In fall 2019, Dr. Paul Vierthaler joined MLL’s Chinese Studies program, and we asked him some questions about being a professor of Chinese Studies:
How did you become interested in Chinese?
When I was deciding what I wanted to study in college, I really wanted to learn a language that had a lot of utility that a lot of people spoke. Growing up in southwest Kansas, there were not many language options in high school, but when I headed to the University of Kansas I was delighted to discover that they offered Chinese. I did not start with a fundamental interest in the language per se, nor I did anticipate this would be one of the central choices that would shape my career. While at KU, my interest in China rapidly developed, so to further my language skills, I spent my junior year abroad at the Associated Colleges in China study abroad program in Beijing. The immersive experience of acquiring the language and living in Beijing were enough to convince me to return to China after graduation. I lived in China for several years before going to graduate school, and I began studying classical Chinese at Yunnan Normal University in Kunming. This was my first sustained encounter with classical literature, which I rapidly became enamored of. This then led me to the decision to go to graduate school so I could study and teach classical Chinese literature and culture professionally.
What is the focus of your research?
The broad focus of my work centers on fictional literature written in the Ming dynasty in China (1368 to 1644). I am currently working on a book that analyzes how historical stories are told in untrustworthy media (novels, dramas, and unvetted historical texts) written during the late Ming and early Qing (1500 to 1700, roughly speaking). The thirst for information on recent events resulted publishers producing a high volume of works to meet the demand, and they really influenced how people saw their past. This publishing trend meant that a fair number of these works were of relatively low literary quality, making them arduous to read. As such, I use large digital collections of historical texts and study them with techniques developed by computer scientists, linguists, and even biologists. My research also extends in this computational direction, and I am interested the application of machine learning, natural language processing, and big data analytics to cultural datasets.
What kind of classes do you like to teach best?
I’ve been fortunate to teach a wide variety of courses, and they all tend to be rewarding in their own ways. Introducing students who’ve never read a Chinese book to the Water Margin, working through a complicated passage in the Zhuangzi with advanced students, and teaching students how to program are all extremely rewarding. This being said, my favorite classes are those intermediate classes where students have moved beyond the basics of Chinese studies and are seeing the vast possibilities of the field for the first time. It is very difficult to beat the sense of discovery in the first seminar after that intro class that blends new literature with new methods to engage with materials at a deep level for the first time. I also love to teach methodologically focused classes and lab sessions where the main focus is building computer tools for studying Chinese literature.
What do you think of William & Mary so far?
Coming here has been a wonderful experience! My students in particular have been amazing. They are deeply engaged with the course material, have been eager to discuss in class, and always ask incisive questions. The research environment here is also top-notch. I’ve found that there is a lot of support for research of all sorts, and particularly for research that encourages student involvement! This support has allowed me to start the new MLL digital humanities lab, which is getting off the ground early in the spring semester, and I am really looking forward to guide MLL students in research projects that they help design.