Michelle Zhang (PhD ’20) on her research in China, and Advice for Doctoral Student on Classes, Comps, Research Design

Michelle Zhang is a postdoctoral fellow in Teachers College’s Department of International and Transcultural Studies in the Anthropology Programs. She conducted her dissertation fieldwork on spatiality and sociality in youth culture in Beijing, China. She is an applied anthropologist of China and is currently working on a project for Teachers College concerning the experiences of Chinese international students.

Can you describe a little bit about how you got into anthropology and how you ended up in Teachers College’s Applied Anthropology program?

yeah um so I  did my B.A. at Duke in Asian and Middle Eastern studies, so my background is primarily in area studies before I started the PhD. As part of area studies, you take an interdisciplinary approach so I took courses in Chinese history, I took Middle Eastern poetry classes, and a big bulk of that actually was stuff that was specifically anthropology or anthropology adjacent, like history, literature, and political science classes that used a lot of Anthropology resources as well. When you do area studies, there are very few specific areas studies classes, like topical classes—you tend to take classes across disciplines. But, depending on what the class is, they often do draw from other disciplines as well, so that was where I first encountered anthropology and I enjoyed my anthropology classes the most because I am very social and I really liked spending time with people, so the pull of anthropology was that a lot of the research methods and a lot of the data had to do with people who are more or less still alive and doing things today, so it felt very relevant.

I did a few projects when I was an undergrad that were related to education in China, and so I moved on and did my Master’s in International Education Policy which I realized was not really for me. After that, I spent a year in China teaching at a middle school and applying to PhD programs. The middle school was an NGO, so I was interested in figuring out how to bridge my interest in China, in education and policy. A lot of policy research has a very input-output kind of formula, which is really useful for people who are designing interventions, but a lot of the recurring conversations were about how these interventions were all flawed in some way. Also, historically there has been a lot of time wasted designing interventions or designing research that completely misses cultural contexts. So, as part of the conversation in the International Ed program, as part of our training, we read a lot of things and discussed ways that context is really important, so you really can’t import solutions. For example, waiving school fees or making uniforms free in one particular country or city and moving that to another place and expecting it to have the same kinds of results won’t work — even if the underlying premise, or the problem itself looks the same. So that was what led me to apply to the Applied Anthropology program, because I think that there’s a lot that anthropology has to offer, both in terms of theorizing how people relate to each other and the kinds of factors that go into the kinds of decision making that policy is really interested in, while also having an inbuilt concerned for context and particularities of different cultural contexts. So when I was applying to programs, I was specifically interested in schools that either had schools of education or had strong relationships with schools of education, but I think that TC was the only one where there I specifically applied to an Applied Anthropology program.

Once you got to TC, what are some of the most memorable classes or most formative for you as an anthropologist?

I really enjoyed the colloquium sequence, I think it was hard coming in and not really knowing what to expect. But it’s definitely one of those core sequences that, looking back, I felt was a really good apprenticeship of sorts for learning how to become an expert in a way. I think the colloquium is really good at that, because you start out reading things, summarizing and trying to make sense of what you’re reading, while also trying to put it in conversation with other things you’re encountering in your own work or in other classes. So, it’s very much baby steps, but it’s a little bit like– I read it, and I understand it, and now let me try to apply it. Then you move on to designing your own research, doing a summer pilot study, then coming back and trying to figure out how to make sense of it, culminating in a written paper. So, in a sense, it’s a bit like a mini PhD training, because then you’d do all of that again as you’re preparing to do your exams, and you do your dissertation fieldwork and then you come back and write the dissertation. But that mirroring process really helps build capacity, both in terms of thinking, reading and writing, and also in terms of a sort of confidence that this is something that you are capable of doing.

It also seems like you get an understanding of how the process plays out in the long-term, so when you begin the dissertation work, the stages, rhythms and end goals are more comprehensible.

