Past Humanities and Arts Spotlights

Spring 2016

Seiji Shirane, Assistant Professor of History  

Social Science Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellowship

Tell us briefly about your current project and the way that these grants are helping your research?

My book project examines how the Japanese transformed their first overseas colony of Taiwan (1895–1945) into an imperial center for expansion into South China and Southeast Asia. In American academia, Taiwanese history has been orphaned in-between the research fields of Japanese and Chinese history. My goal has been to make colonial Taiwan's history an integral part of the regional study of Asia and dissolve the artificial divides of nation-based histories.  One of the key imperial innovations by the Japanese was to mobilize its overseas Taiwanese subjects in South China. The majority of Taiwan's population were Han Chinese who had migrated from South China beginning in the 17th century. The Japanese valued the Taiwanese as imperial intermediaries—as merchants, teachers, doctors, and later during World War II as military translators, laborers, nurses—because of their ethnic and linguistic ties to China.  My fellowship has given me the opportunity to collect essential Japanese- and Chinese-language materials to reshape my project, which had previously focused on imperial institutions and policies. I have incorporated more biographical details, including transcribed oral histories, to write a broader social history that illuminates the interactions and tensions between Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese individuals "on the ground" of Japan's southern empire.  During my stay at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Advanced Research on Asia, I have also presented my work and received valuable feedback from historians of Taiwan and Sino-Japanese relations. By collaborating with scholars of this period, I hope to contribute to a much-needed cultural and historical dialogue across the Taiwan Straits and between China and Japan.

What drew you to your current project?

I entered graduate school in 2008 wanting to study Japanese imperialism in China and its controversial postwar legacies, but at the time Taiwan was hardly on my academic radar. I had lived in China from 2004 to 2007, during which I personally witnessed the rise of anti-Japanese Chinese nationalism in reaction to the Japanese government's "whitewashing" of its imperial history in the media and school textbooks. While much of the important scholarship of the last two decades on Japan's northern expansion in Korea and Northeast China, I thought a lot of Japan's imperial project in the south was being overlooked. During a research trip to Taiwan in 2009, I came across a vast archive of materials that revealed how colonial Taiwan served not only as a central base for Japan's southern expansion, but also as a political and cultural intermediary between Japan, South China, and Southeast Asia.

I became particularly fascinated by how Taiwanese subjects used passports and colonial subjecthood that challenged our conventional notions of "Japanese" and "Chinese" identity. Although the Taiwanese were relegated to second-class status in Taiwan due to discriminatory colonial policies, in China the Taiwanese enjoyed "extraterritorial" rights (exemption from Chinese taxes and laws) as Japanese nationals. The overseas Taiwanese thus found opportunities for financial profit and social mobility unavailable to them within the colony. Yet they were not merely pawns of empire. To the dismay of Japanese authorities, Chinese and Taiwanese alike exploited legal loopholes in imperial nationality to engage in illicit opium businesses and gang violence that inflamed Sino-Japanese tensions. Other Taiwanese evaded Japanese rule by forming anti-Japanese alliances with Chinese and Korean activists throughout China.

What sources do you use to conduct research, and what are some of the greatest challenges to your research process? What are some of the rewards?

My historical sources are divided largely into five types that I have collected over the past five years from Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Britain, and the United States. (1) Japanese Colonial Government archives in Taipei; (2) Japanese Foreign Ministry and Military Defense archives in Tokyo; (3) Chinese archives from South China; (4) Chinese-language newspapers and oral histories by Taiwanese in China and Southeast Asia; (5) British and American diplomatic reports on Taiwanese activity in China.

One of the challenges of studying Japanese empire is that imperial ambitions were rarely unified among leaders, but often divided between institutions (just like in the British, French, and other Western empires). I thus compare Japanese sources from Taipei and Tokyo to trace how the Taipei Colonial Government at times actively competed with Tokyo's Foreign Ministry, Army, and Navy in shaping the direction of Japan's southern advance.

