Research Magazine 2010

Here, There, and Everywhere

Creative Writing alumnus Nathan Hogan, above, traveled to Greenland in search of inspiration for a historical novel about John Ross, a British sea captain who ventured into the same icy—and then unknown—waters in 1818, in search of the Northwest Passage.

Creative Writing alumnus Nathan Hogan, above, traveled to Greenland in search of inspiration for a historical novel about John Ross, a British sea captain who ventured into the same icy—and then unknown—waters in 1818, in search of the Northwest Passage.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Hogan

BY VICKY WALTZ

With a diverse student body on campus, representing more than 135 nations, and well-established study abroad programs in 30 countries on six continents, BU has a strong tradition of global engagement. Today, that tradition continues with new traveling fellowships, an innovative inter-university collaboration, and forward-looking contributions to the international exchange of ideas.

Writing and Wanderlust

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Map illustration licensed by Creative Commons

Poets, playwrights, and fiction writers set off in search of inspiration, supported by a new fellowship for international travel and study.

The rain pounded relentlessly as Nathan Hogan made his way across the barren Greenland tundra. His backpack—heavier in its waterlogged state—sagged on his shoulders, and he wondered, not for the first time, if trekking 100 miles across the Arctic Circle Trail was such a great idea.

A graduate of the Creative Writing Program, Hogan is writing a novel about 19th-century British Royal Navy Captain John Ross, who in 1818 set out on a voyage across the Arctic Ocean in search of the Northwest Passage. By exploring the western coast of Greenland himself, Hogan hoped to gain insight into the country’s people and customs while witnessing firsthand its majestic icebergs and glaciers.

The 100-mile slog between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq was an attempt to re-create Ross’s expedition. “I’ve found that after three or four days of continuous walking,” Hogan says, “my feet and mind slip into strange and productive new rhythms, difficult to otherwise replicate. And because my project was in some sense about an altered state—an epistemological crisis, an imagined obstruction of ice and rock that occurs only after many weeks at sea—it seemed somehow important to enact my protagonist’s voyage in miniature.”

Hogan’s journey was made possible through the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowships in Creative Writing. The program, established in 2009 through a $2 million donation from Robert J. Hildreth, vice chair of the BU Board of Overseers, provides funds for up to four months of international study. Named in honor of former U.S. Poet Laureate, translator, and critic Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, it sent five writers overseas last year. This year, the number of recipients more than doubled, with 12 graduates selected to take part.

Time spent abroad can—and should— challenge aspiring writers into new modes of thinking, says former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. 

Time spent abroad can—and should— challenge aspiring writers into new modes of thinking, says former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.

The opportunity to experience a foreign culture heightens writers’ skills by exposing them to lifestyles that challenge their thinking, says Pinsky. “The fellowships reinforce the demanding nature of the Creative Writing Program,” he adds. “The more different the experience, the richer the challenge.”

In August, poet Ani Gjika, who left her native home of Albania more than 14 years ago, returned to her birthplace to research five female Albanian poets whose work she plans to translate into English.

“There are only a handful of Albanian women whose poetry has been translated,” says Gjika, “and those translations are very literal. They’ve lost what makes them unique, perhaps because the translators were not familiar with Albanian culture.”

Gjika is particularly fascinated by poets like Drita Como and Luljeta Lleshanaku. But perhaps the most meaningful part of her project is the study of her own mother’s poems. Before moving to the United States, Julia Gjika published two volumes of poetry in her native language, and her daughter vowed to make them available to English readers.

While translating poems by Albanian women writers into English, Ani Gjika visited Vithkuq, Körçe County. 

While translating poems by Albanian women writers into English, Ani Gjika visited Vithkuq, Körçe County.

Photo courtesy of Ani Gjika

“Poetry is a very young profession for Albanian women,” Gjika explains. “They were not published in Albania until the 1970s, and even then, women had to write a certain way, or else they risked being censored.”

In his debut novel, The Strike (2006), Canadian writer Anand Mahadevan tells a coming-of-age story about an Indian boy whose adventures play out against a tumultuous 1980s backdrop.

