Interview by undergraduate student Hui Yuan Neo (2019). Major: Political Science. Minor: History.
Can you tell us a little more about the project you are working on this year?
I am working on writing my dissertation, and that is a sort of long and intense process. For me, what that involves at the moment is looking back on my research from this summer, which is object-related and museum-related, and which I did in Southern China and Singapore, and to try to make sense of it and look for patterns and see how it fits into the broad structure of my project.
The Maritime Silk Road is basically the historical trade routes by sea that connected the whole Indian Ocean World, and then going east of that, the South China Sea. My main source of data comes from shipwrecks. There were so many vessels traveling back and forth, coming from different places, meeting in different places, and archaeologists have been working on these different materials that are being brought up. So for me, as a historian, that’s really interesting because i’m working with archaeologists. I’m also in the Anthropology-History program, so the methods that I use are also a little bit unconventional. It’s been really, really fun.
Why did you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?
I was always interested in anthropology broadly, and I kind of knew that I wanted to go into that area, and I was interested in the history of medicine and medical anthropology. Later, I had an internship with the Field Museum, which began when I was an undergraduate but continued for multiple iterations. I was brought in because I could do some translation work with shipwreck artifacts. At the time, I really didn’t know what I was looking at, but I was there for quite awhile and started to see things, objects, and I was like, “Wow, these are really incredible.” I knew that these were Chinese ceramics, but some of the inscriptions were in Persian. They had a lot of Persian and Indian art motifs. And I was just hooked at that point. I was so curious about these ceramics from the bottom of the ocean from nearly a thousand years ago. How did this happen? How did these Persians go to the coast of Indonesia with Chinese objects?
How does being in this environment with other fellows drive your project?
It’s really, really helpful. A lot of the work that you do at this stage of a PhD is extremely isolated. You are in your own mind thinking and writing. Having a community of people who can engage with your ideas and read your work is really essential to whether you’re on track and to whether you’re thinking about what you should be thinking about. It also really enriches your thinking. Especially here at the Institute for the Humanities, people are coming from all kinds of disciplines and normally I wouldn’t have access to their ways of approaching (an issue).
What is one thing you have learnt from another fellow?
There are a lot of factual things that I’ve learnt about their projects, which is really interesting. Our theme this year is “the environment,” and interpreted very broadly. But I’ve also learned professional life skills about how to create the type of time and space that you need to get your writing work done, which I think for most academics is a lifelong challenge.
What is one choice that you’re glad you made during your undergraduate years?
For me I think what was most helpful was taking on a really meaty research project when I was an undergraduate. Sometimes you’re given opportunities as an undergraduate that are not required but that can, in a lot of ways, expand your horizons. So I jumped at the chance for participation in different kinds of research, some of which isn’t necessarily what I do now, but it was very helpful to get that kind of experience. The process of having to go through the writing of a long research paper was really useful.
What advice would you give to undergraduates?
First, I think it’s really important that you pursue things that you’re genuinely interested in. I think there’s a lot of pressure to, maybe, pursue certain careers that might sound profitable, and if you’re interested in them, that’s great. But I think that if you work towards what you’re actually passionate about, you will have a happier life. I also think that challenging yourself as an undergraduate is really important. If you’re a dance major, if you’re a theatre major, write your own play, put on your own production, try to expand your own capacity. If you want to go into a more research-related career, write an honors thesis. Take on a little bit more than you have to, just to get that extra experience.
Why do you think undergraduates should study the humanities?
I think that the divisions that we have about what is humanities and what isn’t are a little problematic. We think that some things aren’t the humanities, but the humanities really infuse everything. The humanities are about what it means to be a human being, what the experience of being a human being is and how we express that. So I think that if you want to better understand your own life, if you want to understand the history of problems that people are trying to solve now, if you want to be able to communicate better—all of these are really practical reasons for studying the humanities. I don’t know that you really have to have a super practical reason, but if you do, those are good.