Spotlight Detail


A Conversation with Dr. Emily Baum & Dr. David Fedman

Dr. Baum & Dr. Fedman consistently receive prestigious research fellowships and glowing student evaluations. Dr. David Igler sat down with the two historians of Asia to discuss their work and experiences at UCI.

David Igler:  Both of you have recently received prestigious research fellowships, including recognition from the American Council of Learned Societies.  Can you tell us about these fellowships and the research projects they support?

Emily Baum: I was fortunate to have recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend and an ACLS postdoctoral fellowship in Chinese studies. With the support of these grants, I returned to China and Taiwan for several months of research on my first book project. My research examines the history of madness in modern China, and the ways in which discourses and practices of madness changed over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I discuss, for instance, the establishment of the first public asylum in Beijing in 1908, the transition from home confinement to institutional treatment, and the influx of Western psychiatric theories which framed “madness” as “mental illness.” My book, which is tentatively titled The Invention of Madness, will be published by University of Chicago Press in 2018.

David Fedman: I was recently awarded an ACLS Collaborative Research Fellowship, which will support two years of joint research for a new book project on the history, memory, and geography of the strategic bombing of Japan during World War II. Entitled Prospecting the Ruins, this book examines the visual culture of the firebombing of urban Japan as revealed through five principal sets of images generated by the air war in the Pacific: maps, photographs, cartoons, films, and art. It builds on five years of collaborative research with geographer Cary Karacas, with whom I have co-authored numerous articles and maintain JapanAirRaids.org, a bilingual digital archive devoted to the dissemination of information on the firebombing of Japanese cities.

DI:  What was it that first sparked your interest in the study of modern China (Baum) and Japan/Korea (Fedman)?

EB: My interest in China developed somewhat randomly. When I first enrolled at Georgetown University, I decided to major in French and only began taking Chinese language classes in order to fulfill a second language requirement. During my junior year, I spent half the year in Beijing and the other half in Paris. My time in Beijing was completely eye-opening and unlike anything I had ever experienced. By the time I returned to Georgetown the following year, I had decided to turn my attentions from France to China. The rest, as they say, is history.

DF: My initial interest in the region can be traced back to, of all things, the tuba. In a total stroke of good fortune my high school orchestra was sponsored by the US State Department to go on a tour of Japan. I returned from our month-long trip fascinated with Japan and immediately set out to learn the language. It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to immerse myself in Korean studies, due in large part to my fascination with the divergent narratives told by my Japanese and Korean friends about the nature and legacies of Japanese colonialism. If my own experience offers a lesson to undergrads it’s that you should jump at opportunities to travel abroad because you never know where they will take you in the long run.

DI:  What challenges have you faced in terms of historical archives or political issues raised by your research?

EB: When I was thinking about a potential research topic during graduate school, I purposely chose one that would fly under the radar of the Chinese authorities. That said, doing archival research in China is always touch-and-go. When I first began my research as a graduate student, one of the major national-level archives that I had originally planned to use had been shut down indefinitely. Another archive attached to a prominent Beijing hospital, which contained patient records from a local psychopathic ward, likewise denied me access on several occasions. This was certainly frustrating, and I often wonder how my book would have turned out had I been able to view these files. But as a researcher in China, you have to be flexible and willing to shift your focus.

DF: One of the central objectives of my research on the Japan air raids is to push Americans to consider a chapter of WWII that is scarcely reflected in prevailing narratives of the “Good War.” While most Americans are familiar enough with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, few recognize that a total of 66 Japanese cities were subject to incendiary bombing raids, which reduced much of Japan’s urban fabric to ashes. Our efforts to recover this history from archives in Japan and the US have elicited a range of responses—from surprise to displeasure. But most importantly, our work has stimulated a productive dialogue between scholars and the public about the politics of war memory on both sides of the Pacific.

DI:  Both of you receive phenomenally positive teaching evaluations.  Tell us about the courses you teach and the way your students respond to what might be considered controversial issues in the classroom?

EB: I teach classes in two separate fields: modern China and the history of medicine. Both of these subjects raise controversial issues, and I try not to shy away from them. In my upper-division course on Chinese History, 1800-1949, for instance, I start off by asking how we define what it means to be “Chinese” – or any other nationality, for that matter. Over the course of the quarter, we repeatedly come back to this question, and discuss how the very idea of “China” and “Chinese-ness” has continually changed over time. My international students from China often tell me that they enrolled in my class because they want to see how their history is taught from a “Western” perspective. While I never presume that there is a single “right” way to teach history, I hope that by the end of the class, students will have emerged with a new vantage point from which to understand their own history and identity.

DF: I split my teaching load evenly between Japan and Korea. I offer two different undergraduate lectures on each: The Two Koreas and Japan’s Modern Revolutions. I’ve also taught a seminar on the Politics of War Memory in Asia and a writing intensive course on the Global History of Air Power (from “Dresden to Drones”), in addition to working with graduate students. In all of these courses I strive to challenge my students to critically re-assess the stories they’ve been told about their own history—in school, at home, through their online communities—and to scrutinize the different forms of evidence historians use to formulate arguments. This sort of self-reflection and critical interpretation of sources is vital to sharp historical thinking, and all the more so in our digital age.

DI:  You’ve each been an assistant professor at UCI for less than four years.  Do you feel there’s anything unique about entering the profession at this institution?

EB: One of the things I love about UCI is how incredibly diverse the student body is. Having students who come from a range of national, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds is what keeps my classes fresh and enjoyable – each person has his or her own perspective on a variety of issues, and everyone brings something new to the table. As an Asianist, moreover, I feel quite lucky to have landed in a place with such a vast array of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants within such a short distance from the university!

DF: The student body, for one thing. It’s a tremendous asset to step into a classroom filled with such a diverse group of students, who bring unique perspectives on Japan, Korea (and the US, for that matter) to the table. There is also something special about teaching at a public institution—I feel truly rooted to California and grateful for the opportunity to get to know the young people that make the Golden State such a wonderful place to call home.