Sure – so, for example, the writing of the colloquium paper, you’re kind of starting to work on it at the beginning of your second year in the first part of the colloquium. And then you finish the paper, you present it, you get a lot of feedback, and then you revise that and then you turn it in. At the end of the year, you sit down with the professors and they tell you your grade for the class, but then you get more feedback on the paper, so it mirrors a lot of that revision process where you’re rewriting, revising, and rethinking through your questions.

For the colloquium paper, it often feels very “baby”-like, in a sense, because you didn’t do that much research – for some people it’s the first time they’re doing field research, which is really okay. But it builds that capacity for when you’re doing the dissertation and you are completely reworking chapters and having to seek out feedback. I think it’s good for people who haven’t had the experience getting a lot of feedback on their writing, or who have been previously uncomfortable with seeking and receiving that feedback, to start to get more comfortable with it because it’s really, really necessary when you’re writing a dissertation.

How did your summer research get leveraged towards your dissertation proposal/fieldwork, or were they separate topics?

They were kind of separate topics. It depends on the people, so it can go either way. There are people who come in, they have an idea of what they’re going to research, and then their project more or less is in the same vein. What is probably more common is people come in with a general area of interest or concern, and then their project evolves quite a bit over the course of the PhD, and I think that to some extent that’s true for everybody. Very rarely has someone come in and been like, “This is the PhD dissertation that I want to write” and then that’s the PhD dissertation that they do write because what was the point of doing all the training if the questions that you’re asking haven’t evolved or changed at all, and if you already know the answer?

I would say that, the summer project shouldn’t be conceived of as a totally new and random thing that you’ve never done before – people come in with a certain body of expertise and it’s good to play towards those strengths. But the summer research can, and probably should, be more broadly conceived as apprenticeship, which it is, and getting comfortable with building networks with people in strange places. Even if it’s a place that you’ve been before, you still have  re-navigate those relationships as a researcher and having to build more capacity, because even if you don’t go back to the same place and talk to the same people when you do the dissertation research, you can translate those skills. When you’re designing the project, it’s good to build at least some space in there for you to challenge yourself in those ways because, regardless you’re going to have to do that for the PhD. Even if you worked at an NGO before, for example, and then you want to go back and study the NGO, there’s still going to be a point where you have to maybe talk to people from a different NGO, or try to look at it from a more hierarchical perspective and go to people who are above the NGO, or with people the NGO serves or something like that, so instead of relying just on naturally meeting people, there is a skill to building that snowball network. I think you do yourself a little bit of a disservice if you don’t give yourself the opportunity to do a little bit of that during your summer research.

From 2015 Fieldwork, Umbrella protecting students’ folders while students took high school entrance exam.

Can you give us a breakdown of the research that you ended up doing with your dissertation?

Yeah, a lot of the advice that I give is different from what I actually did. It’s advice that I think I wish somebody had given me when I was doing the program so, of course, none of it is really prescriptive because you can get through the program, and you can graduate and do all of these things without adhering to any of it. For example, I did my summer research project at the same school that I was teaching at before I applied, I was interested in people who are considered rural-to-urban migrant youth, who are living in Beijing. I had this general idea that I was going to do my dissertation on second generation migrant youth and their experiences of assimilation into the city and their navigation of different co-constraints. And I ended up writing my colloquium paper on how students got into high schools, because there was a lot of changing education policies around migrant youth over the period of a couple of years, although I think now, looking back, it was constantly changing the whole time. So it’s the part of what characterizes people’s strategies for navigating the education system- people rely on an expectation that things are going to change and are not too comfortable with the solutions that people have found before them.

So when I did my research, I went back to the place where I started and I didn’t really build new networks at all. When I then went into the field to do a dissertation, I felt a lot more stressed about this. Although, I don’t know – maybe building new networks is always kind of scary. Then when I started thinking about my dissertation project, I wanted to expand what I was working on to consider less specifically migrant youth and to think about young people in general. and I wanted to, so I went into my dissertation field work with less of a specific question and more of a concern with what young people are doing and what they’re up to, and I wanted to write a dissertation that talked about youth in the sense of possibility, rather than in terms of all the different kinds of restrictions and constraints that are upon them. I think in anthropology, and specifically anthropology of China, there’s a lot of work that’s already been done that’s good and it’s important in that it demonstrates how lives are really hard for young people, particularly certain categories of young people like migrant kids, or ethnic minority groups, or young single men in the countryside, that sort of thing. This research shows how their lives can be really difficult, and I was looking for an area that I felt like was full of possibility.

