Alumni Profiles Series: Christina Chia
Christina Chia has been Associate Director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University since 2014. She received her Ph.D. in English from Duke in 2004 and worked at the Center for Multicultural Affairs prior to joining the FHI in 2006.
What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in English? How did your goals or expectations from the degree change as you were in the program?
I went into graduate school straight out of undergrad, so it was a somewhat unprocessed thought. On one level, I wanted to be an English professor, but I didn’t really know what it meant to be a scholar at that point. In a broader sense, I think what I was really looking for was a daily, deep intellectual engagement.
I was also in the English Department in the mid-90s. It was a complicated period in the department’s history, but at some point I realized what I wanted was a bit more general than being a scholar. I also had a moment where I thought I was going to quit, so I took a year off and found a job at the Multicultural Center. While I was there, the director wanted to bring together all the students-of-color groups across campus to advocate for a bigger space for them. As it happened, my dissertation was about the pre-figuring of something like people of color, which obviously now is contested in different ways. But there was a symmetry between my academic project and what I was doing in that job. This helped me finish my dissertation because it gave me a different frame of reference for thinking about why my topic mattered and how ideas had shifted. I began to see how I could remain intellectually stimulated in a different work context.
The Multicultural Center was your first stop after graduation. Did having work experience outside the English Department help you think more concretely about not pursuing a faculty position? How did it feel to make a career shift?
I was only on the academic job market once, but during that time I felt like departments were looking for a different kind of work than what I was doing in the Multicultural Center and thought I was doing as well in my dissertation. I realized that we thought about the field of 19th-century multi-ethnic work very differently. I thought of it as more comparative or relational work, but the departments I interviewed with were looking for more clear-cut sub-fields. This experience of confronting disciplinary assumptions, combined with the autonomy I had in my other job, where my academic training was appreciated but not being put under scrutiny, made following a non-faculty track feel like the best of both worlds. I started to see a way to stay in the university, but in a different role and context.
It sounds like you were predisposed for the kind of interdisciplinary and activist work your role at FHI enables you to pursue. Do you feel like the rest of “The Humanities,” such as it is, is also making a transition to thinking about the social and ethical implications of our work in an increasingly interconnected world?
For me, it helped that my dissertation chair, Cathy Davidson, was also the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at that time. She had a more capacious understanding of what the field of American Literature was, and also what my career options were. It’s interesting, though: even within the context of the FHI, I sometimes work with graduate students who don’t want to tell their committee they’re working outside the box. I think there’s less of that these days, and most well-intentioned faculty are trying to help their students make these major life decisions, but there’s a bit of a theory/practice divide. It’s still a switch in mindset for some of them to think about how to have a meaningful life as a humanist outside the academy, or in a non-faculty context.
That’s interesting, because there’s been a lot of thought lately about whether faculty are prepared to help Ph.D. students transition to non-academic careers. I’m encouraged that the FHI, and Duke more broadly, are investing in programs to develop the professional skills required for transitioning to more public forms of scholarship and intellectual work.
I had an interesting conversation recently with our director, Ranji Khanna, about how in a graduate program you learn how to be a scholar in a particular field, but in an institute like the Franklin Humanities Institute, you learn how to be an intellectual. Even if you’re still working with other academics, you have to learn to talk to people outside your field here. Faculty involved with the FHI are trying to figure out how to reach different audiences and make their knowledge more meaningful for contemporary debates. For example, right before the COVID lockdown in the U.S. we hosted a panel on public health and the humanities, and the speakers included a historian of 20th century Chinese medicine, an anthropologist of Chinese migrant workers, among others. Their insights were crucial to understanding not only modern China, but also how we understand medicine and race more generally. Faculty are finding new ways – sometimes through teaching, sometimes through other methods – to reach different audiences for what they do. I think many people are grappling right now with where their scholarship should be facing.
Do you feel like COVID-19 has found a different audience for the FHI, or that people are bringing new questions to the events you host?
We definitely have larger audiences now. We’ve gone from seeing 50 as good turnout to, say, 200 or more. It’s a totally different scale. Our sense of who participates in these kinds of public events has shifted now. Especially with this summer’s protests, some critical race events I attended had thousands of audience members. That’s really powerful.
For some of our events we’ve had a more general audience, but depending on the talk, we also have participants from outside the U.S. That leads to different kinds of conversations, shaped by their different kinds of expertise. Even after COVID, I could see strategically continuing to do some things online or continuing to do joint events with other institutions from around the world.
What advice would you give a graduate student who is trying to navigate their place in the new landscape of the humanities today?
There’s a level of precarity no advice can overcome. There are structural issues you can’t “smart” your way out of, unfortunately. But I do see people like local poet, scholar, and activist Alexis Gumbs, who is also a Duke Ph.D., and is now doing what I think is probably exactly what she always wanted to do. Through her art and public scholarship, she’s able to reach a lot more people in more powerful ways than she might have been able to do on a more traditional trajectory.
This morning, a friend was talking to me about the difference between applied humanities and critical humanities. I almost feel like in this moment that dichotomy is breaking down, because what the public needs is precisely critical points of view, and someone like Alexis is the perfect example of that. Sometimes, people have this idea that things that are public facing are watered down, more anodyne, less politicized. But this feels like a moment when critical humanities are what’s needed. That said, it is a challenge to figure out how to communicate insights from the humanities in ways that feel effective. But also, things that are experimental and hybrid sometimes reach farther.
It’s an interesting moment. Even as we’re facing budget cuts and other challenges, there are also possibilities to redefine the humanities rather than dilute them. In fact, as we’re being more strategic, I think we’re actually doubling down.
Ph.D. candidate, English Department
Maggie McDowell is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the English Department, pursing certificates in College Teaching, Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies and Writing in the Disciplines. As a 2019 Andrew W. Mellon Humanities Unbounded Pedagogical Fellow, she has taught American Literature and Gender Studies at Durham Tech Community College. She is currently a Books Marketing intern at Duke University Press.