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Online education on Stanford Faculty Senate chair's agenda

David Palumbo-Liu, chair of Stanford's Faculty Senate and a professor of comparative literature, plans to hold two panel discussions on the topic of online education.  He also is co-teaching a course titled Histories and Futures of Humanistic Education: Culture and Crisis, Books and MOOCS next quarter.

L.A. Cicero Professor David Palumbo-Liu

Comparative literature Professor David Palumbo-Liu is chair of Stanford's Faculty Senate.

If not for an unlucky investment decision by his paternal grandfather, Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu said he would be "luxuriating on a beach" in Hawaii, instead of teaching at a university and chairing the Faculty Senate.

"My grandfather was a very savvy businessperson who had developed real estate holdings in Waikiki and Shanghai, and one day he decided he needed to consolidate and put all his eggs in one basket," Palumbo-Liu said during a recent interview in his office on the Main Quad.

"Which one do you think he picked? He chose Shanghai, which made a lot of sense in the 1930s. But after the Chinese Revolution, the government appropriated the land. If he had chosen Waikiki I would not be teaching, I would be luxuriating on a beach there on inherited property."

He said the only mementos of that investment are small green plastic certificates from the Chinese government that say the family once owned the land.

Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature who joined Stanford's faculty in 1990, also is the director of the undergraduate program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He is the editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. This year, he also is serving as chair of the 46th Faculty Senate.

Palumbo-Liu, who has presided over three senate meetings so far this quarter, said one reason he took on the post was because the senate offers a forum  for encouraging the university to engage in a fuller discussion about online education. He plans to hold two panel discussions during winter quarter on the topic – in late January and early March.

"I spent last summer talking to just about every key player in online education at Stanford, and I came away assured that we're doing some really good things here that are decidedly not like the hyperbolic, stereotypical notion of a MOOC (massive open online course)," he said. "I want to get that story out. Also, I want to give faculty the chance to ask probing questions. What are the ethics of online education? What is the public good? What are the implications for teaching? What are the best practices and policies?"

 A Bay Area native in spirit

While Palumbo-Liu was born in upstate New York, his family moved to California when he was a child – first to Oakland, then to nearby Orinda.

"When I was growing up in Orinda in the '60s, it was great to do cross-country running, because you would go through all these apple orchards," he said. "Back then, there was a lot of farmland, orchards and open fields. It was really nice growing up there. But it was also, in some ways, eerily peaceful and undisturbed. Of course, for a young person, you don't want that, you want some excitement. For that you would go to Berkeley or San Francisco."

Palumbo-Liu's father, who was raised in Hawaii, moved to Beijing to become a neurosurgeon. He served as a field surgeon during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and in World War II.

His mother, who grew up in Beijing, was the only child of a powerful diplomatic family. She earned a master's degree in literature at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass. After graduating, she taught English in a program broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She also taught English to Chinese naval officers at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Palumbo-Liu's father spoke Cantonese and his mother spoke Mandarin. They knew enough of each other's dialects to say very simple things to each other, but mostly spoke English at home. They enrolled Palumbo-Liu and his brother and sister in Chinese school in Oakland, which had a sizable Chinese population. But the lessons ended when the family moved to Orinda.

"Growing up in an all-white community, it wasn't cool to stand out by speaking Chinese," he said. "Who was I going to speak Chinese to anyway – except to my parents?"

He earned bachelor's degrees in comparative literature and in Chinese at the University of California-Berkeley, where he also earned a master's degree and doctorate in comparative literature. His dissertation focused on the 11th-century poetry of Huang Tingjian.

"It was my job to translate the poetry, comment upon it, analyze it and figure out the significance of certain lines, because classical Chinese poetry is full of allusions, and Huang Tingjian was one of the most allusive Chinese poets," Palumbo-Liu said.

"I chose him because he was very difficult and I wanted to challenge myself to learn a lot about classical Chinese literature. Aside from the usual quotations from Confucius, or philosophers or historians, he would throw in allusions to medicinal texts, frontier songs, the songs of courtesans or the writings of third-rate poets. It required a lot of detective work, because I had to trace the origins of the allusions and the poetic intent behind them."

 Palumbo-Liu attributed his decision to become a professor to his wife, Sylvie, raised in France and a fellow graduate student at Berkeley, who encouraged him to pursue an academic career.  She is a lecturer in the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages; their son, Fabrice, earned a bachelor's degree at Stanford in 2007.

Life on the Farm

After earning a doctorate from Berkeley in 1988, Palumbo-Liu and his wife spent two years teaching at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. But they longed to return to California, drawn by its diversity and its climate.

That dream became a reality when he became an assistant professor at Stanford in 1990. By 2001, he was a full professor. In 2012, he was named the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature.

Today, Palumbo-Liu is most interested in issues regarding social theory, community, race and ethnicity, justice, globalization, ecology and the specific role that literature and the humanities play in helping people address each of these areas.

His latest book, The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, was published in 2012 by Duke University Press.

Palumbo-Liu said he was chagrined at the possibility that the humanities could lose their vitality at universities.

"Technology is great – it's an inevitable part of contemporary life," he said. "But at the end of the day there are certain persistent questions about life that are essential to being human – questions that technology can't help us with very much. What does it mean to be in love? What does it mean to die? Why am I doing this? What else is there to do in life?"

Still, Palumbo-Liu, who frequently uses social media, says he is no Luddite. Next quarter, he will conduct his own experiment in online education with a new course,  Histories and Futures of Humanistic Education: Culture and Crisis, Books and MOOCS. He will teach the course in conjunction with Professor Cathy N. Davidson at Duke University and Professor Christopher Newfield at UC-Santa Barbara, and collaborate with Mitchell Stevens , an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), and Candace Thille, an assistant professor at the GSE and a senior research fellow in the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Education.

"I figured if I were going to be talking about online education in the senate I might as well know more about what it is and practice it in my own exploratory way," Palumbo-Liu said. "We'll be doing Google Hangouts – with three to four students to a laptop – and communicating amongst the three campuses. We'll be practicing and critiquing online education at the same time. I think it will be really interesting."