Raoul Birnbaum served as the second holder of the Rebele
Endowed Chair, from 2003-2009. As head of the department prior to the installation of the first chair holder, he also was responsible in 1998-1999 for organizing events funded by the endowment. These early events included two multi-day residencies of distinguished scholars, each of whom gave a public lecture, a more focused seminar (with pre-distributed readings), and met less formally with students, faculty, and administrators. The first visitor was Robert Farris Thompson (Yale), scholar of African and African-Atlantic visual and musical cultures. The second was Robert E. Harrist, Jr. (Columbia), who spoke about his work on Chinese calligraphy, especially words and texts engraved on cliffs in medieval China.
As chair holder beginning in 2003, Birnbaum’s project focused on issues arising from conjunctions of biographical and autobiographical texts with portraits and self-portraits. The broad scope of this theme derived from his on-going studies of issues related to representations of the life of the twentieth-century Chinese Buddhist monk Hongyi (1880-1942). Birnbaum organized three conferences during this period that were entirely supported by funds from the Rebele endowment. The first, in 2003, was a multi-disciplinary workshop on “Photography, Portraits, and Memoirs in 20th c. China,”in which a broad range of scholars from the Bay area (Berkeley, San Francisco State, Stanford, and UCSC) spoke about their current research in this area. In 2006, in collaboration with Africanists Elisabeth Cameron (UCSC) and John Peffer (then a visitor at UCSC for the year, now at Ramapo College of New Jersey), he organized an international conference on “Portrait Photography in African Worlds.” This conference has resulted in an edited volume soon to appear from Indiana University Press. Finally, inspired in part by the mystique surrounding the deathbed photo of Master Hongyi, in 2009 Birnbaum organized a three-day long multi-disciplinary international conference on “Buddhists at the End of Life,” which explored from many angles various Buddhist approaches to thinking about and representing the last moments prior to death. In 2004, Birnbaum also hosted translator-scholar Bill Porter for a brief residency. Porter gave a public talk aimed at undergraduate students about issues arising from his work translating an autobiographical poem cycle by a famed late-Ming period Chinese Buddhist monk, Hanshan Deqing (1564-1623), and he also met with students and faculty for a seminar-dinner, in which he spoke about his work with contemporary Chinese mountain hermits.
All of these activities were carefully framed so that undergraduate students could comfortably attend and profit from these events, and have the chance to meet senior and emerging scholars from around the world. In addition to faculty and graduate students, as well as the undergrads, many community members also participated. And in the case of the two larger conferences, many other scholars and graduate students traveled to Santa
Cruz to take advantage of these unusual events.