Another methodological challenge in writing imperial history is that Japanese- and Chinese-language documents tend to privilege the nationalist frameworks of Japan and China, respectively. Japanese newspapers often describe Taiwanese as "victims" of South China's "lawlessness and banditry" who needed to be protected by additional Japanese police or soldiers. By contrast, mainland Chinese-language reports depicted the overseas Taiwanese as collaborators and "running dogs" of Japan who preyed on the local Chinese population. Such nationalist narratives fail to capture the contingency and individual motivations of overseas Taiwanese in China.

With few extant sources directly written by the overseas Taiwanese between the 1900s and 1920s, I incorporate contemporary British and American consular reports from South China for additional perspectives on the Taiwanese that go beyond Japan- and China-centered frameworks. Such English-language sources illuminate how boundaries between "Taiwanese" and "Chinese" participation in illicit businesses or pro-Japanese activities were quite blurred and did not necessarily align with national interests. I also refer to transcribed interviews and memoirs from Taiwanese oral history projects (1990s–2000s) to include first-hand testimonies by Taiwanese who served in the Chinese and Southeast Asian warfronts in the 1930s–40s.

One of the main rewards of research has been to draw on a combination of documents from different languages and regions that reveal the messiness and unexpected tensions of empire on the ground. The overseas Taiwanese were not easily divided between "resisters" or "collaborators," but often pursued individual interests overseas that at times played multiple imperial powers off against each other. Indeed, responses by Japanese, Chinese, and Western officials toward the Taiwanese were contingent and improvisatory: they were as much about reacting to, rather than simply directing, the unpredictable behavior of shrewd Chinese and Taiwanese.

How does your research influence your teaching?

At City College, I teach courses that incorporate some of the central issues in my book project such as imperialism, war, race, and migration. For instance, in mobilizing and monitoring Taiwanese overseas, Japanese colonial officials adopted a passport system based on British Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements. Yet compared to their British and other Western counterparts, the Japanese actively recruited wealthy and well-connected Chinese and naturalized them as "Taiwanese subjects" to extend Japan's sphere of influence in China. In my course on "Japanese Empire," students grapple with similar questions of how the Japanese at times imitated Western models of empire, yet at other times innovated new "imperial tools" to compete for hegemony in East and Southeast Asia. Within Japan's empire, moreover, colonial practices in education and economy differed in Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, Micronesia, and Southeast Asia. Just as my research compares Japan's southern expansion in Taiwan with northern expansion in Korea, I challenge my students to think of similarities and divergences when juxtaposing different regions and periods of Japan's empire.

My teaching, in turn, has also influenced revisions for my book project. Students in my "Japanese Empire" and "Japanese-Chinese Relations" courses have continuously critiqued the Japanese-heavy perspective of existing monographs as they want to hear more of the "voices" from Taiwanese, Korean, and Chinese subjects. While there are obvious source-limitations to capturing first-hand views of the colonized, thanks to my students I have made greater efforts in my research to highlight Taiwanese and Chinese as individual protagonists of my narrative. My hope is to publish a book that will educate future students about the multiple, often conflicting layers of imperial relations engendered by Japan's southern empire.

Winter 2015

Jennifer Morton, Assistant Professor, Philosophy

  • Laurence Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellowship

  • Princeton's Center for Human Values

Tell us a little about the projects that you’re working on right now and some of the support you have received.

The project is an investigation of the moral and political dimensions of evidence-based educational policies that promote character education as a means to educational achievement. During the 2011-2012 academic year, a grant from the Spencer Foundation provided support for the initial development of my current project. This past spring, I was awarded a Laurence Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellowship from Princeton’s Center for Human Values to support the maturing of those ideas into a book. Right now I’m in the process of thinking about how to cast the book so that it’s accessible to a broader audience rather than just academics. I want my book to be able to speak to students like those at CUNY.

That’s fascinating. What do you mean by character education and how do you evaluate it?

