Monday, March 26, 2012

Blog CXII (112): Eight Questions: Chinese History

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of East Asia and the history of China. She studied at Yale College, where she also began learning Chinese. After graduation, she spent two years teaching for the Yale-China Teaching Fellowship in Changsha, Hunan Province, and a year working and interning in Washington at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. She completed her PhD in modern Chinese history at Harvard in November 2009. Before joining the faculty at the University of Kentucky, Ho was a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a teaching fellow at Harvard. Her work has been published in The China Quarterly, and she is working on her first book manuscript: Antiquity in Revolution: Museums, Exhibitions, and the Politics of Culture in China. Ho has also blogged about her research, and on teaching and learning about China in Kentucky, on The China Beat.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
One of the wonderful things about studying Chinese history is that the field is so vast, the language so complex, and the contemporary interest so great that I will never be bored. In teaching a course on modern China, one always gets to add to the syllabus. Among those you teach, even students who may not have a prior interest in China (whether they are entering freshmen, non-traditional students, or retirees taking courses) will be curious and think it relevant to their lives. Universities are hiring in East Asia in general and China in particular, many institutions are building Chinese programs for the first time, and one therefore gets not only to teach, but to build institutions. Right now in Kentucky, for example, the University of Kentucky just approved majors and minors in Chinese and Japanese, Western Kentucky University has an up-and-coming China program, and the University of Louisville is working on an Asian Studies major. Even smaller liberal arts colleges nearby, Transylvania University and Center College, have hired their first Chinese language instructors within the last two years. At a time when so many university budgets are contracting, it is a rare privilege that both institutions and students believe that your teaching is necessary.

It is also an exciting time to be a scholar in modern Chinese history. One and two generations ago, our advisors would study Chinese in Taiwan, and have limited access to archival materials or the opportunity to do oral history. Today we benefit from the opportunities to study abroad in China, to conduct research even in local archives, and to learn from and learn with talented students from China. I think that the next generation of China scholars will be even more interconnected, and increasingly completely bilingual; I imagine that it will be the rule (rather than the exception) among future scholars that they will have completed degrees in China, or spent significant periods under the direction of Chinese scholars, such as when John King Fairbank studied in Beijing. And of course, the digitization of historical records has and will continue to transform our research, much the way it has transformed the work of our colleagues in other fields.

