Podcast Episode #2

Eric Hung
Executive Director of the Music of the Asian-American Research Center

Suraj Saifullah, Interviewer

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Episode #2 Transcript:

Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the Working PhDs Podcast.

Suraj Saifullah: Hi, my name is Suraj. I’m a graduate student studying Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. And today I’m speaking with Dr. Eric Hung, executive director and co-founder of the music of Asian-America research center, a nonprofit organization which focuses on collection promoting and teaching music created by Asian-Americans.

Eric, thanks for talking with me today.

Eric earned his PhD in musicology from Stanford university in 2003, where he wrote a dissertation about the politics of high culture in Britain from 1955 to 1975. But fairly early on, Eric realized he wanted to influence the public, not just academic audiences and make a measurable impact on lives today.

After he graduated, Eric moved around, from Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, pursuing academic jobs. But as he traveled, he started noticing histories and traditions that nobody really talks about, even though they still impact living communities. Stories of the longest continually operating Chinese restaurant in the U S, stories about Asian miners who performed invisible labor in mining towns throughout the Midwest. Today, Eric pursues these stories in two ways: through his own academic research and teaching at Westminster Choir College, and through his work as executive director of his non-profit.

Eric, you’ve been many places and done many things to get where you are. Can you tell us a bit about how you translated your past and graduate school, studying musicology to being a director at a nonprofit? What skills did you learn in grad school that you still use? Did you have to develop or refocus any skills to do your work today?

Dr. Eric Hung: I mean, I studied field work so I can do field work, that’s not new to me, but what is new is understanding an audience. So when we started the center, the first thing that we really did was to decide who we’re trying to serve, or even before we started a center, we were thinking of who we were trying to serve.

So, this is a different approach than most humanities academic approaches. This came from public history for me, and I’m very lucky to be married to a public historian who taught me that stuff. So I started learning this stuff when I became accidentally the executive director of gamelan Dharma Swara, which is a part of arts Indonesia in New York.

 I’ve played in the ensemble since 2005. For the first five or six years that I played with the ensemble, Andy was the executive director and Andy got a job at U of Richmond. So Andy left and I became the executive director. That was a time when a lot of changes was needed in the ensemble because our major goal was complete.

We did the Bali tour, you know, that stuff. So we need to rethink what we’re doing and why we exist. So, this is when I started talking to my partner about like work things. Right. And she started teaching me about, okay, audience, what do you think the audience needs? Right? I mean, these are things that you would learn in business school and they won, but you know, for people in the humanities, PhD thought that that was very novel. Like start by thinking about the audience and what do they need, how do we find out what they need, those types of things. How do you talk to this audience? What is the base knowledge of this audience? So I started learning a lot of these things through just talking to my partner, Mandy, and through reading books that she recommended to me.

So that’s how I learned that stuff. Very often, the first time you really learn something is when you teach it for the first time. So I started teaching public musicology. And that stuff really became much more natural to me. This is a new thought process that I go through now, like, so who are my audience? How would they benefit from it? Who might be harmed by this project? These are the questions that I started asking before I start any project.

SS: And what does it look like in practice to ask these questions? What does your day-to-day work look like as the director of a nonprofit?

EH: My job varies a lot, day to day. The reason for that is I’m currently the only full-time employee. So I do everything from like administrative work, to creating the podcast, to doing interviews, to doing subtitles for the videos that will be going up in our oral history series.

We’ve had paid interns over the years. We’ve very generously received a grant from the Society of American Archivists Foundation. That helped us launch the DAACME project, the community music ensemble project. So we were able to hire some people, some interns, some researchers on a part-time basis to do that work. We have a few volunteers that help us as well. So I don’t want to take credit for everything cause I don’t do everything, but I’m the only full-time employee.

And we work some of our board members really hard. I want to give credit to Jennifer Wilson, who is a musicologist now based in San Diego, she’s helping us with our biographical essays series. She’s heading our Wikipedia effort: like it or not if people are looking up information about Asian American music, the first place they will stop is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is something like this sixth or eighth, most used website in the world and shunning that is not going to change that, right? So as a board member and volunteer, she’s creating a lot of Wikipedia essays on Asian-American musicians. She’s helping to commission biographical essays about Asian-American musicians.

One reason why a lot of Wikipedia articles about Asian-American musicians get deleted is because there are no scholarly sources on these. When there are no scholarly sources, you know, some editors will say, well, this person is obviously not significant because Wikipedia is very clear that, you know, you shouldn’t just put your random dog. There has to be some notability. There has to be a reason why it should be on Wikipedia, right? And like it or not, Wikipedia says, you know, having scholarly articles on this person would be a reason. So we’re trying to create these scholarly articles so that people can do Wikipedia articles, you know, that type of thing. So there are a lot of volunteers involved.

