Professor Constance Cook Named for NEH Distinguished Professor - Interview with Kimberly Mejia (MLL Work Study Student)
1. Can you tell us a little about your research? Some background information (when, where, with who)?
In the last year, I was at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and I started a new book project. So, I was exploring new areas of research and this book project looked at the intersection of two epistemological fields that is medicine and divination. Divination is sort of ways in which people contact the supernatural to see how it affects peoples’ daily life and that’s why I look at health issues in terms of that. Then, I focus on excavated texts as my sources. I don’t do the usual scholarly path which is just through transmitted texts, that is, texts that have been around for over a thousand years, I look at stuff that has been newly discovered. It tends to be things out of tumbs or buried in the backs of caves or things that are within the past 100 years newly reached scholars. And so I look at that information and compare it a little bit with what we learn in the transmitted texts. But, really what I’m trying to do is educated myself in these new fields. I’ve started my book and I have about five chapters drafted and what I’ve done is start in the medieval period which is a new time for me to research. My general area of scholarly comfort is the B.C. era, so way back! Here in the medieval times in the 10th century or the 9th century, I’m looking at some of the documents that have come out of the [Din Huang] cave complex which is way out in the northwest China, in the desert in these sets of Buddhist caves. I’m reading some of these documents and learning about the little community that was on the silk road and how they interacted with their idea of what medical knowledge was and their idea of divination and how to solve medical problems through divination. Now, obviously that’s not the only way; they had herbs, they had all different kinds of medical treatment methods but divination was one way to sort of confirm a diagnosis, they used multiple different ways. I look at this as a lens and I crystallize a few central issues and then I go back in time. After creating the medieval lens and also looking at some theories of body and conceptualization of body, the medical conceptualization of body at different time periods by different scholars and different traditions I go back in time to the 10th century B.C. and I say, “Can we even apply these same questions, these same points to this data?” and “What does this data tell us that’s different?”. So then, I analyze all the data about body and divination, which is a lot actually, on these oracle bones and then I come slowly back up through time looking at different sets of data. By the end of the book, which I haven’t reached yet, I’ll end up back in the medieval period. I’m taking these questions back in time and then back up into the medieval time and reopening and looking at them.
2. How did you get involved with this research?
I have been working with excavated texts ever since graduate school, actually even before graduate school as an undergraduate one of my first Chinese professors, back in the neolithic, was an oracle bone specialist. Even though he taught me modern Chinese, he also taught me the fascination with ancient texts and I never lost that. When I next went to another school to finish my B.A. and then move into my M.A. I became interested in a different set of texts from bones to bronzes. Then as I went to another graduate school for my Ph.D., Berkley, I got not only interested in Bronzes but in finding all these other texts that were coming out of the ground and it’s been endless discovery. They keep finding things and recovering these amazing texts and so, it’s like a big playground. I love deciphering things, I’ve always loved secret code, and to me it’s just like a puzzle. A great, big puzzle.
3. How does this research affect the Chinese major or the Asian Studies program at Lehigh?
Well, it invigorates it. It not only invigorates me as a teacher and makes me want to convey what I’ve learned in different classes, but it also helps me teach students that they can pursue arcane topics and that there is something to discover that is meaningful in modern day life. So even though most of this stuff is very, very ancient, what I tell my students is that in order to understand the future you have to understand the present and in order to understand the present you have to understand the past. That’s my justification.
4. How does your research affect the community?
I give a lot of talks at various universities, everything from Harvard to a talk to teachers here at Lehigh who are coming to learn more about Asian Studies, all different levels. I give a lot of talks in China as well. I’ve given talks to the international community, I’ve spent time in Germany working on things and everyone I run into you share information with. For example, in Germany I’m working with a historian of mathematics and we have found ways we can cooperate between the data that I bring and the way she can analyze it. That’s a larger, more scholarly field. But closer to home, dealing with undergraduate students at Lehigh, you can find a way to sort of excite people about different ways of approaching knowledge. Really, it’s developing critical thinking skills, it’s learning how to research, it’s learning how to write, it’s learning how to think. That’s what I consider one of my primary missions here at Lehigh, is just to open their minds and being unafraid to explore different topics. It’s not all about grades, it’s not all about your peers and social media, it’s about developing yourself that you would never imagine.
5. Do you have any future plans for your research?
Every once in a while, I think maybe I should slow down and relax and go out and garden and smell the roses as my aunt used to tell me. But, somehow I can never do that. A new text is being discovered or someone asks me to contribute to this or that book and I get all excited by the ideas and so I think as long as I have the energy I’m going to continue. I’ll finish this book that I’ve described to you and I’ve already got a couple on the back burner starting to cook up. I’ve got a lot of projects that I cooperate on with people in China, Germany, and here in the United States and I have found that are very exciting so I’m not doing everything by myself, I do a lot of things by myself, but I also work with a lot of people, others scholars who have other talents. I have found that to be really exciting. So, I have no plans to slow down, there’s new excavated texts being found all the time. There’s always those annoying translated transmitted texts, of which there are thousands that have never been translated into English that are rich and so when you understand the excavated tradition and you start looking at the transmitted traditions and think, ‘Oh at that time period, the people who wrote those transmitted texts were also reading those other texts’, which we have only now discovered. So we can look at the old texts stuff with new eyes and so I’m constantly looking.