Fresh Faculty: Franklin Odo
Issue   |   Tue, 02/09/2016 - 23:39

Professor Franklin Odo is the John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy. He received his bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from Princeton University, his master’s degree in East Asian regional studies at Harvard University and his doctorate degree on Japanese feudalism from Princeton.

Q: Could you tell me about how you got into the field of Asian-American Studies?
A: It is actually a little bit complicated. I did my graduate work in Asian Studies. There was no such thing as Asian-American studies in the early 1960s, so I did a lot of work in Chinese history and did a dissertation on early-modern Japanese feudalism. I was teaching at Occidental College in Los Angeles beginning in 1968. That was a high point in the Asian-American movement: anti-war stuff, looking at black power and yellow power. So that helped me move from Asian Studies to looking at race relations in the United States through the prism of the Asian-American communities.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Amherst?
A: I’ve been retired for a while. I was a college professor for several decades. I went to the Smithsonian in 1997, left there in 2010 and spent a year at the Library of Congress. So I was an executive in federal government for some years. But I’ve sort of been out of a steady job, so to speak, so I was available when Amherst offered this opportunity. And I thought, this is a great way to get back to working with smart young kids, so we sold our condo in Washington D.C. and moved up here.

Q: What do you like about Amherst?
A: One thing is, it’s far from Washington D.C.. I didn’t really realize, I think, how debilitating D.C. is, with a lot of individualism and power-seeking. You’re inevitably caught up if you’re in a bureaucratic situation or an executive, because you’re aggrandizing constantly, in my case, trying to make headway for consciousness for the Asian-American racial grouping. It was a constant struggle, and it was a very difficult role to play. This is a very nice respite from that kind of work: getting back into reading, teaching students and it’s a nice place. I like it a lot.

Q: What classes are you teaching?
A: This semester, Japanese-Americans and World War II. That’s about the whole incarceration issue, the internment. It was really the only time in the United States when the government has apologized and provided reparations to people for actions it considered unconstitutional and unjust. And there’s a lot of military history in there that’s really fascinating as well. So it’s a good block of history that allows people to take a look at the Constitution, Supreme Court cases, racism, resistance — all kinds of interesting stuff.

Q: What did you teach last semester?
A: I taught a course called “Race and Public History/Memory.” That was utilizing my work at the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and National Park Service to really take a look at how United States official agencies collected, interpreted and portrayed race within their institutions. Because it’s the federal government, it has a particular official imprimatur of what passes for the master narrative, what the country is expected to think about how race relations developed. So it’s an exploration of scholarly stuff that deals with these issues, as well as what the federal government says we should learn.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: Oh, boy. There’s not that much of it. Read — I have a lot of reading to catch up on because I was in the bureaucracy for such a long time. So getting caught up on scholarship is something that’s a nice thing to do.

Q: Are you reading anything interesting now?
A: Yeah, actually — “The Oxford Handbook of Asian-American History.” This was just published this week, so it’s very new. One of the things about Asian-American studies is how extraordinary the progress has been in terms of scholarship. Mainstream, elite presses like Oxford University Press are beginning to publish a great number of monographs, handbooks and encyclopedias in the field. The scholarship is really extraordinary now.