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2017, Dec 19
Scholarly identity

I realize I’ve posted almost nothing at all since I entered grad school, almost more than three and a half years ago. Quite frankly, I was too overloaded with work, too stressed out about what I was actually doing or whether I even belonged in school, too scared to make any sort of comment about anything because I was painfully aware of how little I knew. These days I’m more comfortable with the idea that there’s no such thing as “mastery” of a subject, and that everyone has tremendous gaps in their knowledge.

So, I came in to grad school knowing that I wanted to work on “photography in Japan,” but I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would focus on the former or the latter. A friendly conversation over the summer brought this realization to the surface, even if I probably could have guessed the answer years ago. When, in the course of chatting, I mentioned that I hardly knew anything about Japan before 1860 or so, one of my colleagues who studies premodern literature rolled their eyes at me, almost involuntarily. I didn’t process it at the time, but the next day I realized: I’m a photography scholar, not a scholar of Japan, and photography doesn’t even get invented until the mid-19th century, so I have no reason to be ashamed of knowing nothing about medieval Japanese literature! (As it happens, “Japan” also doesn’t get invented until the 19th century, but that’s a different story.)

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