My snowball network just started with me being interested in and open to talking to anybody who was within a certain age range between 15 to 30, maybe it was 15 to 25 at first, and then it expanded. So I just sat down with a lot of people that I met through friends and then friends of friends and random people on the streets, and I talked to them on WeChat. I also scheduled a lot of dinners and coffees and stuff like that, so for the first couple of months that I was there, a lot of my stipend went to taking people out. At first, it was hard to focus the conversations because they’re like, “okay, what do you want to interview me about? What’s your research about?” and I’m like, “well, it’s kind of hard to explain– I don’t know yet” and eventually something that came through in these conversations that I felt was really interesting was a kind of preoccupation with health. That came through in a variety of ways, like people who talked to me would casually mention going to the gym and I went to a Spartan race event early on, and people were talking about their food in terms of calories and nutrition.

Hi-tech space for group fitness classes

I noticed that this is something that seemed to be a little different than what was preoccupying people previously, and there was also a proliferation in terms of the different kinds of gyms that were available, so I became interested in broadly conceived fitness and health. I got into Ultimate Frisbee because I was interested in semi-organized sports and the kind of communities that form up around that. So, I ended up doing my dissertation loosely under this umbrella. I have a chapter about the Spartan race– I attended one Spartan race, I participated in another one, I went to a couple of different Spartan Race boot camps that different gyms and people were hosting. Then, I have a chapter about gyms and fitness clubs in general and the kinds of work networking opportunities that come up in these spaces of leisure or play. And then, I have a chapter on ultimate frisbee. But then the last chapter is about the thing that sort of ties the dissertation together—I’m looking at how young people connect to each other, and not in an emotional way, but in terms of the way that they make connections that become materially consequential. So I was interested in guānxì very broadly conceived, not in terms of a lot of the ways that it’s written about, which is the hierarchical exchange of gifts for favors, but rather guānxì in the very old way of how people are connected or how people are related to each other.

Photo of an Ultimate Frisbee practice

So, in the last chapter I write about the ways that people’s social relationships can protect them under conditions of precarity, and the ways that the lack of certain kinds of social relationships can make them particularly vulnerable. It’s put in the context of these two fires in southern Beijing that displaced a lot of people and closed down a lot of the “dangerous” or not-fire-proof buildings in not just southern Beijing but all over Beijing. It was viewed by a lot of people who were impacted by the fires as a way of getting undesirable people out of the city. So a lot of the more flexible laborers, like young, floating, rural-to-urban youth, who are working in more “floating jobs” as service people, as front desk people, as taxi drivers– that sort of thing.

 And, of course, the very obvious way is that people who are of a certain class and can afford apartments in fancy areas, they’re not impacted at all. But there were other people who were able to bunk with friends, or there was a young woman whose apartment was closed down and she slept on the floor of the fitness studio until she could find another place.These kinds of connections that happen as people are participating in these spaces of play, or whatever we want to conceive this sort of general umbrella of fitness/health/sports/leisure, become really consequential in these very particular moments, even if those relationships weren’t necessarily built to protect against this kind of precarity.

Zhang at a concert with friends from fieldwork

Going into more concrete program topics, what were your experiences taking Columbia classes or consortium classes, what would you recommend for those classes, and what kind of mentorship did you get from those faculty?

I think I took over half of my courses at Columbia, if not more, but I didn’t take anything else in the consortium, so I only took classes at Columbia and Barnard. The experiences were mixed— overall there’s some really great classes there and I also audited a few classes, which I would highly recommend for people who’re done with credits, or kind of want a bit of scaffolded reading and want to take classes with people but tuition is expensive and they don’t need credits. So a lot of professors, especially in more seminar classes, are amenable to that kind of thing. I was also on a FLAS* scholarship for my third year when I was preparing for exams so I had to take a language class and a cultural or area studies class, so I took a history class and then I took a seminar on Taiwan.

