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Richard VanNess Simmons
What is your academic background?
I started out as an undergraduate majoring in Chinese at the University of Washington. I studied in Taiwan at National Taiwan University, then came back to University of Washington to continue on in graduate school. I received a master’s degree in traditional Chinese literature focusing on strange tales of the Six Dynasties period (3rd to 6th centuries). For my Ph.D., I switched fields to the history of Chinese, including the history of the dialects.
What are your responsibilities at Rutgers?
Currently, I am the chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and I teach courses in Chinese and about the language. I also established the summer Intensive Mandarin program in Beijing through Rutgers Study Abroad. I’ve done that for 10 years and this will be the 11th year. It’s a six-week language program and students can also do a guided research project. Our department also has two master’s programs. One in Chinese, which was established shortly before I started as chair; and we also have a brand new master’s in East Asian language and cultures, which will host its first cohort this fall.
What is your current research focused on?
My current research focus is on the history of Mandarin. Chinese encompasses a lot of dialects and the largest group of dialects is Mandarin. People also view the modern standard Chinese language as Mandarin. I would like to put it all together in a comprehensive history of Mandarin from its earliest beginnings to its present.
How did you get interested in your field?
I was interested in it for a long time, from very early on in high school. I couldn’t take Chinese in high school at that time because they didn’t have it. I took Chinese in college and just liked it so much that I never stopped.
What classes do you teach?
I teach Intro to Classical Chinese. I have taught Chinese language courses, history of the Chinese language, a course on Chinese dialects, advanced Chinese grammar, topics courses about Chinese language and linguistics, and the history of the Chinese writing system. I also often teach a Byrne Seminar.
What other activities are you involved in?
I am very supportive of all the Asia-related activities on campus, including our department’s Chinese Research Project, which invites speakers to come to campus. These events draw attendees from the university and the public. I’ve always been a supporter of Asian student organizations on campus and have served as an adviser.
What interests you most about China?
The language interests me the most. I like the connection of the language to local and traditional culture, which is much richer than could ever be portrayed in English. It often becomes a bunch of clichés when it is portrayed in English. I like local traditions and local cultures in China. Unfortunately, there has been a trend for local and regional culture to be diluted and even fall by the wayside in modern China in the rush of globalization.
Could you give a brief summary of your China activities?
I take student groups regularly. My research takes me into the field as well, to record and map countryside dialects. I often do field work in the local communities. We’ve taken students to the countryside as well to experience that.
What is your favorite thing to do or place to go on campus?
Voorhees Mall in the summer is especially nice. I like to eat lunch out there. I walk to work from Highland Park, so I like to walk through Old Queens and through Voorhees Mall to our building. All of the Rutgers campuses are really quite nice.
What is your favorite Chinese food?
That’s hard because there are so many good ones. I like Peking Duck when it is well-executed. I like a lot of duck dishes and the different regional ways to prepare duck, like Saltwater Duck in Nanjing. I also like various pastries. Beijing has all sorts of savory pastries. Interestingly, the way they refer to these pastries translates as “pancakes.” I also enjoy all the various ways that Chinese prepare vegetables.
Anything else you would like to share about your experiences at Rutgers and in China?
Between taking students to China and teaching a Byrnes Seminar, I find I can get more connected to students than you do in large classes. I like the way you can better engage with your students through programs such as Study Abroad and undergraduate seminars, as well as through the Aresty undergraduate research assistant program. Working with students in these programs gives me a great sense of satisfaction.