Revisiting Grad School - Professors' Edition: Dr. Annika Culver

Wed, 08/25/21
Annika Culver

Dr. Annika A. Culver is an associate professor of East Asian history in the Department of History. She received her BA from Vassar College in 1997, MA from Harvard University in 2000, and PhD from University of Chicago in 2007. Her doctoral dissertation title was “Between Distant Realities:” The Japanese Avant-Garde, Surrealism, and the Colonies, 1924-1943. She joined FSU in 2013.

What questions have driven your research?

My career interest has evolved quite a bit over time. I think I am constantly fascinated by how individuals interact with political, cultural, and social environments. Much of my work centers on cultural production but looks at the politics as well.

I was always very interested in French history and literature, and especially Surrealism was fascinating to me as an art and literary movement. In the Japanese context, the impact of colonialism was very important on the avant-gardes, who were cosmopolitan and moved between Europe (Paris), Tokyo, and Japan's colonies, especially Manchuria. No one had written about both the literary and artistic incarnations of the truly global Surrealist movement as it was expressed in Japan.

How did your grad school life unfold?

In the beginning, I was not thinking of becoming an academic. I was planning to be a journalist, and I got a master’s degree at Harvard to prepare for that. After working as a journalist for a few years, I decided to take the big step and get a doctorate. I spent a year in the East Asian Languages and Cultures program at the University of Southern California, but it was too literature-based for me. I wanted something more grounded in history and document-based, so I began a doctorate at the University of Chicago.

For my research, I worked with many languages: English, French, Japanese, and Chinese. Going overseas for research and language studies—to Japan and China in my case—was time-consuming. I was also raising a toddler at the time; that was another challenge. Sometimes if there is no balance between your professional and personal life, it can be skewed. That’s something to think about in grad school and in academia at large.

What were the main challenges you had to overcome in grad school?

First of all, outside pressure: people will tell you to do or not do certain things that could influence your graduate or professional career. For instance, women might be advised to hold off having children until they become tenured. But sometimes you can’t pace what happens in life. When you have a family, you must take care of them in addition to committing to your studies.

Secondly, when I was at the University of Chicago, health insurance was originally not provided for those of us in PhD programs. It was a problem particularly for us with families to look after. Of course, it was nice to have the tuition waived, and we were provided with a stipend for working for the university. But living on such a tight budget with a family was difficult.

Furthermore, graduate school was sometimes intimidating. I recall at Harvard, I took a seminar with the late Roderick MacFarquhar, a very famous British labor politician who was best known for his studies on Maoist China. Every week, we had to read 200 pages in Chinese, 800-1,000 pages in English. He would assign one student to do the outline of the readings for the week. Everyone was trying to outdo themselves. One time, I was assigned to do the Cultural Revolution, and I was so nervous—it was a terrifying experience—I was afraid of not earning a good grade. He was nice enough to take me out of my misery after about 15 minutes, as he had been there during the Revolution.

I would say that to counter those moments of self-doubt, you should reach out, be part of a community you feel comfortable with. An inclusive community from whom you can get honest feedback. Be in an environment that is open to interactions instead of shutting them down. You need to maintain your own voice in such a community – and not feel the need to assimilate.

How would you describe your language learning experience?

I grew up bilingual—English and German—and I began to study French in junior high. In college, I took both Chinese and Japanese, and continued in graduate school to learn how to read prewar texts, as well as classical Chinese and Japanese. There is a greater learning curve with non-Roman alphabet languages, so persistence is required to learn the many characters. However, if you live in China or Japan and are immersed in the language environment, it is a lot easier and comprehension speeds up.

I really enjoyed fieldwork in both China and Japan. I was able to stay for longer periods of time in Japan because I was supported by grants from Fulbright, Japan Foundation, AAS (Association of Asian Studies), and other organizations. Also, the archives in Japan are easy to navigate for foreign researchers.

What was writing your dissertation like?

I found it very helpful to have a good outline. Also, you don't always have to write it linearly, and can write in small sections, and then fill in the other portions after you have done more research. It is helpful to be persistent, and to make sure that you spend a bit of time every day writing and researching. After my research was done, it took me about a year and a half to finish writing my dissertation. During the same time, I was writing and giving conference presentations. These conference papers often became the nucleus of individual dissertation chapters.

How did you find a method for your work in grad school?

None of my advisors imposed any framework on me, and I was afforded free rein. I had an advisor in history, an advisor in East Asian Languages, and an advisor in Cinema and Media Studies. I had classes in pure history, political science, and art history. They all enriched my perspective; my interdisciplinary training allowed me to see the documents but also beyond the documents. You ask yourself what a document is, what it says. But you can also ask, how does it interact with the social space and a broader environment? It can lead you into different directions. One document can lead to many spinoffs—it’s a microcosm.

To this day, I advise my students to use their training in disciplines other than history – if they have them, to see this as an asset not a liability. It helps you find your own voice and stand out. For instance, there are a lot of good histories written by journalists, because they are trained to ask questions and tell an engaging narrative. Within history too, there are many approaches to its writing: labor history, intellectual history, social history, to name a few, and each perspective can offer something unique. You do not have to choose one way of doing history and stick with that for your entire academic career. To stay fresh, it is good to be flexible and update your interests and perspectives.

If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self grad school self, what would you say?

I would tell myself that getting the PhD will be an incredibly long process. It takes a long time to master the languages well enough to read primary and secondary source material, especially older texts. I was working with French, Japanese, and English. So, basically, it is a labor of love, and you have to be really committed to see it through.

What kind of advice would you offer to students who have familial responsibilities in grad school?

Have a great support network. If you have kids, a daycare, nanny, or family members, can be helpful, especially at the early stages. Take care of your finances, make sure your program can provide you with a living wage. Take opportunities when you can: teaching in your department or working in your field. But remember to keep your eyes on the prize. Show up, keep at it, no matter how hard it is.

Try staying focused on finishing your dissertation and getting your degree even if it is challenging. You have to stay in the momentum. Have an outline of your work and organize your progress. Take tiny steps towards your goal and those will eventually cover the distance. Do a little bit everyday if you can’t get a whole lot done at any one time—even if it’s just the daily 15 minutes.