My Travels at Brown

April 24, 2013

Franklin Odo, reflects on his month in residence as a senior fellow in Public Humanities at Brown.  

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A residency at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage has included several distinct albeit interconnected journeys all in the space of a single month, April 2013.

First, it allowed me to read more widely and think more deeply about the critical roles played by our national institutions which preserve and interpret our history and heritage – I think especially about the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration and the National Park Service – and the work ahead for them to better incorporate the experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans.  Now retired, I am leading a panel of scholars and preservation activists to compile a “theme study” to assist the National Historic Landmarks program in the National Park Service in efforts to include more sites dealing with Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans [AAPIs]. All of these assignments involved working within large, national, institutions that are responsible for collecting, preserving, and interpreting our national heritages but need advocates who can provide expertise on AAPIs. My work appears to have culminated in the articulation of methodologies for creating a more effective nexus between ethnic and community scholars and cultural workers in public history and humanities institutions. The task of research academicians is critical to the growth and development of new knowledge but the transmission of that knowledge to the general public is neither smooth nor systematic. I think that process should be improved and wish to contribute directly by thinking about the experiences of AAPIs in particular and diversity in general.

While in residence at Brown, I prepared a “workshop” on this topic for the Center and perhaps participants gained a bit from attending; if so I am gratified but it was also enormously useful for me to put some untidy thoughts in better order so this was a great opportunity. Then, I did a brown bag presentation of my new book on folk songs from Japanese immigrant workers on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. This was the first time I had an audience of graduate students and faculty colleagues and they helped me understand the project from several new perspectives. Since I will be doing a series of “book talks” in the fall, this was a really interesting and valuable trial run. Finally, I joined an American Studies seminar on the “Asian American Movement” being taught by Professor Bob Lee. We had both been early participants in this project, now entering its fifth decade of growth and it was exciting to reflect both on the meanings of its origins in the late 1960s and of its potential future developments.  

Most of my teaching career involved Ethnic Studies/Asian American Studies. My own research focused on the history of Japanese Americans in Hawai`i and my latest book explores folk songs left by immigrant sugar plantation workers. After three decades as a college professor, I spent nearly fifteen years directing Asian Pacific American and Asian units in the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.  All of these assignments involved working within large, national, institutions that are responsible for collecting, preserving, and interpreting our national heritages but need advocates who can provide expertise on AAPIs. 

My work appears to have culminated in the articulation of methodologies for creating a more effective nexus between ethnic and community scholars and cultural workers in public history and humanities institutions.    I had looked forward to this JNBC residency, away from the tumult of the DC scene, as a refuge for some reflection and consideration of what I've done, where I've been, and what I might usefully plan for future projects given my unusual background. The time at my desk coupled with the talks and workshops I needed to plan provided a wonderful mix to guide my work during my residency. I would recommend this to anyone at any stage of a "career."

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