During the summer of 2018, Alex Aguayo, Student Ally for Diversity for Comparative Literature spoke with three CompLit alumni about their experiences as graduate students in the department. This interview with Ramon Stern is part of that series.
Ramon Stern is one of the rare graduate students who came to the University of Michigan having studied comparative literature at the undergraduate level. Though he did not have comparative literature in mind as a high schooler, Ramon was already interested in learning different languages. When he was growing up, he knew the Spanish language but lost it and had to relearn it in high school. At the same time he started studying Hebrew. One of the ways to preserve the language was to devour the literature. As such, Ramon started his introduction into Spanish literature with the Boom period, expanding into other literary periods.
Once in college, Ramon’s interests in language and literature grew. Aside from continuing to learn Spanish and Hebrew, he started studying Portuguese. His decision to study comparative literature stems from his interests in language study and literature. With these languages under his belt, he was able to bring his interests in Latin America and the Middle East together.
Given the department’s emphasis on world literature and the flexibility of the curriculum, Ramon chose to be a part of the comparative literature community at the University of Michigan. In making his decision, Ramon says, it definitely helped that the graduate students had a strong union, and that the University offered a good benefits package. On the academic side of things, Ramon was able to take advantage of the range of courses offered in latin american studies, as well courses on the middle east. In forming his committee, he was able to work with Professors Anton Shammas and Ruth Tsoffar, and develop a dissertation that located the Arab diaspora in unexpected places. Titled Geographies of Escape, Pathologies of Attachment: Diasporic Difference and Arab Ethnicity Re-Examined, Ramon’s dissertation focused on Mizrahi literature in Hebrew and Arabic with a keen awareness of the Arab diaspora in places like Brazil.
Ramon Stern now works at Brown University, where he is the Administrative Manager for the Brazil Initiative and the Brazilian Studies Association. His graduate work at the University of Michigan prepared him for an alternative-academic career. As part of a graduate student committee, Ramon helped plan and organize the annual Comparative Literature conference (CLIFF) held at the University of Michigan. The conference was titled “Revolutions, Post-Revolutions, and Counter-Revolutions.” In addition, Ramon planned and organized the conference held by the Students of Color at Rackham (SCOR) organization. SCOR, Ramon says, provided “a support system for young grad students of color to present their work in a safe space with constructive criticism from other people who may face similar challenges in their department and don’t present their work in equally supportive spaces.” Organizing and presenting at a conference that included over 100 students, including students from local universities, provided him a level of support and a sense of the work that goes into creating intellectual and supportive spaces for grad students and young faculty.
In discussing professional development at graduate school, Ramon emphasized how his academic training, ranging from curriculum development to conference presentation, prepared him for the acumen for academic and administrative planning. As Ramon points out, “academic programming is an important way of fostering change in the climate. It makes a huge impact on the academic climate for the study of a specific topics at the university level.” One approach Ramon keeps in mind is to invite activists who do social justice work to deliver lectures and participate in panels, rather than limiting those venues to professional academics. As such, Ramon’s graduate work, and his keen awareness of minoritarian issues, continues to influence his professional life at Brown, helping to create an equitable and diverse environment.