In his forthcoming book, a collection of short stories, he moves the action to Dufferin Grove, an eclectic Toronto neighborhood with a diverse population of Indian, Portuguese, and Bangladeshi immigrants.

Historically, many of Toronto’s Portuguese immigrants come from the Azores, a cluster of nine volcanic islands situated off the Portuguese and Moroccan coasts. Consequently, Mahadevan has centered his stories between two households: one Indian and one Azorean.

A visit to the island of São Miguel in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic, helped Canadian writer Anand Mahadevan bring to life his short stories about an Azorean immigrant family living in Toronto.

A visit to the island of São Miguel in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic, helped Canadian writer Anand Mahadevan bring to life his short stories about an Azorean immigrant family living in Toronto.

Photo from iStockphoto

While he can draw from his own family’s experience of immigrating to Canada from India, Mahadevan is less comfortable telling the story from the perspective of Azorean immigrants. “I’ve never been to the Azores,” he says. “My knowledge of the culture is limited, and I don’t speak the language.

“From what little interaction I’ve had with my own Azorean neighbors,” he continues, “I know that family is important; bonds are strong, and that poses an interesting question: why do so few ever go home, even for a visit?”

For answers, Mahadevan traveled to the Azores to meet a handful of returnados, Azorean immigrants who returned home after decades spent living abroad. “A lot of returnados moved to Canada during the 1970s,” he says. “I hope to gain insight into what life was like back then, what challenges they faced, and what called them home.”

Dynamic Duo

Similar histories and equally ambitious plans for the future make Boston University and the University of Warwick ideal partners in a growing inter-university collaboration on research and educational opportunities.

Similar histories and equally ambitious plans for the future make Boston University and the University of Warwick ideal partners in a growing inter-university collaboration on research and educational opportunities.

Photo of University of Warwick courtesy of University of Warwick

During the 1960s, around the same time that former BU President Harold Case began his quest to transform Boston University from a commuter school into a leading national research institution, the United Kingdom announced a government initiative to expand access to higher education. The University of Warwick, widely regarded as one of Britain’s top research schools, is probably the most impressive result of that expansion.

Graham Wilson

Graham Wilson

“Boston University and Warwick have striking similarities,” says Graham Wilson, a BU professor of political science. “They’re comparable in size, programs of study, and ambition, and both are renowned as dynamic and entrepreneurial institutions.”

So when Britain’s then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed more inter-university collaboration between the United Kingdom and the United States, it came as no surprise that Warwick looked to Boston University as a potential partner.

Andrei E. Ruckenstein

Andrei E. Ruckenstein

“We are very much like-minded institutions, and have both evolved in parallel into major research universities during the past three to four decades,” says Andrei E. Ruckenstein, vice president and associate provost for research at BU. “Our similar trajectories and aspirations, many common interests, as well as the common mindset and vision of our faculty and academic leadership make the BU-Warwick partnership unique as a venue for exploring models of global universities.”

To that end, BU and Warwick two years ago announced a partnership to leverage the strengths of each institution through research collaborations in new and emerging disciplines. For the short term, Ruckenstein says, “We are focusing on research and educational opportunities in areas in which we have complementary strengths, or in impactful directions—new to both institutions—where we are willing to share risks.”

“This is much more than an exchange program,” says Mark Smith, Warwick’s pro-vice-chancellor of research. “It’s a completely new model that will develop joint strategic thinking over a range of fronts, especially research.”

Over the past several years, the connections between BU and Warwick have strengthened as the result of grassroots efforts, driven by individual or small groups of faculty members whose areas of expertise range from the arts and humanities to business and hard sciences.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith

“We’re looking to make a big impact by being not just world competitors, but world leaders,” says Kevin Smith, a BU professor of physics.

For example, BU wants to expand its studies of electron microscopy, an area in which Warwick is strong. “Instead of building our own center of excellence in electron microscopy, we can use Warwick’s,” Kevin Smith says. “In exchange, Warwick’s faculty members will have access to our materials and projects.”

