Thank you for visiting my website! Needless to say, it's a work-in-progress. I hope you enjoy exploring what's here as it continues to develop.
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I teach Japanese literature and performance at the University of Michigan, with ample doses of drawing and guitar pursued whenever possible.
What I care about most as a teacher and scholar is the praxis of reading better: how to develop more creative, critically sensitive ways to engage texts. In this vein, my research and teaching explore legibility as a generative concept. The main venue for this inquiry is medieval Japan. My research on premodern Japanese culture traverses three fields: literature, art history, and performance studies. Specifically, I concentrate on legibility’s relation to embodiment. The tactics bodies deploy to navigate aesthetic and political constraints intrigue me, whether they occur in calligraphic prefaces or on Noh stages. Animating my research is this basic question: "How should bodies be read?" While my attempts to address the ethical, methodological, and disciplinary contours of this question plot a cursive path, all my scholarly work examines relationships between embodiment and legibility to some degree: in late-Heian handscrolls, medieval dance-drama, Afro-Asian sculpture, slide guitar, contemporary choreography, and The Tale of Genji. My abiding interests in critical theory stem from an ongoing search for ways to apprehend rhetorical or choreographic maneuvers more amply. Queer theory, performance theory, and phenomenological approaches feel most helpful for my research at present.
My current scholarship focuses on questions of performance and performativity within Japanese culture. My first book, Textures of Mourning: Calligraphy, Mortality, and The Tale of Genji Scrolls (University of Michigan Press, 2018), theorizes calligraphic performance to examine how dying and reading intersect across Genji's 12th and 21st-century scroll renditions.
A second book manuscript, A Proximate Remove: Queering Intimacy and Loss in The Tale of Genji (under review) explores the potentials and limitations of queer theory to consider intervals in Genji where dominant modes of interacting with the phenomenal world are interrupted, reoriented, and reworked—beyond questions of sexuality. Two other book manuscripts are in progress: Yasuko Yokoshi: Choreographic Translation Beyond Japanese Culture; and another that explores the relation between slavery and performance in premodern Japan.
Beyond these writing projects, I am also committed to improving the study of Japanese performance and premodern Japanese culture, in particular. In addition to organizing events like the trans-disciplinary workshop, "Rethinking Premodern Japan: Territory, Embodiment, Exposure" (2015), I have also recently designed a program called the Japanese Performance Theory Workshop (JPTW) (summer 2017): https://jptw.asian.lsa.umich.edu. Through seminar-style discussions, performance analysis exercises, and writing critiques, this intensive summer workshop helped participants working on Japanese performance at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels develop better conceptual, methodological, and pedagogical tools.
As a confessed method junkie, I’m always trying to map out how systems work—be they passages of Heian prose, Noh exorcisms, or networks of evangelization and enslavement. My reading, writing, and teaching develop recursively as I test approaches, then pivot to retool them. Discussions with thoughtful students fuel this process, sparking experimentation on the page and in the classroom. My teaching aims to make students more skilled at critical thinking, more aware of deeper truths, and more confident in making conceptual and historical links between texts in ways attuned to their own experiences.
I teach a range of undergraduate and graduate courses. These include
“Japanese Performance Culture,”
“Bodies and Boundaries in Premodern Japan,”
“Critical Introduction to Asian Studies,”
“Love and Death in Japanese Culture,”
“Apprehending Gesture in Japanese and African-American Performance,”
and the “Japanese Narrative Design Lab,” a practice-based class on visual storytelling techniques in which students learn to analyze Japanese narratives and draw from them—quite literally—to craft their own tales. This course allows me to indulge and expand a commitment to drawing and visual storytelling. To check out these experiments, feel free to visit https://www.rjacksonartwork.com/.
On a final note, let me say that long before tenure was earned, my first loves were illustration and guitar. I believe these skills of visual storytelling and composing music energize how I approach intellectual problems encountered today in disparate sectors. In other words, if I’m any good at interpreting handscrolls or sketching kabuki clashes, blame that metric ton of comics in my mother’s basement; it anchored doctoral training to a degree I can only appreciate in retrospect.
Why mention this? For at least two reasons: to affirm imaginative instincts institutionalized rubrics of excellence and expertise routinely devalue; and to encourage students to make their individual skills and creative intuition the basis of whatever style of inquiry they pursue.
Students interested in talking shop or pursuing graduate studies here or elsewhere are welcome to contact me.