So, two of the people that I took classes with, Nicholas Bartlett at Barnard and Myron Cohen at Schermerhorn, are both anthropologists of China. They were both on my dissertation reading committee, and Myron Cohen was on for my exams, so from the most practical perspective, taking classes with people who are not at TC and that are kind of broadly within the purview of things that you might be interested in is a good way to start feeling out who might be a good fit for your exams. I also took an archaeology class as part of the program–  we have to take an archaeology or biological anthropology class and then we have to take an out-of-area class. So I took a class on South Asia at Schermerhorn and then I took an intro archaeology class with Terence D’Altroy, Terence actually ended up being a reader for my Applied Anthropology exam. I think in terms of direct mentorship, I probably had the best relationship with him. But going from early PhD, to field work, to writing the dissertation, my relationships with my professors also shifted accordingly. But Terry, Nick Bartlett and Herve Varenne are all great mentors and can provide different kinds of guidance and mentorship that were very valuable. So I think that taking different classes with different kinds of professors in different fields can be really helpful later on just for kind of seeing who you click with, because TC doesn’t have as diverse of an anthropology faculty and it’s nice to take an archaeology class and see some of the archaeology theories— like archaeology is really focused on materiality, which is something that I’m really interested in. So, there’s more to the course itself than just the field it’s in because they still use a lot of cultural anthropology theory, as well as ways of thinking about materiality. That, I think, can really inform and complement some of the stuff that we’re doing because some cultural anthropology, depending on what kind of work you’re doing, gets very in the head and it moves away from materiality, which I would say materiality is really important part of everyday life and the way that people experience it. So even if you’re looking for things that are about experience, having that perspective can be really enriching and it’s important part of building up your repertoire as a generalist in a sense.

The advice there is– I had a good experience taking classes with different people, some of the professors like Paige West was kind of scary because she makes you apply to her class, and that does happen and to a certain extent you just have to grit your teeth and put yourself in those positions. It really sucks to be rejected, and it might happen, but sometimes it happens because you’re just not a good fit for the class, and not in terms of smartness but in terms of your area of research. If the professor is looking for a kind of a seminar with people who are focused specifically– I took her Place, Space and Nature class which I really enjoyed, but I have an interest in space and you went to the frisbee talk*, so some of my work is related to spatiality, and particularly social space and the way that people transform material space into something that becomes entirely social and something else, and the way that spaces can change depending on who’s there. So that class was a good fit for me, but I had friends who were trying to get into the class and they didn’t and they just wanted to do a class with Paige West, which is– that’s fine as well, but it’s in recognizing that sometimes professors will be really scary and you have to message them and they might be a little bit short with you, but it’s just part of it. It’s part of something I never really got very good at with networking and I think it’s part of building that skill set of reaching out to people and accepting that they might never respond and that’s okay. And there are certain strategies for that, like getting people to introduce you. But also, knowing when to do that, knowing when it’s worth it and when it’s not. For something like a class, if there’s a professor that you’re interested in working with or are interested in learning more about, taking a class with them is a great first step, even if you don’t end up taking that class with them reaching out to them via email and expressing interest and that sort of thing is another good way to open that conversation up. If they’re not that interested in your work or talking to you, that’s okay, too, because that’s a closed door in the sense that you want to reduce your options for yourself as well, because at the beginning, when you start the program, any professor could be on your committee and any professor could be a really great mentor, and you want to find the people who have the time, the capacity, and the interest in your work to invest in you.

This might be maybe a little less relevant, but what were the language exams like and what was your experience preparing for those?

I’m bilingual, so I’m a heritage Chinese speaker and when I was at Duke as a China Studies person, I was required to take language classes, but also Duke requires you to take three language classes anyway. So by the time that I graduated from undergraduate, I had already had four semesters of language training and my language training was predominantly in literacy, rather than language in and of itself, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in China– before I started the PhD I had lived in China cumulatively for about two and a half years. So that helped a lot for me.

