Notes from Uzbekworld: Report from the Critical Languages Institute at ASU

A very quick update and post here: for at least the next couple of weeks, I’m likely to be updating this blog less frequently because I’m up to my eyeballs in homework and dissertation-related tasks. A week ago, I arrived from Italy to roasting hot Tempe, Arizona, just in time for the beginning of the Critical Languages Institute, a US State Department-funded initiative for American high schoolers, undergraduates, and graduate students like myself to improve their knowledge of something called ‘less commonly taught languages’ (Persian, Uzbek, Armenian, Tatar, etc.) having mostly to do with Eurasia. Arriving with some back-knowledge of Kyrgyz (from an intensive course in Bishkek) and Turkish (a semester-long beginner’s course way back when, in the spring of 2009), I was able to bluster my way through the placement tests enough to land not in Beginner’s, but Intermediate Uzbek. That’s a great opportunity for learning – we’re already covering participles, compound verbs, and other intermediate-ish topics – but it also means that your humble narrator is somewhat underwater and sometimes trying to recap the Beginner’s level homework and tests as well, to cover some of the differences between Kyrgyz and Uzbek (usually vowel shifts and that sort of thing: some of the comments on my first test here were along the lines of “You’ve made great progress on grammar in a week … now you just need to learn how to spell correctly). Still, between some wonderful teachers, motivated and smart classmates, and the prospect of diving even more into the language this August with a month in Samarkand, I’ve been having a great time. Throw in the (compared to Moscow) open spaces of the ASU campus and the gloriousness of being able to swim outdoors after being cooped up in my Muscovite pen, and I’ve been having a great time.

Turkic worlds: Uzbek marks my first serious foray into the Turkiy tillarining dunyosi (world of Turkic languages)

That’s not all, though. Because of some Oxford scheduling kerfluffles, I have to fly back to the UK this Friday to defend my dissertation – formally, almost the last step before I can become Dr. Nunan. That means that this week and the week after are liable to be even more hectic: lots of re-reading the D.Phil., finding a few spelling mistakes along the way (not just a problem in foreign tongues but also my mother one, apparently); thinking about bigger discussions about methodologies and how to write international history from a Soviet or Central Asian perspective; and thinking of points of contact or tension between the kind of international history that my dissertation implicitly argues for, and the rather different vision that my examiners – David Priestland and Arne Westad – have made in books like The Red Flag or The Global Cold War. At stake is the extent to which we should tell 20th century history from the point of view of the history of ideologies, the agency and subjectivity we ascribe to something called Communism, or whether (as I am slowly thinking I’m arguing) the Cold War is better seen as part of a bigger story of Western – Anglo-American, German, and Russian – preoccupations with the building of territorial states and national economies that dates from around the 1870s and ends in the 1980s. There’s still a lot to prepare for, and much sleep to be caught up on, too, but it should be a stimulating conversation.

Oxford’s St Edmund Hall – site of my dissertation defense, and where graduate students go to die?

Indeed, between the two main things going on in life right now – Uzbek courses and the D.Phil. viva – I’m been doing a lot of thinking about how to restructure the D.Phil. and the kind of priorities I want to assign to my time at the Harvard Academy, which starts this autumn. In recent weeks, as I’ve re-read works like Mark Mazower’s Governing the World and (for the first time) Daniel Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings, I’ve been thinking about the kind of international history I’d hope to write (or at least have inform the kind of non-academic work I’d be doing in the future). Works like the above are wonderful, as I’ve written in reviews; however, as I’ve also pointed out, I sometimes worry that there may be a slight sleight-of-hand going on in American and European universities when we relabel history that’s fundamentally about Anglo-American-Franco-German exchange as ‘international’ history. As the Rodgers book continues to dazzle, it’s obvious that that kind of international history can be great. As I discovered at the Trento Conference, however, sometimes this focus can obscure other non-European key actors – the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, or Japan – and their role in 20th century intellectual or economic history. Maybe I’m just justifying my own professional choices: one could well say that a story of [Soviet] Uzbek, Tajik, Iranian, and Afghan exchange is just as parochial, in a certain sense, as the Anglo-Franco-German angle. Tell people you’re interested in Uzbek-Iranian exchange, or Russo-Chinese-Uyghur-Uzbek exchange in, say, the 19th century, and eyebrows may raise more than if you’re doing Western European history. Forging a bigger community of scholars of Eurasia, and scholars from Eurasia working on international history-ish topics, and making sure that our perspective gets heard – something that institutions like the CESS Blog do – should be a priority.  What to do and what to focus on at Harvard to help build that community is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I never thought I’d be accusing others of being Eurocentric, but maybe I’m getting there … ?

Or at least such are some of my muddled impressions from the conference circuit. For now, it’s back to studying compound verbs – sotib olmoq, o’qib bermoq, and so on. More to come from Arizona, the UK, or the skies in between after my viva.

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One thought on “Notes from Uzbekworld: Report from the Critical Languages Institute at ASU

  1. Emily

    Tim, your industry is a mind-blowing inspiration! Think how much academia could get done if we all worked this hard!

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