Carl Robertson: The Liberal Arts Personified
Carl Robertson is the liberal arts personified: a teacher-scholar, researcher, Chinese language speaker, world-traveler, husband, father, woodworker, bird watcher and lifelong learner.
His passion for Chinese (and all) literature is palpable, even physical. One must clear a path through the stacks of books in his office in order to find a seat in which to sit for … not so much an interview, but a lively discussion on religion, family, physics, calligraphy, woodworking and the Chinese language, of course.
Right off the bat, Robertson says, “Typically, students don’t come to Southwestern to study Chinese.” However, that’s exactly why he is here. The University’s only full-time Chinese professor (with the support of Patricia Schiaffini, an “incredibly talented and dedicated” part-time assistant professor teaching in the Chinese and Political Science Departments), Robertson specifically came to Southwestern to establish its Chinese program. “I knew what I wanted to do, but never imagined it would be in Texas,” he says. “But I saw the job posting and it was like Southwestern and I recognized each other. Being on campus, even being in the state, was like—as John Denver sang—’Comin’ home to a place I’ve never been before.’”
Robertson truly believes he is in the right place, doing the right thing. “My grandfather was a pragmatic cattle rancher in Utah, who believed that if something is broken, you take pliers and baling wire and fix it. It’s the same here; in Texas, people matter and you fix things that are broken. I can relate to that.”
Now, 12 years later, he says he’s “still building the program from scratch” because the curriculum has changed as have students’ needs and interests. Although his favorite course to teach is Chinese Literature in Translation, Robertson says students need and want more courses in Chinese language and culture. Of the six courses offered, four are gen-ed requirements and the intermediate and advanced courses are topical, focusing on environmental and business issues, respectively.
Robertson says his upper-level courses fit perfectly into the Paideia curriculum; his intermediate course is part of the Global Health cluster. “We are making connections within and outside of the language,” he says. “I love engaging students in this way; seeing them draw all kinds of connections and bring things together in the classroom. Their enthusiasm for the language goes so far that they won’t let me speak English in the classroom; if I ask a question in English, they answer in Chinese. I love it!”
Robertson says that Southwestern students typically sign up for a Chinese course because they are fascinated with the Chinese culture, are into anime, or are just looking to fulfill the language requirement and then get caught up in it. “They become accidental Chinese scholars,” he says. “Some students achieve remarkable things. I have noticed that those who become wholly engaged in the language tend to have higher-performing careers or better placement in graduate schools, even if they don’t continue their Chinese studies after graduation.”
Several 2014 graduates fall into that high-performing category. José Bayoán Santiago Calderón is working on his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University. Ashley Johnson was accepted into the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in China (the same program in which Robertson studied in 1987), and Laura Meitz is studying at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
In a practical sense, Robertson says that learning Chinese is not just about developing a skill in order to get a job, but about expanding one’s cognitive capacities. “Education is not necessarily about getting somewhere, but being engaged in constant discovery, and Chinese pushes a student over into a different intellectual area,” he says. “It definitely conveys interest in challenges and in exploration and discovery; employers find value in that.”
Fascinating Fact: Students with certain learning or reading disabilities like Dyslexia, have great success in Chinese, whereas they may struggle with other foreign languages.
Personally, Robertson’s fascination with Chinese literature, culture and language began when he was a 19-year old missionary for his church in Taiwan in the early 1980s. He says while there, he felt secure and comfortable. “I’m not sure why I felt that way,” he says. “Taiwan is a messy place, but I came home to the U.S. and felt ripped open.” He thinks that part of that feeling came from the fact that the Chinese don’t shy away from the powerful smells of food, flowers and other things. “The U.S. smelled sterile; like nothing,” says Robertson. What it comes down to, he says, is that the Chinese culture seeks fullness and the completion of things, which is not a negative statement on the U.S. or China, it is just different. “The Chinese people maintain a sense of the sacred. Even if something is not really religious, there’s a specialness to everything,” he explains.
As a professor, his goal is to foster and grow the interest of his accidental scholars in the Chinese language and culture. He says, “I sit down with individual students and ask, ‘What level of Chinese do you want to end up with when you graduate, and how do you plan on getting there?’” He also asks them about their particular interests and works with them on how to facilitate those interests through the Chinese language and culture. His philosophy for having these individualized plans for students stems from the fact that students often find that they don’t know Chinese vocabulary specific to their main interests. For example, he says a student may love jogging, but has no idea how to say, “I like to jog” in Chinese. “Knowing how to talk about things that are of interest to them keeps students engaged in learning the language,” he explains.
Developing a culture among students of Chinese on campus is also important to Robertson. In hopes of accomplishing that goal, he orients students’ Chinese classes to their Paideia cluster themes; holds a once-a-week Chinese language table at lunchtime; and plans to put all of his lessons on the characters (vocabulary) on video so as to not get sidetracked in class. “I love sharing the Chinese characters and what they mean; I can end up taking the whole class period talking about them,” he admits.
He is also working on a dedicated time to talk about his research, to host Chinese Paideia brown bag lunches, and to visit classes on seemingly unrelated topics in order to make unexpected connections. For example, he would like to collaborate with Associate Professor of Physics Mark Bottorff on a talk about astronomy in Chinese culture, or Associate Professor of Biology Maria Todd on a discussion of Chinese medical treatments as they relate to cancer.
On a Personal Note
Robertson investigates what he considers the foundation of Chinese culture with a particular emphasis on personal identity and one’s connection to the cosmos, fundamental forces or being. After reading as a teenager “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain, he decided to follow the truth, no matter what it is, no matter where it took him or what it cost. “It took me a lot of time, and deep and difficult personal effort,” he says, “and even though I am very at home with Buddhists and at home reading Daoists, I am still a faithful member of the Church of Latter Day Saints because I find the church’s teachings to be true.”
He is also fascinated by what he sees as the Chinese way of connecting everything; the idea of the unity of all things. “When I was a small boy, I saw the painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh and had the impression that everything is all connected. I said something about math, English and social studies all being the same in the end.” Robertson has since been interested in physics, which he says, “links the laws of nature with the fundamental relationship between things.”
Whether from related curiosity or not, he found himself wanting to work with his hands. He persisted in asking woodworking questions of Phil Hopkins, professor of philosophy and a master craftsman of furniture, and eventually bought a wood lathe from him. In his son’s former clubhouse, Robertson has begun turning wood bowls and is in the process of making a wooden flute.
He explains that, in much the same way, the early Daoists would become woodworkers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and even butchers and would use their skills as an expression of how things flow and work. “Calligraphy is similar,” he adds, “in that when one is using the brush to create the characters, he or she is also enacting connections to the cosmos.”
In the liberal arts tradition, Robertson links his new-found love of woodworking to his teaching and scholarship, saying, “I want students to relate to Chinese culture and language in the same way I relate to my other passions – by making mistakes, solving problems, engaging and connecting with the subject.”
Story by Kristina Moore