Professor Spotlight: Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen

For the second part of our professor series, we contacted fiction and critical writer, Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen.

1) Who are you (name, title(s), positions of relevance), and how would you describe your academic career in general?

“Viet Thanh Nguyen, Associate Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity, USC. I’m a tenure-track professor who writes both criticism and fiction, and who blogs for fun.”

2) What first inspired you to pursue a career in academia?

“When I applied for graduate school, I wasn’t thinking of a career, and I certainly wasn’t thinking of teaching. I liked reading fiction, theory and criticism and was pretty good at writing critical papers, so I thought going to graduate school for a PhD would make sense. Of course I was thinking that there would be a job as a professor at the end of school, but I really had no idea what that meant. So what inspired me to pursue a “career” was really just a love of books, ideas, and arguments. The reality of a career in academia is much, much different than anything I’d imagined as an undergraduate.”

3) What are you currently working on?

“After I published my tenure book on Asian American literature, I wrote a novel and a short story collection, now in the hands of an agent. I was also working on a second critical book on memory and the Vietnam War, which is two-thirds finished and which I can focus on now that the fictional projects are out of the way.”

4) What kind of change would you like to see in the culture of academia?

“I would like to see a more humane market in academia where the supply and demand of PhDs was closer to equilibrium than it is now. Short of that, I would like to see livable salaries for non-tenure track faculty. Equally unrealistically, I’d like to see academic culture be less cliquish, gossipy, materialistic, trendy, snobbish, condescending, petty and spiteful…or perhaps my corner of academia is warping me and the rest of academia isn’t marked by these characteristics.”

5) What advice would you offer to aspiring academics?

“Work really, really hard; communicate clearly with your advisors and reach out to informal mentors; never go to graduate school without full funding; know your personal and professional limits in terms of where you want to work and what kind of work you want to do; and have an exit plan, or at least know that you may need to exit and that there’s no shame in that. Everyone I know who’s left academia is happy, and many people I know in academia are unhappy or seem to be unhappy or should be unhappy because that at least would be a good excuse for some unfortunate behavior.”

Professor Spotlight: Dr. Alondra Nelson, Sociologist

As a company by and for the academically-minded, we decided to launch a weekly series that features a professor’s work and thoughts on academia. To start this series, we asked Dr. Alondra Nelson, who served as the founder’s faculty advisor while they were both at Yale University, to kickstart the series. Fortunately for Scholar Hero, she agreed.

Dr. Alondra Nelson is a Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University. With a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and a PhD in American Studies, Dr. Nelson describes herself as an “interdisciplinary social scientist” that uses history, social media, and new technology to examine sociological questions.

Alondra_1.5-6

Photo Courtesy of Alondra Nelson

What Inspired A Career in Academia

Dr. Nelson’s own inspiration to enter an academic career developed late into her college studies when she realized her excellence among peers at the University of California, San Diego. Furthermore, the significant presence of young, female professors in her college experience provided many role models with whom Dr. Nelson could relate and aspire to become.

Insight on Academic Culture

When asked about the state of academia, Dr. Nelson suggested a decrease in its commercialization. She sees academics as “an increasingly corporate space” where attending is “analogous to going to Macy’s.” When the students are the consumers, they carry an attitude that forbids professors from challenging them.

Body and Soul book bover courtesy of Alondra Nelson

Body and Soul book cover courtesy of Alondra Nelson

As a solution to the academy’s problems, Dr. Nelson supports an increase in interdisciplinarity by creating a model that exists as an outgrowth of the college seminar. “A great college seminar is great because you have, around the table, people from different majors, different experiences, from different parts of the country or the world, sitting in a room together talking about the same topic.”

Advice For Aspiring Academics

“Do the work that feels urgent to you, the work that answers those questions that you wake up thinking about everyday. Don’t compromise your curiosity.”

To contact Dr. Alondra Nelson, you may email her at alondra.nelson@columbia.edu. You can also buy her latest work, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, at Amazon.com.

Nathan Repp is a writer for Scholar Hero, Inc.