Professors are usually bound to their classrooms – but these three members of UCLA faculty will spend a year away to pursue their personal projects.
Sylvan Oswald, an assistant playwriting professor, Lothar von Falkenhausen, a professor of Chinese archaeology and art history, and Elisabeth Le Guin, a musicology professor, are three of this year’s four UCLA professors who are Guggenheim Fellowship recipients. There are approximately 175 recipients each year, and the award is based on demonstrated creative skill in the arts. The opportunity grants individuals the time and resources to focus on creating new art or pursuing an unexplored passion.
Oswald said he wants to put a progressive spin on classic literature.
By analyzing societal perceptions of identity through dramatic literature, Oswald said he plans to spend his upcoming year writing a text in response to Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando.” He will use the book as a platform to represent the transgender experience and reshape its common narrative. The text he plans to write will address some of Woolf’s misconceptions that form the basis of the novel’s theme.
It was important for Oswald not to conform to the format of oppressing transgender characters just to illustrate a climactic tale of triumph, he said. Many historical novels, such as “Orlando,” involve characters who undergo a gender transformation and follow that traditional literary narrative. The norm is frustrating for the queer community because the characters are only pretending to be of the opposite sex rather than transitioning based on identity, which does not typically characterize the transgender experience, he said.
“A lot of these novels and plays can make queer people feel quite invisible, since these pieces often aren’t reflective of our experiences,” he said. “The struggle doesn’t get to go away magically.”
Much of playwriting has been traditional and conservative, said Michelle Liu Carriger, assistant professor of theater and performance studies. Through experimentation, Oswald’s work intentionally breaks conventional storytelling standards, she said. Representing gender nonconformity in his work has been on his mind for the last 20 years, he said. Some of his earlier works follow Woolf’s representation of gender, and he said he only began to challenge historical texts when a graduate school professor made him question his style.
“Now as a teacher myself, I think it’s so cool that students have professors who see art as something to push against, question, smash and rebuild,” he said. “It’s more important to stay true to your distinctive vision than to do anything anyone tells you to do.”
Lothar von Falkenhausen
Von Falkenhausen focuses his studies on a historical time period that he said is often overlooked.
Von Falkenhausen’s main interest lies in Chinese Bronze Age archaeology because of the country’s transformation from a nation dominated by a religious institution to a bureaucratic global power. Awarded the fellowship for his work on Chinese ritual and trans-Asiatic culture, he said he will dedicate this upcoming year to working on his latest book, which will include both textual evidence and information from excavations he has performed. Von Falkenhausen said the importance of the country’s early development is often overshadowed.
“Archaeology can tell an important story,” he said. “What I’m trying to show is how the economy of continental East Asia developed during the 800 years preceding China’s unification.”
One of the ways in which von Falkenhausen chooses to tell this story is by conducting excavations in salt archaeology, said Li Min, an associate professor of anthropology. He said von Falkenhausen developed this archaeological method into a legitimate field of study. The evidence of early salt production in China is proof that this mineral was the primary product during the country’s first millennium, Min said.
Although von Falkenhausen does not typically conduct lectures directly related to his research, he said he often facilitates an open discussion among his students, hoping they will develop their own perspectives on the archaeological topics explored in class.
“Even though I hope my students will someday find my work and enjoy it, I don’t have a master lecturing plan. The most important thing for me to do is create a space for students to develop their own ideas,” he said. “We need to break away from regimented routine.”
Elisabeth Le Guin
Le Guin hopes to challenge the perception of Orange County, California, demographics with a specialized project.
Her fellowship endeavor will consist of creating a two-part community project titled “El Cancionero de Santa Ana,” which she said will highlight the voices of Santa Ana, California. The first part is a written collection of traditional Mexican music lyrics, and the second is a radio program featuring local residents discussing their musical preferences in relation to the city’s culture, she said. Many people have specific ideas regarding Orange County – ones that, according to Le Guin, don’t always match the area’s true demographics.
“I think people often have a skewed idea of Orange County. The coastal areas are seen as being largely white and politically conservative, but those factors don’t characterize the county as a whole,” Le Guin said. “The inland communities are very complex.”
Raymond Knapp, a distinguished professor of musicology, said Le Guin initially struggled to find an unconventional way of honoring traditions and engaging with locals. In recent years, she has become interested in the son jarocho musical styling, popular among immigrant communities, and has gone to great lengths to increase accessibility to this genre, he said.
Le Guin said the primary objective of her piece is to boost community pride among the residents of Santa Ana, Westminster and Irvine, while simultaneously stressing the importance music can have on both individual and communal identity.
In order to personalize her project on identity, she plans to ask her radio show guests to name a song that represents where they are from and to list another that expresses their hopes for the future. Talking about music is a way one can get to know people and is also a medium through which one gets a glimpse into a community that is often overlooked, Le Guin said.
“I want to make a statement that says, ‘You matter, you’re important,’” she said. “‘And what you listen to is important, too.’”