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Road to Burma: Levin’s first Fulbright to focus on teaching U.S. literature of last three decades

January 24, 2013
Amy Levin

Amy Levin

Amy K. Levin is no stranger to “firsts.”

Among her many credits are “Africanism and Authenticity in African-American Women’s Novels,” one of the first texts to study African influences in novels by African-American women. She also edited and wrote parts of “Gender, Sexuality and Museums,” the first major repository of key articles, new essays, and case studies for the study of gender and sexuality in museums and the first reader to focus on LGBT issues and museums.

She also was the first recipient of NIU’s Outstanding Mentor Award from the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

At the end of January 2013, Levin will add two more “firsts” to her list: She will travel to Burma/Myanmar on her first Fulbright fellowship, teaching a series of workshops and working with faculty and students as the first U.S. professor of literature to collaborate with universities there in 30 years.

“I’m a novice to the Fulbright fellowships,” she says. “I have traveled abroad often, and I never lived in the U.S. before attending college, but this is completely new to me.”

Levin, professor and chair of the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, applied to join the Fulbright Specialist roster two years ago, with the goal of learning more about higher education in other countries. When the opportunity to work in Myanmar came up, she was especially intrigued, due to NIU’s strong ties to the country through the Center for Burma Studies, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the number of students from the region who come to NIU to study each year.

Map of ancient BurmaEarlier in her career, Levin’s research focused on women writers, but for the past 10 years she has pursued another passion: museum studies. This resulted in her writing a book on local museums and another on gender, sexuality and museums. Most recently, her research has returned to literature, with a focus on contemporary novels about U.S. health care ventures around the world.

Health care has been a topic of interest for Levin for quite some time.

For many years, she facilitated book groups for hospital staff as part of the Illinois Humanities Council’s “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare” program.

The program aimed to empower health care professionals by providing humanistic perspectives and insights to help them do their work better. Through the IHC program, doctors, nurses, hospital trustees and support staff met monthly for facilitated literary discussions related to patient care.

Levin says that those candid conversations gave her new insights about and sparked her interest in the complexities of health care, especially as it relates to U.S. initiatives in less-developed parts of the world.

“Do these efforts constitute a new form of colonialism?” she wonders. “I’m intrigued by this topic, which is central to globalization, and I look forward to learning about health care in Myanmar.”

ramayanaWhile in Myanmar, Levin will work closely with students and faculty at the University of Yangon through several activities. She will teach a series of workshops for graduate students, focusing on U.S. literature of the last 30 years.

In addition, Levin will lead a series of faculty workshops highlighting newer pedagogical strategies for teaching U.S. literature.

She will also meet with 25 students who are working on doctoral degrees in U.S. literature to discuss dissertation topics, deliver a weekly lecture on recent U.S. literature and present two programs at the American Center in celebration of Black History Month.

What is Levin’s goal in Myanmar?

“I hope to give my students a sense of the wonderful diversity and vibrancy of contemporary American literature, especially by women and minorities,” she says. “As for the faculty, I’d like to offer them an opportunity to revise syllabi or course units similar to what we offer in our summer Multicultural Institute here at NIU.”

Levin hopes that others will take advantage of the short-term nature of the Fulbright Specialist awards, which offer much greater flexibility than the traditional year- or semester-long Fulbright.

Before she leaves for Myanmar at the end of January, Levin is also seeking advice and input from friends and colleagues.

“When I first learned I would be traveling to Myanmar, I posted a question on the English Department’s Facebook page, asking what texts from the last 30 years would be essential to bring up in Myanmar. I loved the thoughtfulness and breadth of the answers I received. So, I would ask the same of those who are reading this article: If you were going to present one work of U.S. literature from the past 30 years to an audience abroad, what would you choose?”

by Deborah Fransen