History PhD Students presenting work at the University of Tokyo

By Sarah Fister Gale

In early March four University of Chicago graduate students in the Japan Studies program will participate in the Japan Studies Graduate Workshop at the University of Tokyo. This annual event, which is jointly hosted by the University of Tokyo and UChicago, provides doctoral students from both universities with a platform to share their research and field questions from students and faculty.

James Ketelaar“Having an opportunity to present their research on an international stage is a great experience for our students,” said James Ketelaar, professor of Japanese History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and The College. “It drives them to a new level of professionalism in their work and the language.”

Ketelaar helped to create the graduate studies workshop six years ago with Yijiang Zhong. PhD’11, who is now an associate professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at UTokyo. Each year, the universities alternate hosting the students and jointly covering the cost of their travel and expenses. The workshop gives both student populations a chance to collaborate with international peers and build global networks while testing their presentation skills, Ketelaar says.

Prior to the workshop, the students share written summaries of their presentation with all of the participants. At the event the students are broken into small panels based on their research topics, and each is given about 20 minutes to present their findings and answer questions. Most of the students chosen to participate have completed their oral presentations and are writing their dissertation.

An important step

 Jessa Dahl“The invitation to present at the workshop feels like I’m entering a new stage in the program,” said Jessa Dahl, a sixth year UChicago doctoral student who is doing her dissertation on the history of Nagasaki in the mid-19th century. She’s known about the workshop since she began the program, and was excited to be among the handful of students included this year.

Dahl spent last year in Japan completing most of her dissertation research and plans to present the chapter she is currently working on about a city across the bay from Nagasaki that developed an entrepreneurial relationship with the Russian Navy in the late 19th century, catering to its soldiers with Russian themed hotels, restaurants and entertainment. “I’m exploring how that relationship came to be and why it collapsed so quickly,” she said.

Dahl has been interested in Japanese history since her childhood in Luverne, Minnesota where she had a friend with a pen pal in Japan. “Luverne is so far from Japan, but my interest stuck,” she says. She has presented in Japanese in Japan a few times, but the conference will be her first opportunity to present actual findings from her dissertation “in any language.”

Erin Newton, another UChicago graduate student making the trip, is also thrilled to have been chosen for the workshop. “The University encourages us to present our research as part of the academic process,” she says. “But the opportunity to share our ideas with Japanese scholars in Tokyo is invaluable.”

Newton will present research of the evolution of nurses in Japanese culture, and how they are taught to care for and about patients. “Nurses spend much of their time with patients but they are often overlooked in medical history,” she noted. “I want to bring their stories to the foreground.”

Erin NewtonNewton got a master’s degree in Asian studies, though she’s always been interested in medicine, so the research topic was a natural fit. Newton also spent last year in Japan, studying the language, though she is still nervous about the challenge of delivering an entire presentation and answering questions in Japanese. “As a historian I’m more comfortable with the written language than speaking it,” she admitted, though she looks forward to this challenge.

Future advisors

During the workshop, the University of Tokyo is also hosting the International Interdisciplinary Faculty Forum, which brings together leading scholars from Japan and the United States to explore topics around a specific theme. Several UChicago faculty, including Ketelaar, and Dr. Mark Ratain, the Leon O. Jacobson Professor of Medicine, and Director of the Center for Personalized Therapeutics will participate in this year’s event, which will focus on energy in engineering, medicine, environmental science, social sciences, and the humanities. All of the graduate workshop participants are encouraged to attend the IIFF events.

In addition to the conference, most of the students traveling from Chicago plan to stay a few extra days to conduct additional archival research at the National Diet Library, one of the largest libraries in the world, and to network with other students and faculty. “That is an important part of the workshop experience,” Ketelaar said. Collaborating with faculty and students will help them gain new insights into their own research, and to connect with faculty who can advise them throughout their careers.

“This workshop is a great opportunity to understand the type of scholarship being conducted globally in fields similar to your own, and to have your work challenged by world experts,” said Bob Greenlee, PhD candidate in Chicago’s Divinity School who participated in the workshop last year. “The depth of the conversations that take place are a testament to the work of the organizers, and to the rigorous standards for intellectual discourse at both universities.”