I didn’t actually have to take a language exam. As part of the FLAS fellowship thing, I took two more semesters of upper level Chinese at Columbia and if you do that, you can get your professor to write you a language certification thing and that exempts you from taking the exam itself. But I know, for example, Rodrigo* had to take the Spanish exam even though he’s a native Spanish speaker, which was an odd experience. I don’t think you can really prepare for it. From what I heard from him, the language exams are administered by Colombia’s language department, so they’ll vary but his Spanish exam involved reading passages in Spanish, translating them to English, and then also translating passages from English to Spanish so it was quite an applied exam it sounded like. I think there was a conversational part as well. But it was like, it was less of a multiple choice grammar kind of exam and I think, maybe there was a part where he had to pick out mistakes. Even though it was silly that he had to take the exam, from the sounds of the exam, it seemed like for somebody who wasn’t a native Spanish speaker that it would have been testing things that you more or less would want to know or have the capacity to do as somebody who’s going to do field work in that language.

One last thing I would say about language exams, is that if you’re a first year and your intended research will be done in a language other than English, it’s a good thing to check if that language is on the FLAS list because the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship is a really good way of supporting, or like paying for part of PhD years – particularly the exam year because the FLAS requirement is to take two classes, which is very doable while preparing for exams.

What do you see as the major differences between Applied Anthropology and the Anthropology and Education tracks, and what are the implications of those different degrees?

I mean, I care a lot about application – that’s why I picked applied anthropology, so I feel like a lot of my advice favors the applied track. So, theoretically, there is quite a big difference. And in terms of how you want to position yourself, there’s a bit of a political statement. So even if there is very little substantive difference to the kind of research you do as an applied anthropologist in a school of education and as an anthropologist of education that is broadly interested in learning all around the world, you put yourself in a different camp when you call yourself an applied anthropologists versus an anthropologist of education.

 There are differences, so to start off in terms of comprehensive exams, there is one exam that’s different. In that sense, it is important, because if you call yourself an applied anthropologist, people do kind of expect you to understand what applied anthropology is, so taking the exam in lieu of having an applied anthropology class at TC is an important way of getting that training, even if you have to train yourself to do it. That being said, you take the comp exam— there’s three exams as part of the process.

First is your area of focus or area of interest, so you take an area exam that is pretty broadly conceived, so there should be some sort of theoretical or conceptual focus that ties it together. I took it on China specifically, someone else might take it on East Asia or Africa or a particular part of Africa, like the Muslim Middle East or something like that – it is quite tailored to you. The second exam is a theory exam, which would include the founding fathers, but then would include stuff– for me, I would include things about materiality and space. I’m interested in a lot of the Marxist interpretations of space, so like Lefebvre and de Certeau. The third and last exam is a major exam – so this is the one that is the big difference between the two majors. So, as an applied anthropologist you take and Applied Anth exam, and as an Anthro & Ed anthropologist, you take an Anthro & Ed exam. But the exams are quite individual I would say, so what actually ends up being on those exams is quite different, but because the exams are part of our training. taking one exam over the other does kind of push you further into one camp of expertise over the other. So, because I took the applied anthropology exam, while I’m quite comfortable with education stuff and I have taken courses on that, I probably don’t know as much about that as my anthro of ed colleagues and cohort.

I think the most practical and probably important difference is what it says about you when people look at your PhD on your resume. So, overall, unless there’s a particular reason you want to be an applied anthropologist, like if you want to teach in schools that have specific applied anthropology programs or make calls specifically for an applied anthropologist as a professor. But those tend to be rarer, and in the US a lot of them will be NGO-focused, or like indigenous First Nations-focused. So, otherwise, being an applied anthropologist is more like people who aren’t going into academia, who will do policy stuff for the World Bank or other international bilateral organizations like UNICEF or UN type of thing.

