Academic Celebrities

Many academic celebrities in the social sciences visited Wageningen University and Research in the past year. Blogger Nadya Karimasari shares her latest encounter with one of them.

I’ve lost count of how many academic celebrities I’ve met at Wageningen University and Research. I couldn’t imagine a better timing to do a PhD. Earlier this month, James Ferguson, a well-known anthropologist from Stanford University, USA, gave a public lecture at Orion about share, presence, and social obligation. A couple of days after, other famous names participated in the two-days Hauntology seminar on psychoanalysis and political economy. Don’t ask me about the seminar, I swear I have no idea.

While having my daily dose of sunbathing on the outdoor bench in Leeuwenborch, a participant of the hauntology seminar casually sat down next to me. My half-closed eyes were transfixed by his beautiful shoes. They must be expensive, I guess. He opened the lid of his cigarette box and asked me what I thought of the seminar. I looked up and my jaw dropped in disbelief. It was Erik Swyngedouw, a world-leading political economist from Manchester University.

Keeping my cool, I answered him in shameless honesty, ‘I didn’t understand a single word.’ Why pretend, not everyone is familiar with Lacan. A slight smile curved up in Erik’s face, ‘I still remember what that’s like.’ And that’s the beginning of our jovial conversation.

‘When I was teaching at Oxford, I was a regular participant at the monthly seminar of Amnesty International. I was a supporter. I always attended their seminar in order to purchase the ticket so they would get money’, he said. ‘In 1998, Slavoj Zizek was one of the speakers. I came out of the seminar, thinking: what a bloody circus!’ he told me.

‘I owned two books by Zizek because everybody said he was so good, but I just read the back covers and put them right back on the shelf. That day, after the seminar – I remember it vividly, it was May – I went straight to a very beautiful bookstore …’ I cut him off, shortly, ‘Blackwell, was it?’, ‘Yes, Blackwell’, he continued, ‘I bought more than ten books by Zizek and paid around 400 pounds.’

‘Later, during the summer holiday, I spent three months reading all his books at a house by the sea. I read from morning to evening, just having a break for lunch, and I still didn’t understand most of it. Only around ten years later, in 2007, did I start to understand half of it. And now, once I got it, I can do whatever I want with it’, he said animatedly with his hands flipping up and down.

‘Learning is slow’, his words sounded like music to my ears. ‘Sometimes, students would think I’ve got it all easy. They only see me now. But I was also a student like them once. Nothing is easy. It was also difficult for me. I also took a long time to learn to finally get to where I am now’, he confessed.

‘The most important thing is to not give up on our enjoyment, and not give in to fear’, he added passionately. ‘I remember when I studied Marx when I was a student like you. Everybody said it was an academic suicide. But, I am still here’, he smiled victoriously.

‘I followed my enjoyment, and do not give in to the fear.’

as seen in Resource online

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The gentle humour of Jan Douwe

A tribute to professor Jan Douwe van der Ploeg by blogger Nadya Karimasari. Today her favourite professor and living legend of Wageningen University will give his valedictory speech.

He is professor Jan Douwe van der Ploeg from the Rural Sociology chair group. I hope he will still visit the Leeuwenborch frequently, although he will officially be retired. There is still so much to learn from such a big mind and humble heart.

As a big fan, I was nervous and reluctant to say more than ‘good morning’ to him at first, although we worked on the same floor. I waited nine months before finally speaking to him in December 2016. I asked one of his student from China, Jin Zhang, to introduce us. Jin said that as a supervisor, ‘Jan Douwe is very gentle and nurturing, like a mother.’ I was impressed, because he was a very good listener. I was also his silent observer for a while, and the most striking features that I perceived are his sense of humour and his art of enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

Jan Douwe is full of jokes most of the time. I often saw him having lunch at the canteen with his close-knit friends, and they’re always full of laughter – laughing at Jan Douwe’s jokes. When he struck a conversation with the administrative officers and other workers, I often overheard them speak of delicious, mouth-watering food. Even in his books that I enjoyed thoroughly: in his writing, he would include some relevant, warm and satiric jokes to explain his serious analysis. I believe that the research Jan Douwe has done throughout his career has made some contribution to his outlook on life.

Having done three or more longitudinal studies that each span three decades on peasant farming, I can imagine Jan Douwe is very familiar with the significance of jokes in peasants’ life. Through his deep engagement with peasants, Jan Douwe knows very well that peasants’ life has a lot of challenges, but they also have their on way of mastering the strategy to survive, including through jokes.

This is not a farewell to the prince of peasant studies. Jan Douwe has left a strong legacy for the next generation of researchers to give the serious attention that the peasants deserve.

The Unconventional Anna Tsing

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Last week, blogger Nadya had one of her best PhD moments: she met one of the most innovative anthropologists of our time.

When I was working on my master’s thesis five years ago, my supervisor told me that I was like Anna Tsing. At the time, although Anna Tsing’s work was mostly on Indonesia, I was not aware of her. Since then, I have been trying to discover myself through her works. I read her book ‘Friction’ three times. Imagine how surprised I was when I heard that she was coming to Wageningen!

I am dying to know what your research is about!

‘I am dying to know what your research is about!’ she said to me in front of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. I will never forget her warmth and genuine enthusiasm. Anna Tsing is a professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz and Aarhus University. She visited Wageningen University to perform at the internal launch of the Center for Space, Place, and Society. Instead of giving a lecture, she decided to play the ‘Golden Snail Opera’ on this occasion.

Work ethic
Me and one other student helped her with the performance. She was very generous to say that it was an honour for her to meet us. I learnt about work ethic from her dedication to make sure that we practiced at least twice before the final presentation, despite her hectic schedule. She was also presenting at three other universities before, and she prepared three completely different presentations.

Her ground-breaking work, such as the ethnography of global connection and the multispecies approach, had made her well-known as an original and unconventional anthropologist. When she was a PhD candidate, one of her advisors read three chapters of her dissertation and told her: ‘You are a much more interesting person than this.’

Trying to please
She had to rewrite her dissertation, but she thanked him for that comment. ‘Otherwise, I would be a much more conventional anthropologist,’ she said. ‘In the beginning, I was trying to please,’ this was the challenge when she was writing up her dissertation. I think most PhD candidates are familiar with this tendency. I hope we can find our way to become independent scientists and overcome the ‘trying to please’ tendency.