And I mean, I don’t want to say that my experience is typical of people in nonprofits. If you work for a large organization, you might be doing the same thing every day, day after day. I mean, I have a friend who does assessments. She assesses education programs, and that’s what she does. That is her job. And then there are teaching artists who, the only thing they do is to teach, right? So people have very different jobs and it really does depend on the size of the nonprofits. How specialized are. If you work for a small nonprofit, however you do everything because you have to

SS: I’d love to hear a little bit more about the specific concerns of your nonprofit. How do you leverage the skills you mentioned earlier, like identifying an audience, curating communications, stuff like that in the broader context of your nonprofits mission to promote social justice and to serve Asian-American communities.

EH: Our first audience, and we are very public about this, are Asian-Americans. And we need to do this I think for three reasons: the first is that Asian Americans don’t know much about Asian-American history. This is partially a reality that 60% or something of the population are immigrants. So they don’t share the history of Asian Americans in the 1960s, but there are millions of younger Asian Americans, 1.5 generation, second generation. Who are trying to learn this stuff and they’re not learning it in school. So one of the things we’re trying to do is to get this stuff in schools. So the question for us then is, Well, how do we reach this population?” Well, we can reach this population through official methods. Right? Well, let’s talk about the political history of these people, political history of the Asian American movements.

I think really in order to get Asian-Americans interested in this system, and working on improving Asian-American life, we have to show them that Asian-American life is worth living. And I don’t know that Asian American studies has done that. At least not in our public statements. All of these things might be buried in journal articles. That’s fine, but that’s not helpful. You know, there are lots of great articles, about novels, a lot of great articles about films, which talk about Asian-American joy. But they’re in journals, which are often unreadable to most people and often behind paywalls. So we need to think of a way to get these into the general public, because especially at this moment, when finally Asian-American in particular actors and directors are getting into the mainstream, but these people who are getting the mainstream are not reading the journal articles, how do we get the two closer together? And I think that’s what we need to work on. I think that’s our opportunity and I hope MAARC is taking advantage of that opportunity.

SS: Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Eric, before we end, do you have any advice for graduate students or graduate programs? How can programs support students who want to pursue paths outside of academia?

EH: I would like to see relevance as one of the requirements of a dissertation proposal. I would like the student to be able to explain how this is going to be a good thing for the world. And working on music best 800 years old can be very useful to the world, but I don’t think we should, at this point, suggest that people should work on whatever they are interested in. If you do this on your own time, fine. Everyone has hobbies. Nobody expects all of my hobbies to benefit the world. That’s okay. You know, we all need our downtime. We all need things that we do for fun. But if we are going to consider a graduate school work –and I think we should, and I think that’s how we will get living wages for graduate students, as we actually consider it work and think about it as work– then I think it is really important to be able to say, I’m doing this as work, because it benefits the world in some way, because work that doesn’t benefit anybody is not really work. Like why are you doing it?

Right. So that’s, that’s one change I would like to see. But I think graduate education, PhD education in general can benefit from two things. One is a course on management or practical management skills, because you’re going to need that. And you very quickly find out that management is about people. I mean, yes. You will need to know how to do budgets. You’ll need to, yes. I don’t mean take that out, right? But how to manage people well is something that I would like to see. And I would love to see some sort of practical experience requirement in some way.

There are other things I would like to see, like, you know, collaborative projects. But I think that that’s more difficult, especially now when you know, people are far away from each other. But I think two things that can be implemented very immediately is, is some practical experience. And you can define practical experience in very wide ways. You just have to, you know, say there’s some musicology skills involved.

But I mean, the point of that is to get you to think about what skills am I learning because your skills are applicable to a lot of things. There are things that you take for granted and say, Oh, everyone can do this,” but that’s not ever true. So I think having the practical experience would helping you understand that, that these are actually skills. Getting people organized, event planning is a skill. All these things are things that you learn. I mean, obviously research skills is a skill. These are applicable to other things. And to really think how you’re making the world a better place, it’s a skill as well. So those are things I would like to see graduate schools implement.

SS: Right, so it seems like it’s a matter of actually identifying those skills that sort of become invisible as part of the graduate experience and actually thinking and practicing how they can be adaptable in a way.

Well, thanks again for talking with me, Eric, and thanks to our listeners. Please reach out if you or someone, you know, would like to be featured on our podcast, or if you have any suggestions for how the working PhDs project might support students as they consider these alternative career pants.

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor the University of Rochester Humanities Center and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.