AAS Member Spotlight: Jeffrey L. Richey

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Dr. Jeffrey L. Richey, Berea College

Francis Alexander McGaw Chair in Religion and Associate Professor of Religion and Asian Studies

How long have you been a member of AAS?

Since 1998.

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

I joined AAS mostly because it seemed like the best venue in which to connect with the largest number of fellow scholars and teachers in the field of East Asian religious studies.  Although my disciplinary training in religious studies positioned me to be active in organizations such as the American Academy of Religion, the minority status of specialists in non-Western religious traditions within that and similar organizations led me to question my participation in their conferences and other activities. As a faculty member at a small private college I do not have a large professional budget, so I need to choose wisely when it comes to organizational memberships and conference fees. As an historian of Chinese and Japanese religions, I find that the AAS is the single best conference, networking, and publishing venue for my interests.  Participating in AAS activities, events, and forums allows me to network both deeply (with fellow specialists in East Asian religions) and broadly (with East Asianists in related disciplines such as art history, history, literature, etc.).

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

My first professional foray into Asian Studies was in September 1999, when I gave a paper at the AAS Western Regional Meeting at Boise State University.

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

By far the most satisfying aspect of my work in Asian Studies involves being able to facilitate students’ first critical encounters with Asian cultures, histories, and values.  I teach at Berea College (http://www.berea.edu/about/), a somewhat unique institution that admits only students who demonstrate both high academic potential and great economic need.  We grant every admitted student a full-tuition scholarship, require every student to work part-time on campus, and draw mostly from the Southern Appalachian region of the United States, although we enroll students from all over the U.S. and around the world, including 23 Asian nations.  Thus, my students do not come from privileged, cosmopolitan backgrounds in which familiarity with Asia might be taken for granted, and I often find myself in the position of facilitating not only my students’ first critical encounters with Asia, but also their first airplane journey, visit to a non-Christian religious site, etc.  Many aspects of my scholarly activity flow from my experiences with students, including my work as a reviewer and author with Education About Asia and the publication of my 2013 book, Confucius in East Asia: Confucianism's History in China, Korea, Japan, and Viet Nam, in the AAS’ Key Issues in Asian Studies series.

Tell us about your current or past research.

My graduate training was focused broadly on pre-modern Chinese and Japanese religious history, with a concentration in early Chinese thought.  Over the past fifteen years, I’ve built upon that foundation by publishing both specialized studies of classical Confucian and Daoist material as well as more wide-ranging work on the revival of Confucian traditions in contemporary China, the influence of Daoist traditions on Japanese religious culture, and the scholarship of teaching and learning about East Asian religions.  My publications include the aforementioned Key Issues in Asian Studies volume, Confucius in East Asia: Confucianism's History in China, Korea, Japan, and Viet Nam (2013), as well as three edited volumes: Teaching Confucianism (Oxford University Press, 2008), Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture (Routledge, 2015), and The Sage Returns: Confucian Revival in Contemporary China (State University of New York Press, 2015), which I co-edited with Kenneth J. Hammond.  Thus far, I’ve enjoyed a happy blend of specialization and generalization in both my teaching and my research.

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

Anyone who is interested in an academic career in the humanities or social sciences should be aware that prospects in these fields have changed a great deal since the 1980s and 1990s, when I first contemplated my present career.  Jobs are more scarce, competition is more intense, and faculty positions are less secure and stable than they once were.  At the same time, it is more vital than ever that both university students and the educated public have access to critically-informed, expert teaching and research about Asia.  I would encourage would-be professors of Asian Studies to avoid false dichotomies – such as research vs. teaching, or career vs. family – while preparing themselves to make the compromises necessary to achieve balance between such apparent opposites.  Students should strive to gain as much language training and on-the-ground experience in Asia as possible, but they also should avail themselves of every opportunity to gain mentored teaching experience.  Finally, no one should live a bipolar existence, divided between work and family or other personal relationships.  That kind of life all too easily degenerates into a tug-of-war between two contrasting poles.  I think it is important to have a third arena in one’s life that is distinct from both one’s career and one’s family.  Whether it is creative work in the arts, volunteer service, a faith community, or something else, one needs a space from which to draw energy that is neither about making a living or building a home.  Such a “three-cornered” life can be very rich indeed and can be more easily balanced, I find, than the typical “work vs. family” dynamic that afflicts many professionals.

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

With regard to my last point above, I try to practice what I preach by regularly writing original rock songs and performing and recording them with my group, The Jeff Richey Experience (http://www.reverbnation.com/TheJRE).  We’ve released three albums, which are available on Amazon.com, CD Baby, and iTunes, and play small venues and festivals throughout the central Kentucky area, where I live.  This musical outlet keeps me balanced and allows me to recharge and bring my best to both my professional and family lives.  I am married (to a university librarian) and have two sons – one who is halfway through elementary school and one who is about to begin high school.  Lastly, I am a native of Savannah, Georgia, which is home to one of the oldest Chinese communities in the eastern U.S., dating back to the establishment of the Sing Wing hand laundry by Chinese immigrants in 1881.

"By far the most satisfying aspect of my work in Asian Studies involves being able to facilitate students’ first critical encounters with Asian cultures, histories, and values"

— Jeffrey Richey