Monday, March 11, 2013

Blog CXLI (141): Eight Questions: Asian-American History

Today's posting represents the last entry in the "Eight Questions" series. This essay is from Charlotte Brooks, an associate professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York. She earned her BA in Chinese history at Yale University and worked in China and Hong Kong after college. She received her MA and Ph.D. in U.S. history from Northwestern University and taught at the University at Albany-SUNY, before coming to Baruch College. Brooks is the author of Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (2009), which received an honorable mention for the Organization of American Historians' Frederick Jackson Turner Award. Her articles have been published in the Journal of American History, the Pacific Historical Review, and the Journal of Urban History. In 2005 the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association presented her with the Louis Knott Koontz Memorial Award for best article published in the Pacific Historical Review the previous year. In 2010 the History News Network-in its second rendition of the list-named her as one of the top 100 young historians under the age of 40.

She is currently finishing her second book, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Political Culture in the Cold War Years. Based on extensive research in both English and Chinese-language sources, it is a comparative study of Chinese American political activism in New York and San Francisco between the end of World War Two and the late 1960s. She has also begun research for a third book, The "Problem" of Overseas Chinese Education, the Back to China Movement, and the Creation of Chinese American Identity, 1900-1949. Here is her essay:

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Asian American history includes a wide array of communities and an impressive range of subjects, from immigration to religion to labor, just to name a few. It is also a relatively young discipline in which whole areas have received relatively little attention. That gives researchers, even graduate students, the chance to do really innovative and path breaking work, often with new or rarely used sources. In addition, although some historians outside the field think of Asian American history as an unimportant sidebar to "real" history, our field offers an intriguing lens through which to view some of the most complex issues in U.S. history: race, identity, immigration policy, and many others.

As for the greatest strength of the history profession, that is such a complicated question that it is difficult to give a short answer. However, one of our greatest strengths is the quality of work that scholars are producing right now. I just finished serving on the OAH's Frederick Jackson Turner Award committee (the award is for an author's "first scholarly book dealing with some aspect of American history"), and the quality of the many submissions we received just blew me away. And these were all first-time authors.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
I worry that Asian American history is becoming less important than it once was to the field of Asian American studies. In the last decade or so, other fields, especially English and comparative literature, have become more significant to Asian American studies. I do not doubt the importance of cultural studies, but I would like to see Asian American history remain central to Asian American studies as well.

As for the history profession as a whole, in addition to the simple lack of jobs in our field, I see the standardized testing craze and emphasis on data and measurable outcomes as a huge issue, especially for public universities. Either historians will be pushed to "teach to the test," which will diminish the quality of history education (and the liberal arts as a whole), or we will see administrators cut our resources and classes because the standardized tests do not include history. It is not a pleasant choice.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
I really enjoy scholarship that uses Asian-language sources, such as Eiichiro Azuma's Between Two Empires, Richard S. Kim's Quest for Statehood, Xiaojian Zhao's Remaking Chinese America, and Madeline Y. Hsu's Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home, among others. In addition, the work of historians such as Ellen Wu, Judy Wu, Chiou-ling Yeh, and Meredith Oda on the post-World War Two era is helping us understand a largely unexplored period in Asian American history. Scholars like Mae Ngai and Moon-ho Jung, who look at Asian American history in a multiethnic and multiracial context or through the lens of labor history, are also doing exciting work.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
I think teaching is tremendously valuable to professional development. To start with, teaching experience is absolutely a requirement on the job market these days, and many campus interviews include a teaching demonstration. If you have no teaching experience, you cannot really fake your way through such a performance! I also believe that putting together courses and lectures makes one a better researcher and writer. Teaching undergraduates forces professors to learn how to explain difficult ideas clearly and concisely; it also makes us think about how to illustrate our arguments effectively and use narrative and analysis together. Those are useful skills when we are writing books and articles.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
I would push new Ph.D.s to continue focusing on traditional types of publishing and, if possible, to have an article out in a peer-reviewed journal by the time they are on the market. Books and articles are still what hiring and tenure committees value, despite the availability of new opportunities in online journals and blogs. Scholars in other fields tend to view Asian American history with a bit of skepticism-some feel that it lacks importance or rigor-and so for career reasons people in our field need to succeed in traditional publishing. That is not to say, however, that other forums are not valuable or worthwhile. For example, many scholars now have a blog or website, and those can be good ways to interact with the public.
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
The most important issues usually vary by individual. However, popularity of field is a tremendously significant factor. Someone with a Ph.D. in 20th century American history is going to have more problems finding a job than someone in another field where fewer Ph.D.s are competing for jobs. The reputations of one's alma mater and one's thesis advisor do matter, but an excellent, innovative dissertation and some record of publication are more important. One's family can be a huge issue; many of us know at least a few couples where both people are academics and have been unable to find jobs at the same institution or even near each other. Such situations usually require some tough choices and sacrifices.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Don't do it! That's probably not a nice thing to say, but the job market is so bleak that I would not be able in good conscience to recommend a career in academia. At the very least, I would be brutally honest with the student, because he or she should know what the reality of the history job market is now. If the person was still determined to get a Ph.D., I would advise him or her to wait a year or two after college and not to go straight on to grad school. That would at least prevent the student from burning out within his or her first year or two of grad school. And the student might also find another interest or career path before committing to graduate school.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Do not blame yourself and do not think of yourself as a failure. Also, I would tell the person to remember that historians tend to be excellent writers and researchers, with terrific analytical abilities, and none of these skills are liabilities in the larger job market.

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