My work focuses on evidence-based arguments in favor of character education as a means to remedy the educational achievement gap. Charter schools, like KIPP, are using recent social science evidence to argue that teaching character is an important means to easing the achievement gap between White and Black/Hispanic students. Underlying that argument is often the assumption that if we can show, using scientific evidence, that certain character or personality traits promote achievement, then we can avoid difficult conversations about values that teaching character to students from minority  communities traditionally brings up. I do not believe that we can employ evidence in this way. But to make this argument, we have to delve into the evidence carefully in order to unearth the value-laden assumptions buried in this work. But I am not a social science skeptic. I do believe that the evidence does show us something important about the achievement gap. However, I argue that we can deal with this issue more carefully and sensitively once we have made clear what values are at stake. The grants I have won have allowed me to have the time to engage in this research.

What drew you to the questions that you are investigating?

As a first-generation college student and immigrant to this country, my educational experiences have been vital to my integration into American society and to the advance of my career opportunities. As an immigrant, I have had to adjust to the cultural norms of the different spheres of America I have encountered, in particular, in making my way through its educational institutions. I think my experience has much in common with the experience of low-income and minority students who are also navigating similar cultural obstacles in the quest for upward mobility. So, my research project is in a sense born from reflecting on my own very fortunate educational experiences and those of my students.

As a philosopher, what is your research process?

The work I do is heavily informed by the empirical sciences. So I spend a lot of time reading the latest social science research on education, character development, and inequality. This is a ripe area of research and there is a lot of good work out there. But, often, this work is not adequately sensitive to the political and moral values that underlie the policy claims made on the basis of this evidence. As a philosopher my work involves unearthing these assumptions and thinking about them critically. However, as the project has evolved I have also been conducting some interviews and surveys with people who are or were first-generation college students. This is not for the purposes of drawing conclusions about what they have to say, I am not a social scientist. Rather I intend to use those stories in the book to illustrate some of the ethical difficulties that students face as they try to make a better life for themselves. The interviews have been incredibly helpful, often humbling, and, at times, heartbreaking.

How does your research shape the way that you engage with CCNY students?   

Immensely. Talking to my students about their educational experiences, seeing them struggle, and doing what I can to help them succeed has provided much fodder for my philosophical development. My research has also often led me to revisit my pedagogical practices. For example, instead of just rewarding academic excellence in my classroom, I encourage an ethos of consistent hard work. I try to communicate to my students that academic skills are a product of deliberate practice, not of genius or a natural talent. But I also try to acknowledge that the skills and knowledge they already bring to the classroom are also valuable.


Fall 2015

Adrienne Petty, Associate Professor, History

  • National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant with Mark Schultz, 2010-2014

  • Scholar-in-Residence, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, funded by the NEH, 2012

Tell us briefly about your current project and the way that these grants are helping your research?

Historian Mark Schultz and I are writing a history of African American farm owners since the Civil War. The project contemplates how and why black farm owners managed to gain hold of farmland during the Jim Crow era, and the significance of their experience for understanding American history.  The project would not have been possible without the support of the NEH and the Schomburg Center. The NEH grant supported the Breaking New Ground oral history project, the most significant source base for our book. Under our supervision, a team of undergraduate and graduate students from southern and historically black colleges and universities conducted about 300 life history interviews with farm owners and their descendants throughout the south. The interviews are now part of the University of North Carolina's Southern Oral History Collection.  The research I conducted in the Schomburg Center's collections form an important basis for several chapters in our manuscript dealing with efforts to stem the loss of land among black farmers. In addition, my experience at the Schomburg pushed my scholarship in new directions by surrounding me with scholars of Africa and the African diaspora who exposed me to different ways of thinking about my area of interest.

What are some of the benefits you find of doing collaborative research?

I have derived both practical and intellectual benefits from working collaboratively. In practical terms, I've been part of creating a unique collection of interviews that I would not have been able to gather on my own. When Mark and I first envisioned Breaking New Ground, we knew that it would require not only our collaboration, but also our reliance on a couple dozen interviewers. There was little time to spare in collecting the interviews because the men and women who worked their lives on farms are elderly. In the space of eight weeks and scattered across thousands of miles, we collected the stories of more than 300 people, our most significant collaborators.
While I immediately recognized the benefits of collaboration for creating oral sources, working with Mark has brought intellectual rewards that I did not anticipate. We write memos to one another, take turns making sense of our evidence, and validate or disagree with each other's interpretations. The disagreements have made both of us sharper in supporting our claims and more attuned to alternate interpretations than we would have been working independently.

