Visiting Scholar Program: A Year of Surprises

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Two years ago, I got a welcome message out of the blue from Phi Beta Kappa’s Visiting Scholar committee chairman, who wanted to know if I would be interested in being a Visiting Scholar during the 2014-15 academic year. Aware of the organization’s prestige and reputation and having had a good experience publishing in its journal, The American Scholar, I was flattered. So much so that, despite knowing little about the program, I assumed I would probably end up saying yes. My “probably” changed to “almost certainly” when I did a little online investigating and discovered how often past Visiting Scholar cohorts of a dozen or so people in widely varied fields had included academics whose work I admired. And my “almost certainly” changed to “definitely” once I queried a veteran ΦBK Visiting Scholar I knew about his experience. He gave few details about what exactly he did during his series of two-day campus visits, but told me he had enjoyed and learned from each of them and had felt consistently well treated by both his local hosts and the Phi Beta Kappa national office. Sign me up, I said.  

One good thing about knowing little about the program in advance was that I was continually surprised by what happened as I made my way from Lincoln to Long Island and Kentucky to Kalamazoo. These surprises came in two varieties. On the one hand, there were things that happened which were totally unexpected. On the other, there were things that happened that were sort of expected, but had agreeable unforeseen twists.

My visits to the University of Miami and Birmingham-Southern College brought memorable examples of the first sort of surprise. I did not expect that my trip to Florida would involve a stay at a legendary art deco hotel. Nor did I expect my hosts there to build an outing to an art museum into my stay, which would give my first close-up look at the dada-like faux characters of Xu Bing, my favorite contemporary Chinese artist. Similarly, I had no idea that the food I would eat in Alabama would be so impressive, including a pair of memorable back-to-back meals on a single day: a knockout lunch at a purist nothing-but-ribs-paper-towels-at-the-table joint followed by a dinner at a totally different sort of highbrow but low key farm to table restaurant featuring New Southern fare. Also coming as a complete surprise was the power of the series of Civil Rights-themed public sculptures I saw just before the barbeque lunch at a local park. 


What then of things that happened of the partly expected, partly unexpected variety? Well, given how long I’ve been in academia, how many conferences I’ve attended, and the itinerant and intertwined nature of scholarly careers, I thought that I would see familiar faces at some campuses—and I did. What I didn’t expect was that, over the course of the year, I’d spend time with a high school friend at one school (Bucknell University, where she is a member of the Theatre and Dance Department), someone whose doctoral committee I had served on at another (Randolph-Macon, where he now teaches), and the most inspiring dean I’ve ever worked with at a third (UMass Amherst, where he is now Chancellor).  

The most intriguing example of something that was both expected and surprising, however, relates not to individuals but to a time in history.  When I set out for the University of Nebraska and Hofstra University last September to make my first two campus visits, I had one specific year on my mind: 1989. I planned to bring up that year’s Beijing massacre in passing during the public talk on China and globalization I was slated to give in Lincoln, and also knew I would focus a good deal of attention on the Tiananmen protests that preceded that tragedy during the guest lecture I would give in a class taught by Parks Coble, a Nebraska-based specialist in Chinese history whose work I began reading appreciatively thirty years ago while in graduate school. At Hofstra, meanwhile, my public talk was going to be all about 1989, taking the form of a twenty-five years on look back to why Communist Party rule had ended in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe yet persisted in China that year.  What was unexpected was how often, as I moved on from those two visits to other campuses, I found myself thinking back as much to a personal as a political side of 1989. I kept reflecting on and speaking about the year’s protests and state violence, but I also spent a lot of time ruminating about how much crisscrossing the country as on this ΦBK tour was inspiring déjà vu-like memories of crisscrossing the country a quarter century earlier as an ABD in search of his first job.

Traveling as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar was in some ways a totally different experience from doing so as graduate student desperately looking for employment, but there were some pretty eerie parallels. As in 1989, I would arrive at a campus that I had never been to before, check into a strange hotel or inn, and spend part of the evening or early hours of the next morning preparing myself to talk about my research with faculty and students. More specifically, both my ABD and ΦBK itineraries included stops at institutions with names beginning with a K (Kenyon College two and half decades ago, Kalamazoo College two and a half months ago) and at liberal arts schools in Pennsylvania (Franklin and Marshall being my 1989 counterpart to Bucknell). In 1989, I flew from California to Lexington to give the job talk at the University of Kentucky that landed me my first job, while in early 2015 I flew from California to Lexington again, this time to speak at Centre College in nearby Danville. A more general thing that sparked 1989 memories was how often, as I once again moved between very different sorts of schools in short order, I was struck, as I had been back then, by how widely varied American institutions of higher learning can be. 

Don’t get me wrong: there were some striking contrasts between the two years of travel. Ironically, while flights for both sets of trips were covered, twenty-five years ago, despite how much more strained family finances were, we had to rack up charges for all my tickets on nearly maxed out credit cards and wait to get reimbursed, while ΦBK was always willing to take care of the costs up front. In addition, I was too nervous to enjoy any of the restaurants I was taken to in 1989, but this time, free of will-I-be-getting-a-paycheck-next-year anxieties, nothing got in the way of enjoying the Peruvian ceviche I ordered in Miami, the fine steak I had in Nebraska, and the perfectly spiced pumpkin bread I was served at a Michigan B & B.

What will I say if someone I know who is invited to become a Phi Beta Kappa lecturer asks me whether or not to sign on? I will definitely be encouraging, but I don’t think I’ll provide many details, aside from the sort the person I asked did. For part of the fun for me lay in being surprised by the sorts of things I’ve mentioned, and more generally by how much I learned from conversations with smart students at each campus I visited, as well as from engaging faculty I encountered, some in fields far removed from my own.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who served Phi Beta Kappa as a Visiting Scholar in 2014-15, is Chancellor’s Professor of History at University of California, Irvine and editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. He is the author of four books, among them Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. He is coeditor of the Asia section of the Los Angeles Review of Books, an associate fellow of the Asia Society, and a board member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations.