AAS Member Spotlight: John S. Major

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Dr. John S. Major, Independent Scholar; intellectual history, early China

How long have you been a member of AAS?

Since 1963

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

As a first-year graduate student, I saw AAS membership as a way of demonstrating a commitment to the field and also as a way of meeting senior scholars in the field apart from my own milieu at Harvard. I think that this still holds true: AAS membership is a badge of professionalism, and also provides an easy way to keep up on the diversity of, and new trends in, Asian Studies via the Journal of Asian Studies, the AAS Annual Conference, and the Newsletter.

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

In my first year at Haverford I took the introductory “Rome to Reformation” history course, brilliantly taught by Prof. Wallace MacCaffrey, and found it both challenging and deeply rewarding. At the end of the year I said to Prof. MacCaffrey, “If history is like this, I want to major in history.” He replied that he was glad to hear that, but that I shouldn’t confine myself to the Western tradition. “If you don’t have anything else to do this summer, why don’t you get some books about China and read them?” I did, and was intrigued by the idea of a high civilization about which I knew nothing, and which owed little or nothing to the Western Classical tradition that I had always assumed was the fountainhead of civilization. I cross-registered at the University of Pennsylvania to begin studying Chinese, and arranged to write my senior thesis with Prof. Derk Bodde. I was hooked on China, and have remained so throughout my adult life.

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

I taught at Dartmouth from 1971 to 1984, and found teaching very rewarding; I’ve enjoyed recent opportunities to teach as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania and at Connecticut College. But I left academic employment in 1984 (my wife had just finished her own doctorate, and needed to be in New York City to pursue her own career in the museum world) and became an independent scholar (with “day jobs” for income, first at the Asia Society and then at the Book-of-the-Month Club). I found the freedom and flexibility of life as an independent scholar to be very liberating. People asked me, “How could you give up tenure at an Ivy League college?” My reply: “It’s easy: just watch.”

Tell us about your current or past research.

In recent years I have concentrated on translating important works in Han intellectual history: The Huainanzi (with Sarah Queen, Andy Meyer, and Hal Roth, 2010) and the Chunqiu fanlu (with Sarah Queen, forthcoming October 2015). I like the rigor and discipline of translating, and the exhilaration that comes with getting it right. Like these two projects, most of my academic work has been collaborative; I think that two (or more) heads really are better than one. I have several projects in hand at the moment, including a volume of selected published and unpublished articles.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Perfect your language skills. Look for opportunities to work collaboratively with like-minded friends. If you cannot get a tenure-track position, consider taking a low-stress day job outside the field as a way of supporting your research and writing (which will need to be done at night and on weekends). If you do go the independent scholar route, work on building and maintaining professional networks, and stay visible in the field.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

I’ve been an enthusiastic photographer all my life; I got my first camera when I was six years old. My wife and I are enthusiastic opera fans. We love to travel, and still have many places I want to visit. Being an independent scholar has given me the opportunity to write in fields far outside Asian Studies: local and family history (A Huguenot on the Hackensack, with David C. Major); the pleasures of reading (The New Lifetime Reading Plan, with Clifton Fadiman; 100 One-Night Reads, with David C. Major); as well as Asia-related children’s and young-adult books (The Silk Route: 7,000 Miles of History, illustrated by Stephen Fieser; Caravan to America, with Betty Belanus). It was a particular pleasure to collaborate with my wife, Valerie Steele (a noted historian of fashion) on a book on the mutual influences of Chinese and Western fashion: China Chic: East Meets West. I think that pursuing a wide range of interests is one key to a happy life.

"AAS membership is a badge of professionalism, and also provides an easy way to keep up on the diversity of, and new trends in, Asian Studies via the Journal of Asian Studies, the AAS Annual Conference, and the Newsletter."

— John Major