Dean's Update - August 15, 2023
I’m an easy mark for campus novels. Give me Lodge, McInerny, Russo, Sayers, Snow, or Tartt—no matter which, fictionalized collegiate life fascinates me.
Rebecca Kuang’s Babel is the latest entry. Principally set in 1830s Oxford, but in an alternate reality, the novel’s protagonist, Robin Swift, is the Cantonese ward of a renowned Sinologist. Spirited away from destitution to posh Hampstead, Robin receives an education that fits him for Oxford. There, he pursues a degree through the Royal Institute of Translation, aka Babel. Robins’s soaring dreams are plausible in a period Oxford that enchants. Until it doesn’t.
In Kuang’s novel, British imperialism swings on the hinges of a cultural and moral imagination forged through the expertise and educative efforts of Oxford dons, among whom philologists curiously rank highest. In this alternate-reality Oxford, translators serve not only as agents of colonial power, but possess the arcane knowledge of “silver-making,” the magic of which powers Britain’s geopolitical domination. Robin’s dreams turn nightmarish when he falls prey to xenophobia, racism, and classism; even more when he grows savvy to how his rare talents are being enlisted in a corrupt regime’s rapacious colonizing. By the book’s end, his conscience seared by manifest injustice, Robin makes a decision that recapitulates Genesis 11:6-7.
For Babel, Kuang has been widely honored. By presenting a mostly recognizable Oxford, she satisfies readers’ desire to see a treasured institution depicted artfully. Yet her alternate-reality Oxford is changed at just the points needed to call attention to neglected, even suppressed narratives. She thus shines light on a 19th-century British establishment intent on self-aggrandizing imperial policies pursued in cooperation with leading Oxford scholars.
In my book, however, Babel comes up short on three counts.
First, Kuang often takes narration, and sometimes dialogue, in overly didactic directions. A young writer growing into her voice, she needs to embrace the art of showing instead of saying.
Second, in her hands Victorian Oxford is divested of palpably Christian elements. Kuang seemingly has transported her own 21st-century secular education to the past. Recall, though, that the 1830s ushered in a Christian reckoning in which the Oxford movement of Keble, Pusey, and Newman took root. Indeed, Christian belief and practice generally suffused Oxford during the 1800s. If Babel incorporated rather than abjured authentic Christian witness within its historical setting, a subtler, richer, and more honest-to-life plot would have been possible.
Third, the novel struggles to provide a constructive vision of human flourishing. Babel gives ample thematic attention to power and its absence, but nowhere seriously explores human nature, meaning, or purpose. This blunts the appeal, if not the edge, of Kuang’s postcolonialism.
If truth is stranger than fiction, we need imaginative stories to give us practice coming to terms with the truth. On those grounds, my love of campus novels might just help me be a better dean!
Moving from 1830s Oxford to 2020s Baylor, here are some things of note in our common life:
- Three important gatherings over the next few weeks should be on your calendars:
- Our fall semester Honors College faculty and staff meeting will be Thursday, August 24 from 3:30-5:00 p.m. in Jesse Jones Library 200. New faculty and staff will be introduced, I will give a brief state of the college address, and we will discuss what’s in store for the year ahead.
- Provost Nancy Brickhouse will represent the University’s Strategic Planning Group at a listening session for Honors College faculty and staff on Wednesday, September 6 from 9:00-10:00 a.m. in Cashion 501. This is a key opportunity for contribution to Baylor’s next strategic vision.
- The HRC’s Fall Community Dinner will be Sunday, September 10 from 5:00-7:00 p.m. in Cashion 506. Contact Courtney DePalma with questions or RSVPs.
- Work on our new digs spanning Founders Mall is well underway. In Memorial and Alexander, interior demolition in preparation for redesigned spaces is ongoing. Over in Draper, things are moving along more quickly. Demolition is complete, and significant progress is evident on electrical, plumbing, and HVAC installation, with some interior walls and finished drywall in place. Timelines call for substantial completion by July 2024.
- Congratulations to our retired colleague J. Mark Long, whose dedicated service was recognized this summer through designation as Associate Professor Emeritus. In my nomination letter, I noted students’ praise of Mark as “an inspiring, memorable, and wonderfully committed mentor” and recalled his “splendid poetic recitations, vulnerability in displaying the full range of emotions called forth by the ideas and events raised in his courses, and unstinting availability to help others.” We’re proud of you, Mark.
- Welcome to Ronda Bond, our new assistant director of BIC programs and admissions. Dr. Bond brings over twenty years of work in higher education to her role, beginning her career as an admissions counselor and accruing leadership experience in a range of recruitment, advising, retention, and student success positions. She holds her Ed.D. in Leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University. Welcome, Ronda!
- Welcome to Matthew Anderson, joining us as assistant professor of ethics and theology in the honors program. Matt earned his D.Phil. from Oxford in 2018, where he studied under Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology. Students praise Matt’s engaging and challenging teaching, peers recognize his research, and his public intellectual work includes Mere Orthodoxy and 100 Days of Dante. Welcome, Matt!
- Last month, an NEH Summer Institute on our campus was co-directed by Phillip Donnelly, professor of literature in the great texts program. Disputatio and the Pursuit of Wisdom in the Humanities, backed by a $189,999 grant, helped schoolteachers understand the disputatio as a classroom tool for exploring human nature and meaning. Joining Phil as co-directors were Todd Buras, associate professor of philosophy (A&S) and Angel Parham, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Well done, Phil.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
honors.baylor.edu | 254.710.7689