FCGR Robert Cole, '07

History student wins David C. Evans Award for Outstanding Achievement in Scholarship

Name: Robert Cole '07
Major: History
Minor: Chinese
Academics: Oldham Scholar
National Merit Scholar
Study abroad in Beijing, China
Activities: Chamber music ensemble
Chinese language teaching assistant
Founded Richmond's chapter of Amnesty International
Chemistry research under Dr. William Myers

You won the David C. Evans Award because of your outstanding senior thesis. What was your thesis about?

The title is “The Opium War in Contemporary Chinese Historiography.” When I was choosing a topic for my senior thesis, I wanted to find something that would enable me to combine my interests in colonial history and the Chinese language. I decided that the Opium War, a pivotal event in the development of modern China, was an appropriate general topic. After I had determined what kind of work had already been done on this subject and what sources would be available to me, I chose to focus on the Chinese historiography of the Opium War. To accomplish this, I translated significant portions of three Chinese histories of the war, all of which had been written over the past 50 years. My goal was to study the changes that have taken place in the way Chinese historians have approached the subject of the Opium War, since these changes would be indicative of larger cultural and political shifts in Chinese intellectual life.  

Did you learn anything about yourself during the writing process?

I learned to be more confident in my own conclusions rather than relying solely on the observations of others. Since these texts had probably never been analyzed in this way by anyone, there was no previous work from which to draw information. It was both exciting and daunting. On the one hand, I felt that I was legitimately contributing something new to the study of Chinese history. On the other, it took a great deal of patience and self-control to ensure that my conclusions were subtle and fair and that my translations were as faithful as I could manage. I had to keep in the back of my mind that I was representing the views of these three historians and that their ideas deserved every bit of the scrutiny and discerning attention that would be afforded to a more traditional primary source.

It’s the middle of the night and you’re still writing. What’s on your desk?

For this thesis, it would be my electronic Chinese dictionary, my Oxford English-Chinese/Chinese-English dictionary, the three stacks of photocopies made from the originals of my translated texts, the fantastically insightful Intellectual History of Modern China (ed. Merle Goldman, Leo Ou-fan Lee) and a bunch of scrap paper with a pen. I’m always scribbling stuff down—ideas, diagrams or random doodles. Somehow it keeps me focused.

Who inspired you along the way?

Professor Tong Lam, who was formerly a member of the University of Richmond history department but has since moved to Canada, encouraged me to apply for the honors history program. He was also the professor who sparked my interest in colonial studies, indirectly leading to my Mumbai colonial architecture article that was recently published, a later project on Shanghai’s semi-colonial past, and my senior thesis.

I also greatly enjoyed working with Professors Marx and Hewett-Smith of the English department. They were the facilitators of the Global Cities courses with which I participated. Their ability to challenge my ideas in a constructive way has had a formative impact on my own development as a student.

What has a liberal arts education at the University of Richmond meant to you?

Even though history was my main academic focus, I was able to use the liberal arts opportunities at Richmond to pursue a wide range of other interests. There can’t be many universities that would allow a history major anywhere near an inorganic chemistry lab, much less participating in a research project as I did during my last two years. I was also an active contributor to the university’s music department. In fact, I consider my senior year performances in a solo piano recital and chamber music concert to be two of my most significant accomplishments while at Richmond. The breadth of experience made possible by a Richmond liberal arts education is something I would never be willing to trade.

Tell us about your plans for the future. After Richmond, what’s next?

I’ve accepted a position teaching World History and Asian Studies at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland.

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