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A California Resource Worth Protecting: The UC System's Global Writers

Like so many other things within the UC system that took a long time to create, including its first-class university press, our strength in public engagement is fragile.
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In this fast-changing, increasingly interconnected world, it's difficult to stay an informed global citizen. To remain on top of things, you need a strategy for swiftly getting up to speed whenever parts of the world you previously knew little about begin making headlines, as Haiti did last year and countries of North Africa have in 2011. I've found that one useful strategy, whenever a new setting commands attention, is to come up with the name of someone with a demonstrated ability to write about the locale in an effective, accessible, concise and informed manner--and because life is too short to read boring or inelegant prose, is also an engaging stylist. Then I go online to see if the author has written anything on the topic of the moment. Most recently, this approach led to a morning spent scouring the web for new commentaries by Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer who I had heard say fascinating things about North Africa at a 2008 public event, and then devouring and learning from smart essays on Tunisia and Egypt she had written for the Guardian and the Nation. In 2010, a similar process led me to a crash course on contemporary Haiti, courtesy of Amy Wilentz, the author of an important 1990 book on that country who went back to it after last year's earthquake and wrote about the experience for the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine and the New Yorker.

You can do the things I've just described doing from any place in the United States, of course, but there's something special about turning to Lalami and Wilentz for edification if you happen to be a Californian: each is not just a world-class writer, but also someone who is employed by this state. If you attend UC Riverside, where Lalami teaches in the Creative Writing Department, you can go from reading her essays to signing up for one of her courses. Likewise, if you go to UC Irvine, where I teach, you can take a course with Wilentz, who is in our unique Literary Journalism Program. And if you aren't a UC student, simply living in the state increases the likelihood of catching a free public event featuring one of them. Wilentz recently spoke at Pitzer College, for example, and this week will be a presenter in an Irvine Lifelong Learning series. Lalami spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library last year and at UCI the year before that. Both are also regulars at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Lalami and Wilentz are unusually gifted and insightful writers, but they are hardly unique in being University of California professors who are committed to conveying what they know about issues in the news to broad audiences--and do this with panache. Moreover, the list of the system's public intellectuals of this sort is not limited to particular campuses or particular departments. For example, when I want help understanding the twists and turns of American electoral politics, which can seem as opaque at times as anything taking place in a distant land, I seek out new writings by UCLA historian Joyce Appleby. Mark Danner of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism has written powerfully on torture in Iraq. And if Kenya is in the news, I'll want to see how Ng农g末 wa Thiong'o of Irvine's English and Comparative Literature departments (and former director of our International Center for Writing and Translation) analyzes the events in question.

The debate over the damage that cascading budget cuts could do and indeed have already done to the University of California often focuses on the impact slashes in funding have on what takes place in classrooms and research labs. The effects in those areas are important, but in a discourse that often zeroes in on such things as how class sizes will affect students and the chances that scientists who have won Nobel Prizes or garnered massive research grants will leave for greener pastures, some important things get overlooked. One is the value--not just to students, but also to local communities and the state as a whole--of the system's impressive roster of writers who are able to explain with skill and grace how the world is changing, domestically and internationally. Most may not be contenders for Nobel Prizes (the sole exception is Ng农g末 wa Thiong'o, who has been described as someone who could win the one for Literature someday), and they aren't typically eligible to apply for large pots of outside funding (though some, such as Mike Davis at UC Riverside and Yiyun Li of UC Davis, have won lucrative MacArthur "genius" awards), but this is hardly a reason to overlook what they have to offer. Doesn't the state need, after all, people who can explain in thoughtful and eloquent ways what someone else's winning of a Nobel Prize means, as Riverside's Perry Link did in a moving New York Review of Books essay on the empty chair in Oslo that imprisoned Chinese laureate Liu Xiaobo was unable to fill in December? And don't we benefit from having in our midst not just scientists studying climate change, but also historians like Kenneth Pomeranz, in my own department, who can write accessible and erudite essays on topics such as the geopolitical implications of the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, at a time when India and China are intensely concerned with water supplies and have different opinions on where borderlines should be drawn and dams should be built in the region?

The UC system's store of writing talent is a resource worth preserving as the state tries to reinvent itself yet again, via a process whose contours remain to be seen but will surely be easier to manage if California has a large pool of informed citizens. Like so many other things within the UC system that took a long time to create, including its first-class university press, this strength in public engagement is fragile, and is at risk in a time of dwindling state support for higher education. To their credit, none of the people I've mentioned above moved out of the state or to a private university when, like all UC faculty members, they saw their pay slashed by up to 8% (due to what were misleadingly described as "furloughs"--a misnomer because there was no reduction in our work loads) for the 2009/2010 academic year. Nor have they left due to decreases in travel funds and diminishing support for things they care about, from graduate fellowships to libraries to K-12 outreach programs they had seen as providing another kind of important venue for connecting with publics beyond the university. Still, retaining writers like these will be challenging as private university endowments bounce back from the financial crisis.

Another effect of fiscal constraints is that it is getting harder and harder to fund visits by writers from other places, whose interactions with local authors can create wonderful kinds of synergy. I first got a chance to hear Lalami, for example, when my campus brought the multi-talented South Asian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra to Irvine, in part to run a workshop for graduate students who aspired to combine specialist and general interest writing in their own careers. Mishra asked us to invite Lalami over from Riverside to engage in an open dialogue with him on the challenges of public writing in globalizing times. The result was an informative exchange of ideas, which was moderated in a spirited fashion by Kavita Philip, a local scholar based in UCI's Women's Studies Department who has written insightfully on issues of science and technology for publications such as Asia Times Online. (Since Mishra's visit, students who studied with him have balanced making steady progress toward earning their doctorates with publishing short pieces for general readers at venues such as and the History News Network--and the program that brought him to campus has been suspended due to the budget crunch.)

For now, despite the challenges of the moment, the UC system still has more than its fair share of engaged and talented writers focusing on current affairs. And the benefits of this situation to students and the community at large should be particularly apparent to anyone living on or simply near my campus this week. On Wednesday, they can go to that lifelong learning event featuring Amy Wilentz. On Thursday, they can hear Ng农g末 wa Thiong'o take part in a public conversation on "Africa in the World/The World in Africa," which will be moderated by UCI historian Laura Mitchell, who has written on South African politics for the Huffington Post, and feature visiting journalist Howard W. French, who has done important and gracefully worded reporting from both Africa and China in the past and now teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Then, on Friday, they can attend the second day of a two-day workshop organized by Catherine Liu, Director of the UCI Humanities Collective, on issues of privacy and surveillance--a day that begins with a roundtable on China whose participants will include French and Perry Link, UCI specialists in Chinese studies, and the L.A.-based activist/writer Wang Chaohua.

It is wonderful that these events, which draw upon a mix of local and visiting talent, can take place on a campus so strapped for funds. To pull them off, though, requires more than the normal share of creativity and goodwill on the part of participants. For example (not that I'm complaining, since he's a friend and always interesting to talk to), in order to be able to afford to get French here to take part in this week's Irvine events, my wife and I had to offer--and he had to be willing to accept--crashing in our guest room rather than being put up at a hotel. And equally importantly, some participants in the Securing Privacy workshop, such as Link and Wang, had to be game to brave drives back and forth on stretches of freeway that can be snarled by traffic. Now, that shows, as many Southern Californians know all too well, true commitment to public service.

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