This interview has been collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer.
Class of 2015, History
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I'm currently in California, in a small city called San Luis Obispo, but I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am the oldest of three to naturalized Chinese immigrant parents.
While I was at Princeton, I became interested in questions about systems of value in cleanliness and beauty, and how we communicate and teach these values—largely through the history and visual arts departments at Princeton. I’m a humanities girl.
Why did you decide to major in History, and what else were you considering as a major?
When I got to Princeton, I tried out a lot of different things. It became clear that I liked things that were old, because those had the stories that were not yet discovered.
Obviously history is stories that people know, but there's always the aspect of rediscovering or re-understanding what actually happened because it's not a one-sided thing. History is not just the timeline but is about context.
To me, that's mostly what I did as someone who studies history: think about how context and language shapes a story. That was really appealing.
I didn't realize this until I left, but—if you find the right people in the right places—Princeton has a lovely way of encouraging you to explore history in your own way, and that included visual history. I didn't realize that at other universities, visual history is not always seen as a historian’s job. That's an art historian’s job. At Princeton, we used so many different visual things as resources: images, movies, the physical book or the physicality of a book.
What cinched my decision to major in History was Professor Grafton's History and Reading course, which I took my sophomore year. That was the course that changed the way I thought about how I take in information and what knowledge is.
I don't even know if I really thought about doing any other major because it just made sense for me to keep on studying stories in a way that I wanted to.
What were some memorable courses and professors in history?
Obviously Tony Grafton changed my life, and I think he does that for a lot of people.
Then there’s English Constitutional History with Professor Jordan. We spent a lot of time looking at how languages are flexible and permeable and how languages shape societies. The class revealed a lot about how our society works today because those institutions still live on. We still function under the jury system, which affects so many people, and it has this rich history that Professor Jordan did a phenomenal job of teaching.
I also loved this class called Chinese Intellectual History, which was taught by Willard Peterson. The class was about these texts that were written or recorded thousands of years ago, or lost and then re-recorded. Those ideas remain so important today.
Peterson was such a good professor. He taught me how to teach, and how to listen to each other in a classroom setting. He would assign these texts and then ask us what we thought about them. That was kind of wild because I feel like most of my other non-history, non-primary source classes were focused on, Do you have the answer?
He would say, This is what I think, but I could be wrong. I really appreciated that from him. I looked forward to the class every week.
Even though my family is from China, I had never really delved into Chinese history before. It felt like something that I didn’t need or I shouldn’t connect with. I never took an Asian American history class, even though it started being offered when I was a junior.
Linda Colley was an icon because she was so visually leaning. A lot of my work—both Studio Art and History—ended up being about visual reading, which I still carry in my work today.
What else were you involved in when you were at Princeton?
I got the European Cultural Studies certificate. It was helpful because it required the people getting their certificate to come together and share theses in their senior year. We would read over someone’s chapter and talk about it each week. All of us were not necessarily in History, but the collaboration—seeing how other people write, what they're thinking about, and how arguments are presented in other disciplines—was really helpful.
I also got a certificate in Visual Arts, for which I am immensely grateful. That was a huge part of what I did in my last two years, and the faculty and my cohort were a great space to be in and learn.
Each summer was truly a dream, because Princeton essentially sent me somewhere for free. The first summer I was in Germany, and the second summer I was in Greece, on a dig with Professor Nathan Arlington, who is a wonderful human being. That was a great summer. We were digging up things from the Byzantine period, and it was exciting even to get a glimpse of a name.
I realized that kind of work—archaeology—involved things that were too old for me. It's too vague, and I'm much more interested in specificity about people, but it was still one of the most fun summers I've ever had because I was in the middle of nowhere Greece digging, finding treasure, and then eating food and hanging out.
What have you done since Princeton?
Because of my interest in the intersection between Studio Art and History, I wanted to help others see history as a tool and as a way of understanding the present. I also wanted to help change the way that history and art are taught on a mass scale.
Growing up, I didn't learn that history was a tool until I got to college. I just learned that it was memorization, because most textbooks present history that way. Ultimately I think that approach is harmful, because it silences and forgets and does all of these things that just aren’t beneficial to the majority of the population. If you don't see that there's context, then you can't really see that there's anything but your point of view.
