“It’s hard to believe that when brilliant scholars come into the city, the first place they think of presenting in is an art gallery or a café, when we have this university with guaranteed academic freedom, amazing students and faculty, and a dedicated venue. I want Fulbright to be the first stop. We have so much to offer.”
Sitting by the beautiful waterfront across the Fulbright University Vietnam campus, we talked with Dr. Ian Kalman, resident professor at Fulbright, who initiated our first academic conference: “New approaches to university education in Asia”, held February this year. This was the biggest conference of its kind to take place in the region outside of Singapore, with 129 applicants from more than 20 countries. Ian also helped launch and led Fulbright’s Speaker Series, a (mostly) bi-weekly presentation from academic researchers from around the world on computing, psychology, history, coffee and linguistics, among others. We discussed his journey to Fulbright University Vietnam from New York City’s suburbs, his dedication to education, and Fulbright’s promise as an academic hub, fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and research in the region.
The quiet professor has a long track record as an initiative starter: “I love to build things and watch them grow. I was in student government everywhere, I was part of the effort to build up the conference at McGill for grad students, where we pushed to get funding. Now, it’s one of the biggest international graduate anthropology conferences in the world. The last time I was there, we had people from Hong Kong. If you push into your networks consistently, you’ll get talent from all over the place.” This made moving to Fulbright at the very beginning of the Co-Design Year, a great idea for three different reasons: it is an institution-building effort, a place of higher education, and maintains a “spirit of adventure.”
“I think that we’re building one of the best student bodies I’ve ever worked with. I’ve taught all over the world, I’ve taught in multiple continents at all sorts of advanced and beginner University levels. And I can say without reservation I’ ve never worked with students this good, who excel both in content, and in their creativity and criticality using that content.”
A short introduction
Ian Kalman grew up in New York City from a Jewish household. Ian’s parents were the first in his family to go to college and encouraged him to pursue a more prestigious education. From public schools in NYC, Ian pursued a Bachelor’s of Anthropology at University of Chicago and was the first in his family to go to a graduate school. “My parents imparted to me the value of education for social mobility, and my university’s liberal arts focus brought me from being a pretty mediocre high school student to being someone who really cared a lot about their studies. To this day, the rigorous core education and the philosophy of lifelong learning I acquired there affect my life positively to this day.”
After graduating in 2005, he became a Peace Corps volunteer in China, teaching people in a small rural village. “I was already passionate about education, tutoring and providing literacy training on the south side of Chicago in 2004. I don’t think I was very good at it at first, but I wanted to get better. I spent the next three years in universities and private schools, from China to Ukraine and then Turkey.”
In 2009, Ian pursued a PhD in Anthropology from McGill University, focusing on the interactions between border officers and Native Americans, and from 2012-13 worked out of the research office in a native American community, developing policy reports for them, and training materials for border officers servicing the region. At the intersection of culture, indigenous rights, and governmental institutions, Ian’s work is part of an emerging field of research, law and anthropology. “After my field work, I finished my thesis at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and helped them build their law and anthropology department. This was really exciting, the first years of a new field.”
Fostering multiple perspectives
Ian’s passion for education and his interest in interdisciplinary research seem to originate from the same source. At its core, it’s both a desire for better communication, and deeper understanding. “I love the teaching aspect of things. Back at McGill, I was adjuncting more than anybody else. And then I transferred to their political science department: people in policy and politics don’t necessarily read anthropologists, so I wanted to write to the audience that makes these decisions.”
Whether to offer quality liberal arts education, to engage with researchers outside of your field or country, or to sharpen your arguments and creativity, the benefits are endless. “Academia tends towards hyper specialization, which in evolutionary terms is not very good for survival, but in academic terms might be necessary. But I’ve always been proud of being more of a generalist. The fact that I’m able to engage with different theories, different methodological approaches, is I think a boon to a place like Fulbright.
This is how we work through our ideas and refine them, as well as how we disseminate them. I find it extremely useful at both in my own research and in interactions to talk to people from different disciplines, both because of what we understand, and what we don’t. Giving a talk to an engaged audience that ask challenging questions you never thought of or listening to someone’s insights and exploratory ideas from an entirely different place, is the absolute best way to refine intellectual discourse. In that aspect, the conference was a huge success, both in terms of academic topics and geographical diversity.”
This is true for professors, from all around the world, who participated in the conference, but it is also doubly true for the students at our university, a major motivation for Ian. “Our visibility locally and in the ASEAN region opens doors for future cooperation, becoming an intellectual center for HCMC, for Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We can create an opportunity for students to see and participate in this cutting-edge research currently taking place at other institutions. It’s valuable for the students both as an opportunity to, for them to learn from the presentations, but also this form of modeling of what it is to think through a difficult problem and to come up with innovative ways to understand it. They ask good questions and they’re infinitely curious. This is what I love, you know: when the talk ends and a group of students and the public from beyond the university line up to talk with the speakers afterwards. That’s wonderful.”