What drew you to your current project?

My current project builds upon my first book, Standing Their Ground: Small Farmers in North Carolina Since the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013). Both projects revolved around a research question that has preoccupied me since graduate school: how did people experience the transformation from self-sufficient, landed proprietorship to dependence on wages and widespread dispossession? I am particularly interested in how and why people in the southern United States struggled to retain ownership of farmland and make their livelihood on farms even as an agrarian way of life was becoming less and less tenable.

How do you conduct research? What resources do you use? What are some of the greatest challenges to your research process? What are some of the rewards?

I cast a wide net in conducting research, and I get a thrill from looking for evidence. The greatest challenge to my research process is also the greatest reward: there's a shortage of time but never a shortage of people eager to share their stories and archives to visit. I deal with this challenge by setting clear research goals on a weekly basis. When I'm teaching, I snatch time here and there to hunt through manuscript census data on, read fiction for clues and inspiration, and glean evidence from published primary sources. During the summers, I pore over manuscript sources in various archives, consult the farm schedules of the U.S. Census, read newspapers on microfilm, and conduct oral history interviews with farmers. Another rewarding aspect of my research is the interplay between oral and textual sources. The nuggets of information I learn from interviews often send me to unexpected textual sources, and vice versa.

How does your research process shape the way that you engage with CCNY students?

Even though I haven't had the opportunity to involve City College students directly in my research on farmers, I have sought out ways to share my love of research with them. For instance, I collaborated with William Gibbons, chief reference librarian at City College, and Sydney Van Nort, the college archivist, to have students conduct primary research on the college's 1969 student rebellion. The three of us wrote an article about our experience working on this course.
My newest endeavor, Project for Activist Scholars Against Gentrification, will allow me to more directly involve students in engaged research. In collaboration with John Krinsky, professor of Political Science at City College, and Hillary Caldwell, a doctoral candidate in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center, I received a seed grant through the Colin Powell School to lead students in conducting oral history interviews in East Harlem with residents and activists resisting gentrification and displacement through community land trusts and other strategies.

The Division of Humanities and the Arts also congratulates Professor Petty on her recent book awards:

  • H.L. Mitchell Award of the Southern Historical Association
  • Theodore Saloutos Award of the Agricultural History Society

Summer 2015

Gerardo Blumenkrantz, Assistant Professor, Media and Communication Arts

Creative Track Director, MPS in Branding + Integrated Communications


Nancy Tag, Professor, Media and Communication Arts

Program Director, MPS in Branding + Integrated Communications

  • National Institute of Health National Cancer Institute (NCI)


We normally don’t think of Media and Communication Arts as contributing to the goals of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the nation’s leading medical research agency. What does your work in the field of Media and Communication Arts bring to the NIH and how does it advance the goals of medical research?

NANCY: You’re correct! According to the NIH committee that judged the proposal, our collaboration is considered quite innovative. The goal in this particular project, “Social Marketing and Technology to Increase Vaccination Rates Among Mexican American Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” is to use communications to change the behaviors of a highly targeted population. MSKCC has been active at the Mexican Consulate here in New York City for years and had accumulated lots of research about Mexican immigrants’ awareness and usage of the HPV vaccine. But this knowledge needed to be made actionable.

GERARDO: That’s why MSKCC approached us in MCA and, more specifically, the Branding + Integrated Communications (BIC) program to create a communications campaign that required us to analyze that knowledge and develop ways to speak to this community that would compel them to vaccinate their children. Because this vaccine requires follow up visits, we needed to calculate the timing and various media of our messaging, as well as ways to harness text messaging—heavily used by this population—as a tool to ensure compliance.

Tell us a little bit about your collaborative project. How did you come up with the idea? How did you first connect with Sloane Kettering?   

