I’ve been waiting to write this post as I just wasn’t sure how to say what I wanted to say. Sadly, Professor G. William Skinner passed away on October 26, 2008.
There were students who knew Professor Skinner better than I did, his teaching career spanned over half a century, but I had the privilege to be a student in the last few seminars taught by this giant in the field of Chinese history and anthropology. Giant. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot when talking of the great figures in a particular field, but in the case of Professor Skinner one wonders if the word is a bit limiting.
Bill Skinner (literally) changed the way we look at China. Daniel Little at The China Beat has a solid and comprehensive review of Professor Skinner’s many and lasting scholarly contributions which I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say, Professor Skinner’s work on marketing systems and urban hierarchies provided historians with a new approach to thinking about China in terms of spatial relationships. His research into the economic orientation of China’s macroregions redrew the map (how many of us will ever be able to say that?) and created new ways of organizing data and research beyond the political boundaries drawn by the state.
I met Professor Skinner during my first year at graduate school. My colleague LGt, the only other China history graduate student on campus at the time, and who had a habit of choosing our classes for us, informed me we would be taking Professor Skinner’s class in the spring. It was a seminar dealing with urban systems and economic hierarchies comparing France and China. I was not a social scientist. I became a historian, in part, because like Gerry Ford I was under the impression there would be no math. By the end of the semester, I had finished a seminar paper arguing contemporary China’s principle inequality was between rural/urban not coastal/interior using statistics of income, consumer goods ownership, and educational access. Yeah, I know…not exactly “map changing,” but Professor Skinner was good-hearted enough to work with me in corralling the numbers and guiding my clumsy attempts to organize those numbers spatially.
In the years to come, I would have more seminars with Professor Skinner, and they were the most challenging classes I have ever taken. His mind was oceanic in depth and breadth. There was never anything like a casual conversation with the man. Oh…he was casual: his calm, languid personality, his tall and lean frame (like some American novelist’s idea of a gentleman farmer). But it was hard for me to stay calm. I admit it: I get starstruck easily. It took me two years to get over it. Even then, having a ‘casual’ conversation with Professor Skinner was like having a ‘casual’ game of tennis with Roger Federer. You waited for the serve, tried to make contact, and hoped that during your return you didn’t accidentally hit yourself in the head with the racket.
Don’t get me wrong: he was a kind man. A brilliant scholar. A (mostly) patient teacher.* And, I suppose like most of his students, my own career was certainly changed for having been in his class. Coming out of a humanities background, I suffered from the prejudice of my own incompetence when it came to using social science methodology in research. Professor Skinner cured that unfortunate blight. That’s not to say I have any particular brilliance at it, and certainly not when compared to Professor Skinner, but due to his influence I’ve tried to incorporate a more rigorous empiricism in my research and writing and it’s made me a better researcher and scholar.
As a teacher, he was demanding (his own work ethic was legendary), and wise, and occasionally irascible, but he always brought out the best in his seminars. I’ve been exceedingly fortunate to have the career I do and the teachers I have had, but to have been Professor Skinner’s student was truly one of the great honors in my life. He was a great man, and he will be dearly missed.
*Let me go on the record now: Any impatience Professor Skinner ever showed in class in my general direction was due, entirely and absolutely, to my own thick headedness.