Always Be Curious about the World
Chelsea Szendi Schieder
Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics
“My Career Path”
History was only one of the subjects I was interested in as a young person, and I first came to Japan by a kind of “accident.” When I was fifteen years old, growing up in a small town in Northern California, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. My father is from Hungary, and I thought I’d like to go to Europe, but the local Rotary Club awarded me a scholarship and decided that I would go for a year to Tsukuba, Japan.
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles I chose history as my major, but I studied abroad in Budapest, Hungary. After university, I worked on the JET Program for two years in Mie Prefecture, and lived for a while in Nagoya. Then I moved to New York City and worked some odd jobs and met some interesting people. Taking time to explore creative interests in my twenties—music, painting, and writing—was an important phase of my life, and by the time I began graduate studies, I had a better sense of who I was and what I wanted to do.
When I finally pursued my Ph.D. at Columbia, I decided to focus on modern Japanese history, in part because of the influence of some special professors of mine, and in part because I was curious about issues brought up by Japan’s modernization and postwar history. Becoming a teaching professor was also one of my goals when I began graduate studies in history. This is probably because I had wonderful history teachers from high school through university and graduate school.
“Research Contents and Their Charm”
Everyone uses history to explain the world we live in today: national history, religious history, and even personal history. What a professional historian does is test these various hypotheses we all casually make. Sometimes things we think are old or even natural are very new, or things we think are new are actually very old. Exploring how people lived and thought in the past (even the not-so-distant past), we better understand ourselves and our society, and how varied and fascinating human society actually is. A historian often examines documents that have been long-ignored, sifting through local records or national archives. This can be tedious and lonely work, but it also feels like an adventure to me: there may be long stretches of very similar documents, but I get a thrill from my discoveries!
My research for my dissertation focused on the student movement in postwar Japan, and how the participation of female student activists influenced the meaning of that movement in the 1960s. Before the War, universities were strictly segregated by sex. After the War, there was a call for equality in education, which led to new policies of “coeducation.” This produced a new kind of campus culture, and involved young women in radical activism at universities in a new way. However, even within a radical movement that made expansive social justice demands, there were many instances of sexism and bias based on sexual difference. Many young women who thought that in joining the student movement they could be completely equal as political actors were disappointed by the way male activists, the mass media, and society reacted to them and their activism. I’m interested in how we always have to negotiate and contend with how society categorizes us, whether as “female” or “male” or “student.” These categories influence how well our voices are heard in society, and define the acceptable ways we can participate in politics.
“My Current Research Environment”
I currently belong to Meiji University’s Faculty of Political Science and Economics. It’s a large and diverse faculty, and I have met many professors who share research interests with me, inspire me, and have taught me a great deal. It is also a faculty with few female professors, particularly among the full-time junior faculty. This does not directly impact my ability to conduct research, but it does make certain kinds of information-sharing difficult. For example, I had to draw on connections outside of the department to get tips about childcare and advice on timing maternity leave and balancing life and research. Of course, there are new fathers in my department who have also been very helpful with this kind of information. However, I find that Japanese faculty members tend to talk less about their personal lives. That cultural difference made it a bit more difficult for me to access information that feels important. Beyond such personal issues, I also still have a hard time understanding grants that are available to scholars at Japanese universities because I come from a different higher education system.
“Balancing Life Events and Research”
My husband and I are expecting our first child in July 2016. This will change our lives a lot. Although I’ve researched gender, written about it, and spoken about it a lot, I’m going to enter a totally new social role: that of the “mother.” I’m finding that my concerns are much much more basic now: How can I continue breastfeeding when I return to work? Can my child get into public daycare?
Different stages of life have different demands, and so work-life balance means something different at these various times. I’m fortunate to have a family that has always supported my academic work, and I could not succeed without them. My husband, another academic, is also a truly supportive partner, and we cooperate to make sure that both of us can do the work we love while we both share household duties.
“Messages to Students and Young Researchers”
The life of an academic researcher can be difficult. Research and writing can be lonely, and finding a secure position at a university seems to become more and more difficult. I encourage young researchers to become interested in the politics that influence higher education policies, and to defend the role of research and learning in society. We need to look up from our books and our data sometimes and make sure that the work we think is important remains valued.
The life of a researcher can also be very rewarding. If you feel a burning curiosity about the world, maybe only an academic career can satisfy you. But make sure that you feel supported in your work. If you do not feel like you are appreciated by some professors, try to find those who will encourage you. Build networks with other researchers for support, both professional and personal. And if it ever becomes too difficult or stressful, have the courage to quit and do something else. The important thing is to maintain your curiosity about the world.