly my decision to make to become a University professor. I grew up in China when learning was still a privilege and a great teacher was still revered, in many parts, just as Heaven, Earth, ancestors and sage rulers were. To become a teacher was much more than a profession—It was an honor. Who wouldn’t want to be in a profession that was among the highest of aspirations? So, in this sense, the profession of teaching chose me more than I chose it. But I had to continuously earn the honor with worthy deeds and a commitment to learning, especially learning to be compassionate and to do right by other people’s children.
Things became more complicated after I came to the US. I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to meet the challenges of the profession in a language that was not my native tongue, even after I earned my Doctorate degree and started part time teaching at Vassar College. The support from my family in China, though from a great distance, was strong. With helping hands all around, the prospect of being a professor at ISU looked promising. So I pressed on. I felt that I could be a University professor for sure in 2007 when I was granted tenure. I have been telling myself since then that I need to renew myself more than ever to remain worthy of this gift.
What do you consider to be your most notable professional achievement?
Since I am not exactly sure about to whom or to what the words “most notable” apply, let me simply describe what makes me most happy professionally. When a student said that he got a better education in Chinese language here at ISU than he did in China, it was a most rewarding moment for me. When Mark Zuckerberg did an interview in Chinese last month, a former student wrote to me right after he saw it online, telling me “My Chinese is better than his!” This was another highly satisfying moment for me.
Looking from my own perspective, I believe my “most notable” is yet to be achieved. I received a Fulbright Research Grant in 2007 to study the short-short story phenomenon in China. I feel obliged to have more than one research result in print. In the past few years I have been learning to contextualize this phenomenon in 5,000 years of Chinese culture and history. I have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I take every grant award, from ISU or NEH, and every publication as a professional achievement. I take great pride in the teaching awards for which my peers have recommended me. It might not be regarded as “notable” or even as an achievement for some, but to be working among the professionals in this department at this institution is, in itself, a notable professional achievement for me.
What has been your most memorable international experience?
The Fulbright Research Grant enabled me to have close contact with many writers in 17 of China’s 23 provinces in 2007-2008. I was able to see China at the grassroots level and hear the aspirations of non-professional writers from all walks of life. The material I collected is enough to work on for the rest of my life. At the time I didn’t know the experience would be this valuable. In the past few years my efforts to understand these authors and their works in Chinese contexts have led to an appreciation of the aesthetic dimension of their everyday lives. Although abandoned, neglected, or misunderstood to a large extent in the globalization process, this millennial literary tradition remains an integral part of the socio-cultural fabric of contemporary China. I am hoping my research will do justice to the unique set of values this venerable art form offers. The value of my 2007-2008 international experience is still unfolding in my research and teaching, and is becoming more memorable with each passing day.
In a different sense, international experience is my everyday practice here and now. A memorable example of this happened just a few days ago. It had to do with a Chinese expression “县委书记.” The first character “县” signifies “county” as in a “county level division.” There are over 2,860 “县” (county level divisions) in China. The expression in question, “县委书记,” means “The Secretary of the ‘County’ Communist Party Committee,” which is the title of the most powerful political figure in a particular county. I was shocked to see two students from China render this authoritative position into “county clerk.” They argued that their translation decision was made on the recommendation of native speakers of English. Occurrences like this remind me everyday that the local has become international and the cross-culture work I do demands language skills and much more.
What is the last foreign country you visited? Is there a place in that country that you recommend anyone to visit?
I’m charmed by every place I visit, without any exception so far. I was last in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was in August 2013. A short visit of long-lasting impacts, the city impressed me with the richness of its culture and the dignity of its people. I started to develop some understanding of the hometown of Tchaikovsky, Pushkin, Putin, and my colleague Olga Mesropova. I was hoping that being there would help provide answers to many questions I have had since childhood. Instead the trip raised even more questions. An important outcome of the visit is that I now realize I must see more of Russia to find answers to my questions–non-definitive answers, of course–that will facilitate my understanding of that country. I will travel by train next time, not the fast bullet train, but the slow Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Moscow to Beijing, making stops along the way. For a supersized country like Russia, it is difficult to get a sense of the place and its people. I dare not make any assumptions or recommendations about Russia or Saint Petersburg other than this humble piece of advice: Go see the world as much as you can and for as long as you can; enjoy and learn.
What has been the most interesting or unusual course you taught at ISU?
The unusual is constantly emerging as the usual for me, and vise versa. So I have not taught a usual or unusual course at ISU so far. I currently teach five courses. Like some mothers who have a difficult time deciding which is her most interesting child, I can’t make up my mind about which is my most interesting course. Each one, like a child, keeps growing and changing in their own way. With Chinese 375 (China Today), the changes develop naturally from the subject matter of the course. With Chinese 301 and 302 (Advanced Chinese), the challenges arise from the student configurations/ratios and the innovative pedagogy required to make things work. With Chinese 272 (Chinese Cultural Tradition), one must address the students’ increasing interests, needs and demands; especially for contents that provide contemporary relevance. And with Chinese 403A (Translating Original Texts), it is all above. A major variable with all five courses is “I, the instructor.” The imperative to learn continuously in order to keep pace with changing times makes it impossible to recycle last year’s material. To stay current and maintain the integrity of my courses is a lot of fun, and a lot of work.