 Generally, my sense is that anthropology of education opens more doors usually, because while applied anthropology is not as contested as I think people try to make it out to be, I do think that, like when people hear the words, all other things considered, anthropology of education – that feels more familiar because that’s a very common thing. Like we understand as anthropologists, Great- we know you’re an anthropologist, and sure, we know what education is – even if they’ll put you in the realm of schools. So, whereas applied anthropology can often evoke a question of like “Okay, but what exactly is that? what exactly does that mean?” and that’s not just within academic fields but also when you’re applying to jobs elsewhere. I get a lot more questions about what applied anthropology is versus like just straight up anthropology. So it depends on the kind of conversations that you want to enter and the sort of space that you want to situate yourself in, like the imagined space of how people are going to view you and what kind of work you want to do. If you are very dead set on becoming an academic, Anthro and Ed is probably slightly easier in the job market, because you’re immediately positioned in a way, where you could be in a school of education or in a school or in a program of anthropology.

And then, if you are an area specialist, you get a third option which is like an area studies department. Whereas I think for me, I could make the case that I belong in a school of education, but based both on my research and my degree, I’m less likely to be taken seriously in that way.

Could you tell us your process for preparing for the comps? How did faculty help or is it more of an independent pursuit?

I’ll answer this question directly and then I’ll backtrack a little bit. The mentorship process is pretty hands off – your bibliography is intended to be a reflection of who you’ve become as a scholar, and who you would like to be. And, as a result, each bibliography is going to look different, and it’s supposed to look different, and you do a lot of that intellectual labor yourself.  I did take my bibliography to two people and they did look at them and, in some cases they did offer some feedback, but I think in retrospect, it wasn’t that helpful or necessary. The one exception was when I showed my bibliography to Myron Cohen, and he had some recommendations of more sources to look at in a particular category. So specific to this question, a lot of the mentorship and feedback becomes more valuable and actually helpful once you get to a point where you have a bibliography.

So now I’m going to backtrack and talk about how you would get yourself to a point to write that bibliography and I think it’s most helpful to think of the PhD process as one very long training. Where you start – like we all feel like we’re really smart and we know things when we start the PhD program – and then you kind of go through it and you realize that there’s still a lot more that I had to learn, a lot more capacities I had to build. So if you think about the PhD journey as six years of training in two distinct ways. One, in building the capacity you know you already need to have, and two, through your classes, your conversations with your classmates, your interactions with professors, and carrying out your research, discovering the kind of scholar or expert that you want to become.

The exams are supposed to be the penultimate expression of that, probably even more so than your dissertation because, by the time you get to writing the dissertation, at a certain point you’re like “there were five other dissertations I could have written and maybe like two of them I would have liked to write better, but this is the one that I can finish right now, and I want to graduate so I’m done.” So, to a certain extent, the exams are a statement that this is what I have become an expert in, and this is what I am an expert in, and this is the kind of direction that I want my work to go in. And so, if you think about it in that way, preparing for exams starts when you start the program. The apprenticeship process happens as you’re taking these different kinds of classes, so the earlier you start to think of classes and what you can get out of them – like what kind of areas do you feel are weak or need more development and how will this experience help fill in that gap or strengthen your skillset in whatever your areas of focus are. You should ask yourself where do you want to expand your knowledge, what are things that you are curious about and know nothing about thus you don’t know if you’re interested in it or not, and how can you fill this hole.

That starts with the sort of classes that you choose to take and the extent to which you network with professors, or talk to students who are in other programs, or talk to students in your program that are working on other areas. All of this is building your capacity as a scholar, and both the soft skills of like how do I convince people to let me into their classes and how do I get introductions to places that I don’t know how to access, and then there’s the more tangible stuff related to readings and written work.

A big example of this is to think of final papers as preparation for the future you. So whatever kinds of assignments that you’re doing, to the extent that it’s possible – because sometimes we just want to be done with this semester and that’s okay – but when you have the ability and the time, treat the assignments in your classes as something that future you can look back on and read. This is especially true if you’re funded and you have the luxury of more time. So when you’re writing the summary/critique paper for the first semester colloquium, put the effort into it so that if future you three years down the road goes back and reads that paper, you get a good sense of what the reading’s points were without having to reread the whole thing. I didn’t start doing this until I think my second year, but I think would have been really helpful my first year.

