The first of January is a rather arbitrary time to talk about new beginnings, especially for students whose lives revolve around the academic year. However, the beginning and end of my academic year tend to be much busier so I suppose now is best time to reflect on all that has happened in the past dozen months.
The beginning of 2006 found me half way through my second year of my history PhD program, living with two great friends (fellow history PhD students) in a Somerville apartment. This meant that almost all of my concentration was focused on preparing for my oral exams later in the spring. I kept a constantly changing and probably extremely unhealthy sleeping schedule, sleeping sometimes at night, sometimes in the day; in my bed, on my couch, or in various libraries across Harvard’s campus. I constantly lugged around half a dozen books, my computer for note taking, and when not at home was usually found either in a coffee shop or a library. My four oral examination fields were in modern Japanese history, modern Korean history, early modern European intellectual history, and a constructed field in “the aftermaths of modern war.”
I did get out a bit, however. For about ten days at the end of January I travelled to Tokyo to attend a conference at Waseda University, where I was a research student for two years. The institute I was a research assistant at, the COE-CAS had something like a graduate student conference on East Asia and conceptions of East Asian community and I presented a paper there in Japanese on the persistence of transnational idealism in early postwar Japan and early post World War II Japanese perceptions of East Asia. It was a shortened and modified version of a seminar paper I had worked on the semester before. I got some useful comments, especially from my old advisor at Waseda and also got to meet many good friends in Tokyo. I posted a few anecdotes from my trip here at Muninn. I also presented another part of my transnational idealism in early postwar Japan project at “Political Trauma and Restoration: An Interdisciplinary Conference” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in April. Attending the conference gave me a great chance to see what kind of work was being done on political trauma and postwar situations in many different academic fields but I don’t think my own presentation went very well. I realized too late that I needed to do a much better job of making my project accessible and relevant to those who many know very little about East Asia. This was a completely different environment from the Waseda conference, where I was the only non-Asian participant and could assume a lot about my audience’s knowledge and interest in the topic. While I was in Wisconsin I had a fun talk with a gas station attendant which I wrote about here at Muninn.
Other than my first two conference papers and preparing for orals, the only other project I was working on was Frog in a Well, which I had started a year earlier. We continued to grow, started a Korean history weblog, and in January of 2006 I received news that during a roundtable on history blogs at the American Historical Association conference, Frog in a Well won an award for best group blog. This was really nice to hear and gave me hope that the academic world might one day take the idea of collaborative academic weblogs seriously. Our project continues to grow, and I have recently added a “library” on the site for uploading various historical materials and documents, as well as relaunched the East Asian Libraries and Archives website.
The first half of 2006 was really all a blur of books, coffee, and the inability to distinguish properly between that which we call the “nap” and the “night of sleep.” May rolled around and so did my oral exams. I passed and wrote a posting here at Muninn which talked a bit about the experience. Passing these exams gave me my second Masters degree (last time in International Affairs, this time in History). I am now what they call “ABD,” which might mean any number of things “all but disseration”,”all but dead”,”anything but dissertation”, etc. I could now turn my thoughts to my dissertation topic.
Most of the summer of 2006 I spent in Korea, continuing my study of the Korean language at Seoul National University’s intensive summer program (I did level 3/6 in 2005, and 4/6 in 2006). I stopped in Tokyo on the way to Seoul and stayed a week there at the end of May. I should have been relaxing but I spent much of the time cooped up in my friend’s apartment trying to finish a lit. review paper that my orals preparation had kept me from writing. Sayaka joined me and we lived in a very small apartment near Naksŏngdae station, which is about half an hour walk or a short bus ride from campus. The summer was wonderful, though, even if I feel that my Korean did not improve as much as I would have liked it too. I think that after attending many language programs in China, Japan, and Korea, I’m getting worse and worse at concentrating completely on language study. I hope to give formal study of Korean a last chance this coming summer, however, and the rest I’ll have to pick up on my own as I go. I made a number of blog postings while I was there (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11). Sayaka and I visited a lot of museums, met with friends, went on long walks around the back-streets Naksŏngdae, and spent a lot of time in coffee shops. I often regret that the fact I don’t drink alcohol and my strong sensitivity to cigarette smoke has made it almost completely impossible for me to socialize to any great degree in Korea, but until smoke-free bars catch on in Seoul it is something I will have to live with.
After finishing level four of the language program at SNU, I continued my travels in what would be my 2nd “around-the-world” flying trip. I buy cheap student discount tickets from STA Travel and get all one-way tickets that took me from Boston to Japan, to Korea, to Germany, then Norway, two days in Iceland, and back to Boston. I did a similar trip in the summer of 2005, stopping for a night and visiting a friend in London on my way to Norway. This summer I stopped in Darmstadt, Germany near Frankfurt and spent a few wonderful days visiting a friend there. I also really enjoyed walking around the town and surrounding countryside and just generally fell in love with Germany. I then went on and returned to my hometown Stavanger, by which time I was completely broke. I was low on summer funding while in Korea as well but managed to pay the last of my living expenses there by doing a little Japanese-English translation on the side. To pay for groceries back in my hometown of Stavanger, Norway where I stay in my mother’s vacant apartment, I ended up teaching a Japanese class for almost four weeks to an enthusiastic group of almost a dozen Norwegians who ranged from junior high school students, recent high school graduates to career professionals. It was a great experience and I would gladly do it again if I get a chance to. While back in Stavanger, I biked around, got lots of sleep, and read a lot. I posted a few things here at Muninn from my time back home (1,2,3,4,5).