Earlier this year, Ruckenstein appointed Kevin Smith to lead a steering committee for the project. Other committee members include Adil Najam, a professor of international relations and director of the BU Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future; Alan Cohen, a professor of health policy and management and executive director of the BU Health Policy Institute; and Wilson.

So far, the collaboration has been a success. Researchers in the physics, chemistry, and engineering departments, along with their Warwick counterparts, are currently studying energy materials that are used in storage devices such as solar cells, fuel cells, and batteries. In the political science department, Wilson and his colleagues are studying business and government relations.

Alan Cohen

Alan Cohen

“It turns out that both universities have tremendous strengths in these areas,” Wilson says. “So in December we held a joint research session at Warwick. Our topic was the ways in which the economic crisis of the past three years has changed business and government relations. We hope the resulting papers will become a book.”

Kevin Smith expects the partnership to expand significantly within the next year. “We’re putting out a call for new proposals,” he says, “so we expect to see growth into new areas of joint scholarship.”

The next step is to involve students, both graduates and undergraduates. “We envision a system where students will move seamlessly between the two universities,” Smith says. “They’ll regard both BU and Warwick as their homes.”

Imagining Tomorrow Today

The Pardee Center’s Africa 2060 program is optimistic about the continent’s future. Here, children take a break from their studies for a game of soccer at St. Theresa’s Early Childhood Development Center in Sekondi, Ghana.

The Pardee Center’s Africa 2060 program is optimistic about the continent’s future. Here, children take a break from their studies for a game of soccer at St. Theresa’s Early Childhood Development Center in Sekondi, Ghana.

Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Stratton, licensed by Creative Commons

Adil Najam takes issue with an old Doris Day hit song.

Que sera, sera
What ever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera.

“No, the future won’t be what it will be,” he says. “The future will be what you make of it.”

As director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Najam has built a career around thinking about the future, but he doesn’t do it through reading tea leaves or gazing into crystal balls.

“It’s about research,” he says. “The future is a big puzzle, and to solve it we must look at every individual piece: politics, economics, technology, culture.”

Established in 2000 by Frederick S. Pardee—who received degrees from the BU School of Management and Graduate School of Management, as well as an honorary doctorate in 2006—the center focuses its research on identifying, anticipating, and enhancing the long-term potential for human progress. In recent years the center has been focusing on regional patterns of human progress.

In 2008, an international group of scholars came together to discuss the future of China in terms of politics, religion, law, economics, energy, the environment, and health care.

Organized by Joseph Fewsmith, a Pardee Center faculty fellow and professor of international relations and political sciences, the conference included 14 leading experts from the United States, China, and Germany, who presented papers that were later compiled into a book, China Today, China Tomorrow: Domestic Politics, Economy, and Society (2010), edited by Fewsmith.

Although the center’s research focuses on the long-term—that is, between 35 and 200 years ahead—50 appears to be the magic number. “If I ask our experts to imagine what something will be like in a year, they remain constrained in the shackles of today,” Najam says. “They need a good 50 years—an entire generation—to distance themselves from the present, to envision a world that is entirely different from what they know.”

Adil Najam

Adil Najam

This year, the center concentrated on South Asia and Africa. While the South Asia 2060 project focuses on scenarios that could occur during the next five decades, Najam says, its research is rooted in steps that can be taken now to move toward a more positive future.

The center hosted a series of South Asia 2060 seminars, including in South Asia itself, and a collection of resulting essays—each focusing on individual aspects of South Asia’s regional futures—will be published as an anthology in 2011.

In April, the center hosted another all-day conference, “The Good News from Africa,” as part of its Africa 2060 program. With discussions on social development, markets and economy, politics and institutions, and society and culture, the conference also served as a launching pad for a number of papers that examine regional development in Africa, the narcotics trade, obesity in sub-Saharan Africa, malaria, and agricultural and climate change.

Although each conference focuses on a different region, Najam has noticed one common trend emerge. “In every instance,” he says, “the solution for the future of these regions includes better governance and institutions. Now we just have to focus on getting there.”