Dr. Emily Rook-Koepsel joined the Asian Studies Center in August of 2016 as the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs. She advises undergraduate and graduate certificate students and East Asian IDMA students; she also administers faculty and student grants and fellowships. We are delighted to have her with the Center and glad she could take the time to answer a few questions.
Tell us about your background. What brought you to the University of Pittsburgh?
I graduated with a Ph.D. in South Asian history from the University of Minnesota in 2010, and got a job at the University of Oklahoma in their International and Area Studies Department in 2011. In 2016, I was ready for a change, and excited to move closer to family. When the Pitt job came up, it was a perfect fit. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I was heading home. More importantly, the job had all of the aspects that I most enjoyed about academia—working with students, and building a strong focus on global education.
What led you to study South Asian History?
I began to study South Asia by accident. I was a history major as an undergraduate student, and in my program we had to complete a historiography course. I was fairly sure that I was NOT interested in Asia, so I decided to take the historiography course that I thought would be focused on Asia to confirm my disinclination. The final research project for that class was a 20 page paper on whatever subject you liked, but it needed to be focused on one country, and use a specific set of books that we could borrow from the library. When I went to check out the books (during the second week of classes) the books about India were the only ones left. I was intrigued by what I found, and continued to take courses including ultimately Hindi language. By the time I left my undergraduate program I had worked in India at a primary school, taken two years of Hindi, and gotten a second major in South Asian Languages and Civilizations.
What is your favorite takeaway from your academic background?
My favorite takeaway from my academic background (widely applicable) is that being a good scholar is about being critical AND generous. Too often as students and young scholars, we read or think about questions with the main idea of ripping them to shreds. Certainly, no argument, article, book, etc. is perfect (as any author of an argument, book, or theory would admit), but little is gained if I look at every work as an opportunity to criticize. Reading and thinking, in order to be productive, need to collaborative and open. I have after many long years learned to read and think productively, asking how is this argument helpful or useful to my understanding rather than how is this argument flawed. Of course, any scholar must be able to understand how to engage critically with their peers, but interacting productively allows for greater engagement.
What is your favorite part of advising certificate students?
I love working with our certificate students, because each of them brings a specific and personal take to learning about Asia. Whether it is the undergrad med student who is adding an Asian Studies Certificate because he has a passion for Chinese poetry, or the Japanese manga enthusiast who has built on early passions to be able to talk knowledgably about Japanese linguistics, or the Korean minor who also runs a highly regarded K-drama blog, each of students comes at the study of Asia with different passions. Moreover, because the certificate is part of a larger plan, our students all are genuinely interested in thinking about Asia often outside of their major departmental concerns. The kinds of thinking they do makes me feel like the study of Asia is in good hands for the next generation.
Share a piece of wisdom you’d like to impart to every student you interact with.
There is no clear path after college or graduate school! Students learn a ton of things in college and graduate school. What matters most to post graduation success is how the student is able to explain and contextualize what they learned, and the degree of confidence, professionalism, and intellectual curiosity that the student will bring to their explanation of what their degree was about. You will probably be more successful (or at least just as successful) in the long run if you focus on your intellectual passions in college, as long as you are able to coherently and cogently explain why what you learned (skills and content) has prepared you for where you want to go. So study Japanese (or history, or anthropology, or any number of fields), but get prepared to explain what you learned and why it makes you fantastic!
What is your hope for the Asian Studies Center in the near future?
The Asian Studies Center is fantastic the way it is! But, if I have to choose a hope for the future, it is that the center is able to share how important and interesting Asia is even to people who haven’t had a chance to study it.