Ian Shin '06: Historian Uncovers Asian Immigrant Experiences
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 00:50
Photo Courtesy of Ian Shin '06
Shin’s interest in Asian American experience stems from his own experience as an immigrant.

History and American Studies major Shin came to Amherst as an unassuming but bright and curious student. His academic pursuits led him to a PhD in history from Columbia University last year, and he currently teaches at Bates but will be moving to a tenure-track position at the University of Michigan next year.

Shin describes his passion for the work he does not as a primarily knowledge-driven endeavor, but rather as a way in which he can replicate the sort of relationships and impact that the “wonderful” professors at Amherst had on him as a student.

He hadn’t always been in academia —after working for four years at a global strategy and management consulting firm, he decided to go back to graduate school to pursue his master’s degree, describing the professors he met at Amherst as the “folks who eventually inspired [him] to get back into academia.”

Meaningful Relationships and Inspiration
When Shin first came to Amherst, he thought he was going to major in political science and history, but after taking a class in the Art History department taught by prolific Professor of the History of Art and American Studies Carol Clark, he quickly realized political science was not his passion and began to take more American Studies classes instead.

Professor Clark eventually became his advisor in American Studies and he recalls the ways in which her “flawless lectures” could cover so much ground and brilliantly condense decades of history into understandable and insightful lectures. Her teaching methods and the ways in which she was able to “bring the material alive” is something that he now tries to emulate as he performs his own lectures on relationship between Chinese art and American history.

American studies and English professor Karen Sanchez-Eppler also impacted Shin’s academic career as he reminisced about her class on the history of childhood and the challenging nature of determining historiographical approaches to studying the topic given the lack of records.

He remembers having class one time at Sanchez-Eppler’s house, where she asked her students to bring children’s toys and analyze them over dinner. To Shin, the class was hands-on and allowed him to know Sanchez-Eppler well. Today, as a professor, he tries to include her sense of encouragement and inclusion in the seminars that he now teaches.

Sanchez-Eppler recalled Shin as a “scrupulous” and “tenacious” student researcher who wrote with “some of the most graceful prose” she has ever seen from a student. Clark, her colleague, was “always trying to convince him that he should be an art historian.”

The final project he completed for her class, a large independent research project, was later published in the undergraduate journal “History Matters” as an essay titled “Little Dragons: Chinese American Childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” This essay, Sanchez-Eppler said, “remains among the very best pieces of undergraduate independent research” she has seen in her teaching career.

Pursuing Interests and Curiosities
Shin’s interest in the Asian-American experience relates to his personal experience as an immigrant. Born in Hong Kong, he and his family came to the United States when he was nine years old. In particular he was interested in the ways immigrants transform new lives for themselves and deal with the challenges they might face in new, uncharted territory.

He considers history a way to tell that story — and with history, he could retell traditionally accepted stories of what happened in that past that are in turn used to justify present decisions. By diving into research, questioning assumptions and thinking creatively about interpretive possibilities, he believes that history allows him to tell different stories that challenge conventional wisdom because “in the past, things were actually different.”

As a traditionally trained, empirical historian, he spends much of his time in archives across the nation and the world in places like New York City, Philadelphia, Connecticut and London.

While he admits that at times, the work can be “tedious” and “mind-numbing,” the findings that he unearths are usually worth it. The ability to conduct research and dig through archives was a skill he acquired at Amherst with his first research seminar.

“I fell in love with the idea of just handling this old material and being transported to another time and place by interacting with these old documents,” he said.

Shin has always had an interest in the history of museums, even while he was still at Amherst. He wrote his undergraduate senior thesis on Nathan Dunn’s Chinese Museum. He decided to marry his interests in the Asian American experience, U.S. history and museums with his current major project, “Making ‘Chinese Art’: Knowledge and Authority in the Transpacific Progressive Era,” which explores how Chinese art in the United States emerged in the early twentieth century through a disputed process of knowledge production. He aims to analyze the significance of Chinese art as it relates to U.S. imperialism and the concept of American exceptionalism.

This project, Shin explained, will examine “how Americans come to define the field that gets to be known as Chinese art … and they had to essentially invent that category, because Americans didn’t really understand the Chinese as capable of producing something that they would consider fine art.”

Shin described how, in the process of creating these categories, a myriad of debates and contests arose about the qualifications and experience of those who determined what works counted as “Chinese art.” This, he said, put Americans in contact with the “Japanese, who have been debating this topic, and also with the Europeans.” These facets of his project allow him to look more closely at America’s relationship and position in the world in the early 20th century.

The Amherst Bicentennial
As I spoke with Shin, I could feel the excitement with which he spoke about his future projects. He talked about the research project he was planning, which focuses on about Chinese-American civic groups as well as larger organizations like the Boy Scouts and the American Legion that had all-Chinese chapters.

Shin plans to explore the motivations of those who joined them and the benefits that their members gained.

The project he seemed the most excited about, however, is the one that seems most distant. He wants to study the history of Amherst. The college will release a book about the history of Amherst around the world to commemorate its bicentennial anniversary, and Shin was asked to contribute a chapter on its history related to Asia and the Pacific.

“I haven’t quite figured out what the angle is going to be yet, but one of the things that does strike me … is that a lot of Amherst graduates end up going to Asia as missionaries but also as government advisors in the 19th century, including the first American missionary to China,” he said. “To me, what’s interesting is that you have this school that is kind of in the middle of nowhere … so how did they understand the relationship that this little college has to this far-away place?”

Life Beyond the Books
Right now, Shin is still focused on starting off his career and bringing his future plans to fruition. When he does have to relax, he enjoys spending time with his husband, who is finishing up his MBA in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also likes to go on walks, explore cities and hike with his dog. To “keep [himself] sane,” as Shin put it, he plays tennis as well.

Shin reflected that the “apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree,” as he is now a professor at a small liberal arts college, teaching courses on what he majored in at Amherst. However, Shin has come a long way since he was a student at the college, a time when he was a residential counselor and sang a cappella his senior year — an activity that he wishes he had started earlier.

As Shin progresses in his career and pursues his passions, is clear that Amherst has left an imprint on Shin’s ambitions and desires. In the same way, Shin has also left his own mark on Amherst.