NANCY: The National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded The City College of New York (CCNY) and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) a $15.9 million grant in 2009 to implement a unique partnership in cancer research, education, and outreach. The five-year, renewable award is funded by NCI’s U54 program, an initiative created to develop partnerships between minority-serving institutions and NCI-designated cancer centers. When the award was renewed in 2013, Dr. Abraham Aragones of MSKCC approached us about doing a project within the scope of the award. He was impressed by a communications campaign we had done for him a few years ago as part of our undergraduate capstone for the Advertising and Public Relations Program. With $750,000 at stake, this project was a bit more ambitious! Professor Blumenkrantz took the lead in writing the proposal. Because the timing was tight, we put the entire proposal together in about two weeks. We were quite astonished when we found out we had won the award!

GERARDO: Our research project is to design, implement and evaluate a social marketing campaign, tailored to the Mexican American parent population, to increase awareness of the HPV vaccine, and to elicit interest in obtaining further information of the HPV vaccine, and to encourage parents to have their eligible children vaccinated with all three doses. To address this aim, we are developing a tailored social marketing campaign, utilizing preliminary data collected by MSKCC and with expertise from multiple partners in this project.

Describe your working relationship with science and medical professionals. What are the benefits of working collaboratively? What are some of the challenges?

NANCY: The learning curve has been steep. We not only had to take research training, but oversee research assistants and medical protocols that are pretty alien to those of us in Humanities and the Arts. The terminology alone can be daunting to non-scientists. As the CCNY Principal Investigator, Gerardo has been responsible for much of the daily administrative tasks associated with an award of this size. Our association with MSKCC has been extraordinary. Dr. Aragones in particular is an amazing advocate for this project; he appreciates the importance of the communications component and we enjoy a very collaborative, collegial relationship. Many fascinating conversations! It’s been so interesting visiting the Mexican Consulate and learning about its challenges as well as its  amazing services. I don’t speak Spanish, but it’s the first language of both Dr. Aragones and Professor Blumenkrantz; they’re both very patient with me even though it sometimes takes twice as long to translate situations as they occur.

GERARDO: Within CCNY, we are particularly grateful to Dr. Alan Shih from the Research Foundation, for patiently guiding us through all the internal protocols, foreign to us, and for his constant support.

How do you plan to disseminate your findings and implement your proposals?

NANCY: The Ventanilla de Salud (VDS) – or health center – at the Mexican Consulate provides the ideal non-traditional setting, population exposure, resources, and skill set to implement a social marketing campaign to increase HPV vaccination within the Mexican population in the New York Metropolitan area. The results could be applicable to the large and growing Mexican population in the 50 VDS programs throughout the U.S. and to other settings serving Latino populations, including other Latin American consulates currently developing their own VDS, replicating the efforts of the Mexican government.

GERARDO: What’s particularly rewarding is that we expect the results of this proposed project to serve as a platform to disseminate and evaluate the intervention in a larger number of these settings and a more diverse Latino population across the U.S.

Why is City College a great place to pursue this research?   

NANCY: The U54 grant was only given to two partner institutions in the country so this would be one of the only places we’d have the opportunity to pursue this particular project! But also, CCNY has so many cross-disciplinary opportunities here on campus. We’re always looking for substantive content and there’s no better place for this sort of collaboration than within our own department, across the quad, or out in the diverse community of New York City.

GERARDO: As practitioners of the communications discipline, Nancy and I know that  many STEM oriented projects could come to life and reach whole new audiences through communication campaigns. The possibilities here at CCNY  are endless.

How do you bring your research and creative agenda into the classroom?  

NANCY: The capstone practicums in our BIC graduate program as well as in the undergraduate program in Ad/PR all utilize the same systematic approach to research, analysis, and creative campaign development that Professor Blumenkrantz, our research assistants and I will be doing for the U54 grant. The luxury of developing this campaign over the course of three years (rather than a single semester) and with a significant budget helps inform our approach in the classroom, making it as true to life as possible.

Fall 2014

Andras Kisery, Assistant Professor of English

  • RBS-Mellon Fellowship

  • Huntington Fellowship

  • PSC-CUNY Enhanced Grant

Tell us briefly about your current project and the way that these grants are helping your research?

