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The Carletonian

Prof. Harry Williams heads to China as Fulbright scholar

<ird Bell Professor of History Harry Williams will be spending the next year teaching undergraduate and graduate students in China, thanks to a Fulbright teaching fellowship he won earlier this month.

Despite his long tenure at Carleton, this is Williams’ first yearlong scholarship. “One of my former students called me after I heard and told me, ‘Congratulations. It’s about time,’” Williams said.

Williams has taught African American and American history at Carleton since he arrived on campus in 1989. He served as Director of the African American Studies Program this year.

“I was just taken by the country, the people,” Williams said when asked why he applied to teach in China.

Part of his interest stemmed from a series of delayed visits to East Asia, after an injury prevented him from going with a Carleton trip in 2002. Williams has visited China twice since, with Carleton in 2007 and 2008. “My major regret is that I discovered China as an old man.”

In addition to teaching, Williams will pursue his research interests in transnational black history. “The uninformed belief is that the history of black people is confined to the continental U.S,” he said. After years of traveling in Europe, Williams said, “every place I go, the big question is, ‘Were there black people here?’”

He will study connections between the Black Panthers and the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, particularly as represented in propaganda posters.

The application process was a rigorous one. Christopher Tassava, Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, started working with Williams on his application in December 2009, when Williams decided to apply.

Tassava works with faculty on all grant applications. However he has worked with only a few Carleton faculty over the past few years; he hopes Williams’ award will stimulate more interest in Fulbrights.

“Working with Harry on his Fulbright application was an enjoyably intense process,” Tassava said.

“Like many faculty members at Carleton, he’s a perfectionist who wanted to get every part of the application exactly right,” Tassava said.

Williams even sent his application to one of his Chinese students. “I wanted a younger person’s perspective. How would I adapt to teaching Chinese students? What skills are transferable to living in a Chinese society?”

Crafting a syllabus and teaching style for a Chinese audience posed the biggest challenge for Williams.

“How can I engage students in a culture where face is important? Where debate between professor and student is rare? That’s not Harry Williams’ style,” he said.

“There is a fear of pushing people into having dangerous thoughts [in China]. God forbid, I don’t want to get into trouble with the Chinese government,” he joked.

Williams’ teaching style has earned him a reputation as one of Carleton’s most outspoken faculty members on campus: “I may be wrong, but I’m sincere. When I’m wrong there’s a window for dialogue, for discourse.”

Williams doesn’t yet know where he will be staying in China, but hopes for Beijing or Shanghai.

Carleton has not had a faculty member on a full-year Fulbright in the past five years, but Political Science professor Lawrence Cooper did earn a winter/spring award in 2009.

So far this academic year, Tassava has worked with faculty to submit 64 grant applications worth a maximum of $7,544,125. Including Williams’ Fulbright, Carleton has received 15 awards worth $1,047,091.

“I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge,” Williams said.

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