Similarly for final papers, a lot of professors at the graduate level give a lot of flexibility about what to write about. So, for example, in my class on South Asia, I’m not a South Asia person, but there were a lot of theories that were interesting that we talked about in that class and I wrote my final paper on Spivak’s “Can the subaltern speak?” and I applied it to one of the ethnographic pieces that we read. The point of it, for me, was to sort of try to figure out exactly what Spivak was saying, because I didn’t really understand that the first time that I read it, and then to apply it to try to see if I understood it well enough as a conceptual lens to understand ethnographic data. That paper was something that I also read when I was preparing for my exams even though I’m not a feminist anthropologist, so it didn’t appear on my exams, but it was helpful to kind of have to look back on just in case that was a direction that I ended up wanting to go. For a lot of my China area studies classes, I wrote literature reviews – usually it was like one or two readings that we already had done and then I would pick another book or two that I wanted to read, read those, and then tried to figure out what the commonalities or differences, and then I wrote a literature review paper for it. I had two of those that I ended up using when I was outlining my comp exam questions – there were parts that I literally just copy and pasted out of those papers and put into my outlines.

So I think that thinking about it that way helps the wheels to start turning in terms of figuring out how to write a bibliography. It’s really just to think about the classes you’ve taken, what you liked about it, what you didn’t like about it, and part of it is figuring out does this represent the kind of scholar that you are. So, on my theory exam, I had a section on social space from a Marxist perspective and I had sort of ethnographic things that people were doing with space, and I also had the section that was related to that on materiality, so Paige West’s book on cocoa production was on there and I think Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World was as well. They’re both more in the political ecology realm of anthropology, but what I was really interested in is the way that their work takes very seriously these objects that are part of people’s lives that are really important, and how they theorize culture and society through the lens of these very small but important and consequential material objects.That was a section of my exam because I feel like one of the things that I wanted to be an “expert” was social space.

For the China exam, I did the broad works that I, as a China scholar, am expected to be able to talk about. I need to talk about all the work that’s been done in villages, the work that’s been done on ethnic minorities, and the stuff that’s more “modern” – and there’s broad stuff that covers the span of Chinese history that I need to be able to talk about and also teach. Certain things like what was happening to China anthropology during the Cultural Revolution period when China was close to the west? All the research was done in Hong Kong and Taiwan, so even though I’m not a scholar of Taiwan or Hong Kong, being able to talk about and teach that time period of Chinese anthropology, as well as the more modern stuff about the stock market, young people, the one child policy, and development – that sort of thing.

So that syllabus was predominantly anthropology but there was also quite a bit of Chinese history on there. I don’t think I had any literature, but recently I was looking at someone’s work and there’s a person who’s working in Chinese literature that wrote a book called Urban Horror that theorizes space in the technocratic cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. So that would be something that, if I were to rewrite that bibliography today, that book would be on this bibliography. And then, of course because I’m interested in youth and hukou, I had an entire section of the bibliography about migration.

How did you figure out how to structure your bibliography in terms of topics, sections, sub-sections and what kinds of literature is useful/appropriate?

So I did talk to people about it, but again, in the end I don’t know if I found it all that helpful because I got kind of distracted by what other people did. I know it’s frustrating because if you don’t have an idea of what the answer to this is yet, it feels like touchy feely advice, but it’s true that the bibliographies are very individual so they should be really specific to the way that you  think they should be. They should be legible to other people, but you can organize it however you feel like things are connected to each other. So the China bibliography is a good example. How I organized my China bibliography was very different from how I organized my Applied Theory ones because it reflected the way that I was thinking about the topic.

I organized it in a way that broadly introduces you to the fact that I understand the important tenets of Chinese anthropology, so I need to be able to talk about history to a certain coherent extent and so here’s a section on history. And I need to be able to talk about villages, opening up, and reform and when modern Chinese anthropology took off again. So it was sort of organized a little bit temporally, and then thematically based on the big parts of Chinese anthropology which is villages, ethnic minority groups, migration, and urban development. Those are the four thematic ones, and then there were two sections that were more temporal-historical.