In my own work, I am interested in the history of the People’s Republic of China, which in many ways is only just beginning to be treated as history. It is an exciting field, and we have colleagues coming out of several major institutions in the United States (especially the University of California at San Diego) and Europe, and an increasing number of students in China. Historically, study of the Mao era has been the purview of our cousins in political science, sociology, and anthropology, and we are certainly benefiting from the interdisciplinary nature of this work. For those who are interested in learning more about this field, I would suggest looking at edited volumes like Brown and Pickowicz, Dilemmas of Victory: The Early Years of the People’s Republic of China; Strauss, The History of the PRC (1949-1976); or Kirby, The People’s Republic of China at 60: An International Assessment. In Chinese, the East China Normal University Center for Research on Contemporary China has also published volumes of essays, entitled 中国当代史研究.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
The issues facing my field are in many ways separate from the ones I think are facing the history profession, in part because we are so fortunate to be teaching in a field that both the general public and indeed, the government, think are critical to America’s future. As for my field, I think that one of the major drawbacks to studying contemporary China is the limits on research. These limits are both in terms of materials and in terms of the ability of our colleagues in China to publish. Firstly, access to archival materials is still limited. I am fortunate to work mostly in the Shanghai Municipal Archive, which is quite open and has an electronic catalogue. But to work in most Chinese archives, one needs to have an official sponsoring work unit and one needs to have the archive’s permission to research his chosen topic. Many of us have benefited from increased access, but others researching sensitive topics (or topics thought to be sensitive) may be denied access, or never even able to know what materials they are being denied. Further, digitization has been both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand you can look through much material that has been scanned, but on the other hand the process of scanning the material may have resulted in “sensitive” material not getting scanned. As for the second issue, it is important to remember that our colleagues in China are still working and publishing in an environment with constraints. Overall however, I am optimistic about the future of the field and a great deal of my optimism comes from being inspired by my fellow Chinese historians.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
I think that one of the most interesting aspects of current work is local studies. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, Jonathan Spence taught a seminar on the history of Shanghai, which he also had offered in years past as a history of Beijing and Shanghai compared. A lot of what we’ve learned about China comes from the history of such big urban centers, from the history of places where there has been considerable foreign contact like Shanghai, and from the places where there were the most materials. Although I am guilty of being Shanghai-centered in my research, or what we might call 海派, I think that some of the most interesting work has been the study of local places. Students who are interested might look at Stephen Platt’s Provincial Patriots or Yeh Wen-hsin’s Provincial Passages, to name two examples of alternate ways of thinking about modernity in China. An extended and related way of thinking about the study of local places is of course the doing of oral history. One recent example of such a study is Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory, which relies on many years of oral history interviews to understand how rural women experienced revolution. For an insightful essay on how to do such work, students might read the blog posting by Di Yin Lu on Dissertation Reviews: “Doing Oral History in the PRC.”
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
I’ve noticed that most of the other guest bloggers have been faculty at the associate level, so my response should be taken with the caveat that it is coming from someone in the earliest stages of the tenure track. My first response is that graduate students should have teaching assistantships with a variety of faculty (to get a sense of whose teaching style you’d like to emulate), to teach at least one course that is a general survey or outside of your own field of expertise, and to find a chance to teach your own course at least once before finishing your PhD. In my own experience, I was quite fortunate to teach for two instructors at Harvard who were truly thoughtful about teaching, Peter Bol and Mark Elliott. The course was the introductory survey to the history of China, and we had a team of about seven teaching assistants. Each week we’d meet for two hours with the instructors and they would find out how each of our sections was going, and then one of us would present a lesson plan for the following week. It was only later that I learned that such faculty commitment is the exception rather than the rule.

In general what I wish I had known is how much the students at my PhD-granting institution would be different from the students that I currently teach. My teaching in grad school was based on the assumption that my students would be highly motivated and interested in the subject. One of the things that I’ve had to learn at Kentucky is how to create interest, how to create more structure, how to create a syllabus that is considerate of how many of our students are working full-time, how to aim at a broad range of levels of preparation, and how to motivate as well as to teach. I realize that most centers of teaching and learning focus on the undergrads that are currently being taught, but I think that more could be done in grad school to help PhD students anticipate their future classrooms.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
Once again, I am this new PhD, and so far have only one journal article to my name, though I have a second article, a chapter in an edited volume, and two book reviews in the pipeline. My sense so far is that having a publication allows you to be a known quantity, and also affirms to your home department that you are establishing yourself in the field. As I’ve stated above, historians of China are lucky in that there are more new jobs opening up to us, and it is often the case that one gets hired before finishing the dissertation. So unlike the other bloggers here I wouldn’t necessarily counsel PhD students to publish. From my experience on searches, I would say that an article would help, but wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. What is sometimes a deal-breaker is whether the dissertation is close to completion…so finish that dissertation!
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
One of the challenges of being a new professor of Chinese history is being at a school where there may not be that many resources for your field, whether they are library resources, other colleagues, or funding to travel to China for archival or field research. But of course, this is the consequence of these institutions hiring in China studies for the first time and building China studies programs—perhaps the reason that you have this job in the first place! Leaving Harvard’s library, its dozens of China faculty, and its deep pockets can feel, as I can attest, like being cast out of Eden. I myself was lucky in that I did have a start-up package, access to some conference funding, and a modest library budget, and realize that this is more than many of my colleagues hired at the same time (2008-2009 job market cycle).

Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel isolated, even though I have a supportive department and two fantastic colleagues in Chinese literature. The advice I would give is that you have to make your own networks. Take advantage of the internet and exchange work with your grad school friends, make time to read their work and talk on Skype as you work through revisions. Join the regional AAS, get on the mailing lists of nearby universities, and go visit their East Asian Studies Centers. It may seem prohibitive to drive three or four hours to attend a talk, but this is what your Asian studies network is now. Finally, I have found it invaluable to attend the Association of Asian Studies annual meeting. You will get feedback, you’ll feel invigorated, and you’ll remember why you choose this field in the first place. Even if you don’t have funding from your university, or if you’ll end up paying out of your own pocket, you have to go. Grad school was one continuous annual meeting, now you have four days to drink from the firehose. The same logic applies to going to the archive; even if you don’t have funding, you have to go.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Go learn languages. The first piece of advice I would give is for the undergrad to go and live abroad for at least a year, and try to get at least newspaper reading knowledge under their belt. Acknowledging the fact that learning Chinese is a life-long endeavor—I still feel like a beginning student—starting graduate school will be so much easier if you aren’t still learning to read. Other side benefits of spending the time to learn languages is that you’ll really immerse yourself in the history and culture of the place, and you’ll have some time to learn and think more about whether it is really for you.

Second, I’d suggest that you learn as much about a PhD as possible, using your home institution as a place to start. What a PhD student does is very different from what you do, so talk to your teaching assistants, listen in on the graduate student conference, and attend a few academic talks to get a sense of what professors do. You might also consider asking your teaching assistant or your professor if they would give you feedback as if you were a graduate student, and see how you respond to it. When I was a junior in college one of my TA’s, unsolicited, informed me that he would evaluate my paper on early American social history as if I were his colleague. He proceeded to tear me apart, but I guess I wasn’t dissuaded.

Third, for those specifically interested in Chinese history I’d suggest doing a master’s in East Asian studies first. This is something I wish I had done, to get a better sense of the field, to get my language skills up to speed, and to be socialized before I was thrown in. There are of course many reasons not to do this, including that it is time-consuming and expensive. But a career in academia isn’t a race, and many programs will have scholarships. If you decide it isn’t for you, than you are in a much better position to change careers with an East Asian studies master’s than with a history master’s.

Finally, go for a Ph.D. in history if you can’t imagine doing anything else, if you think you would love it for the experience, and if you can come to terms with the fact that you may not be employed as a professor of Chinese history after 6-8 years of preparation in a doctoral program. It goes without saying that you should not go unless you are accepted to a top program and are funded. Full stop.
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Hopefully it will not come to the “new Ph.D.” That is, part of the national conversation in history departments has to be that our doctoral students are coached throughout their course of study on how to find jobs inside and outside of academia. I’ve suggested to my department that part of our graduate training should include an “outside outside field,” i.e., something like public history, library science, distance learning, or some kind of internship, so that everyone has a Plan B. I think it is our responsibility to our students to let them know how difficult the market is, to prepare them as best as possible for that market, and to give them an outside option. Students who would like to learn more might find Basalla and Debelius’ “So What Are You Going to Do With That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia helpful.

If it is indeed a “new Ph.D” I think the answer depends on what that person’s goals are. Again, graduates with a Chinese history PhD will have a range of options that are enhanced by their linguistic abilities. Classmates of mine, for example, have joined the State Department in the Office of the Historian, as foreign service officers, and have found non-academic employment in China as consultants or as administrators in international education. Some people who have chosen this option have even found ways to remain active in the field, publishing their dissertation or parts of it, and continuing to organize panels and do research on their own time.

If the goal is still to find academic employment, I think that there must be a fair and balanced evaluation of what the student’s other life goals are, including any financial or familial restraints. The job market is so competitive and so much is based on chance and not ability, that the extent of “trying again” needs to be balanced against the student’s other goals and his or her tolerance for disappointment. One of the tragedies of this profession is that there are people who are brilliant at research, talented and passionate teachers, and who would be excellent colleagues who will not be able to secure a job. One of the best pieces of consolation I received in 2009 was that, no matter what happened on the job market, I would still “be an intellectual.” By extension, there are other jobs in the world that will use one’s skills as a teacher and a researcher, but they may not be academic ones. You have much to give the world, and if it is not in academe, it will be in a role that you yourself will define. Remember the old man who lived at the frontier 塞翁失马; you have yet to find out what fortune may come of this misfortune.