My new project explores the history of the book trade and the way that it shaped early modern English literature. I am interested in how the spaces and geographies of the book trade and of literary life influenced literary creativity in the period: that is, how the places where books were produced, the paths books traveled, the long-distance interactions books fostered, defined and changed what people wrote. Three grants have been helping me in the current, initial stages of this work. Research at the Huntington Library earlier this year allowed me to get started in this new direction. As an RBS-Mellon Fellow (, I have been affiliated with the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, which helped me deepen my understanding of the production and circulation of print in the early modern period. With the support of this fellowship and a PSC-CUNY Enhanced Grant, and with additional support from the Division of Humanities and the Arts, I am also able to organize a symposium on a related subject, which I am calling Agents of contact: print between cultures in the early modern period. This is a rather broadly conceived topic, intended to encourage cross-disciplinary conversation among scholars of the period 1500-1700. My aim is to start a series of seminars in collaboration with colleagues at City College and in the broader region. Through long-term, interdisciplinary discussion, my collaborators and I hope to demonstrate that print and books are not merely passive vehicles of communication between cultures, but agents that inform the communication.

This is an exciting and innovative interdisciplinary approach to studying literature. How does your methodology test the limits of traditional scholarship?

Although I focus on specific literary examples, my interest is in the conceptual groundwork of literature: in notions of authorship, in the construction of authorial oeuvres, in the organization and classification of texts into genres, in the emerging distinction between fictional and non-fictional writing, in the creation of a local and international literary public, and in what readers in England and abroad perceived as the national characteristics of English literature. I explore the active, creative role played in the shaping of these features by the urban places of book production, by the national and colonial geographies and technologies of distribution and circulation of texts, and by the international dissemination and reception of English writing.

What drew you to the study of this question?

In various areas of the humanities and social sciences, people have been asking how the spatial aspects of human interaction – the immediate surroundings, the urban environment, or the long-distance connections across a country or a continent – mold those interactions, how they organize what people say, share, circulate, how communication is structured by the spaces and distances in which it takes place.

To give you one example I have recently been thinking about: in the 1650s, a bookseller working in Newcastle, in the north of England, put together a catalog of all the books published in the country; this was something like a mail order catalog: he obviously did not have all the books listed there in his shop, but he could rely on the brand new stagecoach service to quickly get from the center of the English publishing industry, London, whatever his clients, people living in the north of England, were interested in. (His shop resembled Amazon more than it did a modern brick-and-mortar bookstore, if you like.) It is in this catalog that the kinds of writing we now call "literature" (poetry, prose fiction and drama) are grouped together for the first time I am aware of, separated very clearly from other branches of learning, like history; one might even say this bookseller invented literature in the modern sense. Why did he come up with this category? It wasn't a stroke of genius, but a combination of the practical demands of the long distance trade with the bookseller's personal convictions. The offerings had to be organized transparently, so his readers could figure out what they wanted without being able to browse them on the shelves, as people could in the many bookshops in London. So our bookseller classified the titles according to the branches of learning, according to what each book is good for or instructive in. And what do fictional stories, poetry (mostly: love poetry) and frivolous stage-plays have in common, according to a 17th-century puritan? They are completely useless, a waste of your time. Puritans did not like fictional writing! This bookseller then seems to have moved to Barbados, and offered to send back a catalog of the plants of the island to the Royal Society, shifting from bibliography to botany but using the same idea of classification as a mode of information exchange, which is a rather wonderful conclusion to the story I want to tell here.

How do you conduct research? What resources do you use?

My work relies on various kinds of archives, rare book and manuscript collections, and library fellowships I held in recent years at institutions like the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Much of the study of literature obviously uses modern books and other resources available through the libraries of CUNY. Unfortunately, CUNY does not subscribe to many of the essential databases that I rely on, such as the State Papers Online and Early English Books Online, or even basic resources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There are also many journals that I cannot access. Research in the humanities is relatively speaking cheap, but the resources we rely on can severely constrain what we can do, and keeping these resources up to date requires a serious long-term commitment on the part of our institutions. I am excited that we have a new associate provost of research committed to building a culture of research across the entire university.