 It reflects part of my understanding that this is a test and I’m supposed to perform to a certain extent that I am a competent anthropologist of China, but it’s also a reflection, based on what I chose to put on this bibliography, of what I think is important and the kinds of things that I would want to teach. Even though it is a performance, I didn’t put every single book that was written on villages in the village section – I picked the books that I thought were interesting and important. That is also, I guess, a reflection of my training, because if you train with Myron Cohen you’re going to get a lot of Chinese history.

It seems like the bibliographies don’t necessarily write themselves, but they should unfold through your natural inquiry into the topics and questions you’re asking.

Yeah, perhaps one way to think about it is, if you break it down into blocks by doing like a reversed process. You know, we have classes that train us how to develop a research question, but then breaking it down the opposite way – if you were to take your dissertation topic or take a research question that you’re interested in and then break that down. Like, I’m interested in sociality, so what are the kind what theorists that allow me to think about sociality? What are ones that I read that I liked? What are ones that I want to argue against? What are some that people have recommended to me and I haven’t read yet? You can put those under one section, and then you might realize in the end that like it’s not about sociality after all, it’s about something else, and so you might rearrange it. But to start out with, to take these different building blocks and organize them some way that makes sense to you and then reorganize them as you read and think through the connections.

In terms of funding research, do you have any concrete advice for people who are gearing up to find funding for their dissertation?

Okay, the first and most important piece of advice is the thing that you are applying to do, your research question that you set out to do, does not have to be the research question that you do. I think that can be really paralyzing. When you’re studying so far in advance and you’re like, “but I don’t know what I’m researching yet,” write your application based on something that you are comfortable writing a good coherent application on, even if you’re not really sure that’s the question that you want to do. It’s much more important to get the applications out there than it is to reflect authentically what you’re going to research.

The only time this advice doesn’t apply as if you’re applying to you know let’s say the Spencer, which is specifically for education, pretty broadly conceived but still specifically for education, and you end up changing your project to be something that isn’t education at all – then that’s not a place where you would want to apply. For me, I knew I wanted to do youth culture and I was moving away from specifically migrant youth, but migrant youth a legible category to a lot of funders, and so I was still using migrant youth as a focal point for some of my funding applications just because I was better equipped to write about that, rather than writing my applications about this messy work theory I was working through.

So, and that kind of broadly falls under the same umbrella – it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough. A lot of the work that we do, it feels like you want it to be really, really great and the best reflection of where you are and sometimes it’s just not possible, and it’s better to submit something and to have applied to things than to have that perfect final application, but two months after all the deadlines have passed.

The second is that there are a lot of funding opportunities, more if you fit certain categories, less if you fit others. If you’re an international student, some countries have country fellowships but other than that, it’s a lot more difficult because only the really, really big fellowships and scholarships are open to anybody. A lot of fellowships require things like U.S. residency, a citizenship residency permit, or a green card. That closes a lot of doors, in which case you probably want to start brainstorming earlier as an international student or start looking into in-country fellowships. For others, area studies is always a strong place to be looking for fellowships. I was funded for my dissertation research and writing by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia. I also got a TC fellowship, and then I got one from the Confucius Institute Broad System in China, so I had a China fellowship, I had a US-based East Asian fellowship, and then I had a TC fellowship. The bad thing is Whetherhead reduced my money by a lot because I got other fellowships – the nice thing is, I guess, I had a lot more to put on my resume. Of course, the more prestigious of a fellowship you can get, the better it is. But area studies is a solid place to look if you’re doing any sort of area-focused research and then there’s also smaller niche things.

And the last thing is that, something that I think we’re all not that great at doing but that everybody really should be doing more of, is getting feedback. Not necessarily from professors, because professors are pretty busy and it’s not going to be the top of their priority list. Graduate students should be getting their cohort to read their applications, even if it may be the blind leading the blind, getting those second, third, fourth eyes on your application materials is going to be really important – whether that’s like checking for typos or just making sure that it meets the style and audience of the different grant organizations. It helps you get out of your own area bubble, and makes sure your application is legible to the average academic outside of your area studies.

Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville.


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