On my way back from Norway in early September I stopped for a few days in Iceland. I stayed in a cheap youth hostel and wandered about Reykjavík on a rented bicycle, visiting museums and getting wet in the rainy weather. I really enjoyed the experience though and posted about the trip here (1,2,3). Regrettably, I had neither the time nor the money to do what one really should do in Iceland: rent a car and drive out through the magnificent landscapes it has to offer. I hope to save that for some future trip.
By the time I arrived back in Cambridge, MA on September 8th it was time to begin my third year in the PhD, and my new responsibilities as a TF (Teaching Fellow = TA or Teaching Assistant). By this time my sister had already given birth to her first child, a son named Liam (he has his own page of audio and video clips here) that I finally got to meet over Christmas break.
My fall semester was completely different from my second year in the program. I moved into a new apartment with another friend in the department, which has gone very well, but there is an entirely new daily rhythm and new responsibilities in the third year. Third year students have two new things to think about: Being a TF can potentially suck up any time you let it get a hold of, and we must also prepare for something called the G3 Conference. In a few weeks I will be presenting my dissertation prospectus to my fellow students and professors in the history department at this conference and they will have a chance to offer me advice and criticism on my proposed dissertation topic, which is currently entitled “Treason and the Reconstruction of Nation in East Asia, 1937-1951.”
I overextended myself at the beginning of the semester, eagerly signing up for an intensive introductory German language course in addition to being the head TF and teaching two sections for a World War II history class taught by Charles Maier and doing a weekly Korean reading meeting with my Korean instructor on the side. The early morning German class eventually got dropped. The early mornings were doing a great job of getting me up with the rest of the world but it was just too much work each and every day. I also didn’t like mixing the study of two languages. I really want to come back to German, which I have long wanted to learn, but clearly my Korean and my research should take priority at this point since German won’t help me with anything in the short to medium-term.
I have really enjoyed teaching discussion sections for the World War II class and love interacting with the students. This coming spring I’ll be the TF for a sophomore tutorial reading class on Colonialism and Post-colonialism which is much smaller than the massive WWII lecture class of over a hundred students. In the spring I hope to be better at managing my time, however, and develop a better system of blocking off several days each week as “research only” days at the library.
It is amazing how much more manageable my life became after I dumped German a few weeks into the semester. I was a lot less stressed and started to enjoy some of my evenings. I also made frequent visits to or got visits from Sayaka, who lives in Washington, D.C. The monthly airplane ticket expenses are an unfortunate but worthy monthly part of our budgets, even if, when together, we always end up doing exactly what we would do apart: read in libraries and coffee shops. Sayaka has been busy both with school and applying to PhD programs again as she is wanting to move out of Political Science and into Sociology or History.
Around Thanksgiving, I was able to get away from school and studying to travel to Japan again for about a week and help out as my old advisor’s assistant at a conference held in the hot spring resort of Hakone. The conference was the 3rd International Conference on Wartime China and I helped my Professor Hirano in an administrative capacity and as an assistant to the US/Canadian group of scholars who participated and presented at the conference. There was also Japan, China, and Taiwan delegations of scholars who presented on a variety of topics related to culture during the Sino-Japanese war. It was a fantastic experience since I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend one of the crowning achievements of a cooperative effort that has gone on for several years now. At first, however, I felt a bit out of place. I have been studying Korean language and trying to get my knowledge of Korean history up to speed for so long now that the this conference suddenly reconnected me to the world of Chinese history and Sino-Japanese relations that I hadn’t thought much about for some time. I spent a few weeks after my return thinking hard about the China part of my project and where I would like to do a local study of political retribution, settling, for now, on Shandong province. This spring I will again turn to thinking of the Korea side of my project, however, as I will be spending the first year of what I hope to be two years in Asia in Korea. The second year will be in China and Taiwan with perhaps another a few months, perhaps during a summer, in Japan.
The year ahead has lots of new challenges. Will I get funding for my first year of research in Korea? Will I get funding for another summer of Korean language study? Will professors and fellow students in my department think I’m crazy to try to do a project which has a China, Korea, and a Japan component to it, at least the way I am proposing to put it together? Will I find someone good to work with in Korea? Will my Korean be up to the task of the research ahead? Will I make good progress in the spring getting through the many materials I have access to in the Harvard-Yenching library and, for the North Korea related materials, in the National Archives? Will I get to go home to Stavanger at all this summer? There are lots of unknowns, but I hope at least we will get some decent snow in Boston in what is left of a so-far incredibly mild winter. Happy New Year.