After Princeton, I went to grad school at The Bard Graduate Center, which is based in New York City. The degree that you get is in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. It gears a lot of people towards museum work. Museums seemed like a good way to change the way that art, humanities, and history are valued.
I had been an intern at the Art Institute of Chicago one summer during Princeton, and I loved teaching there. It was so fun, and I thought it was such a good way to pass on this idea that I had, to use the resources that were in a giant museum and tell everyone Hey, this is valuable, and it's not just valuable because it's fancy, or in an institution, or high culture. It's actually valuable because these resources are ways to see the world, to communicate, to think, to question.
So I went to this grad school, and it was a two-year program, very small. Our class was less than 20 people, and so in the school itself, there were only about 40 to 50 people.
It was probably the hardest two years of my life. I was one of very few people of color in the school, and also in most of the spaces I entered, because I was in the museum world.
In New York, in that program, I saw worlds that I would never have imagined existed back when I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was introduced to the museum world, and then to the collectors and antiques dealer worlds. People had million-dollar artworks in their dining room just because they could. That was a learning curve in itself.
I continued working in museums while I was in grad school. Living in New York was actually good for me because at school and sometimes at work, I was in these white, elite spaces, but when I left, I could go to Chinatown or Sunset Park in Brooklyn or to free talks that were hosted by the universities in the city.
In that grad school space, I was able to figure out what I love studying, and that became the history of trash. My thesis at Princeton was about nineteenth-century London ephemera and how that changed the way we read streets. Throughout my academic career, I've been interested in the idea of public spaces and systems of value. What is the lowest possible thing that someone can value? Their literal trash.
My grad school thesis, A History of Trash in Sight, is available digitally. It’s hopefully accessible not just in that it’s online and you can interact with it, but also in that you can understand the story that I'm trying to tell, and it's not full of academic jargon.
So I thought I was going to be in the museum world or some kind of digital world, but I couldn't find a job. I wanted to do museum education, and those jobs are just not livable. You have to live in New York City, and all of the salaries are maybe thirty thousand dollars. You get excited if it's closer to 40, and this was with a master's degree and a pretty nice undergraduate degree, if those count for anything, and I don't think that it necessarily should.
But it shows you what kind of people can actually enter those spaces and take those jobs: people who have the funds to live beyond the salary.
So I ended up taking a job that was related to trash. It was a waste and recycling management company, and a couple of Princetonians work there. I did that for less than a year. It wasn't for me. I didn't love corporate culture.
I also missed a lot of things that I thought I was going to spend my life with: old things and stories. My job at the company was a lot of brokering and price negotiation. I learned so much about the food industry, which was great, and about present-day trash and industrial trash, and all these underlying systems that move our country. Things most people don’t think about: trucking systems, construction, etc.
But fortunately I found my current position, a research fellowship at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. I'm in the Library, so I'm technically a “librarian,” but I'm trying to create this digital publishing pilot program. Our goal is to figure out what it means to digitally publish non-traditional academic scholarship.
We think about questions like, What does it mean to have non-traditional academic scholarship? How do we legitimize that? How do we offer it in a digital form? Is our platform and content ADA accessible? It also means making sure that the stories and scholarship point to voices that have been generally historically ignored, and ensuring that scholarship is accessible to anyone who wants it.
It's a pretty big project. We're just starting, but hopefully it turns into something good.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about majoring in history?
Take courses that interest you. I think the best courses are seminars because you can really talk about the material.
What you get from Princeton is not a means to an end. Don’t dwell so much on labels or expectations. Find what you like and stick with it.
Enjoy what you're learning, and put yourself completely into it. It's a lovely place to learn, so take advantage of all the resources Princeton has.
Take advantage of the library, because that's where I got my ideas for my thesis. Talk to the librarians and find out what they have in storage. There's nowhere else like Princeton’s library, where you can just walk in and say you want to see all these things, and then they just deliver them because they can, and you have access.
Is there anything you would change about your time at Princeton or afterward?
I don't think I would change too much because it feels like this project is something that I'm supposed to be working on, even though it took a lot of hurdles to get here, and a lot of feeling alone. Things may have changed now, but when I was at Princeton, there weren’t a lot of resources for people who wanted to go down less traditional paths for Princeton students. It was hard to find people who could help me when I wanted to know how to start a career in museums.
But even with all that, I think I'm where I'm supposed to be, and I really believe in this project. It is a little way to change some of the structures in academia that need to be changed.