Publication Date

January 10, 2019

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily

Maura Elizabeth CunninghamMaura Elizabeth Cunningham is a writer and the digital media manager at the Association for Asian Studies. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has been a member since 2006.

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Alma maters: BA (history), Saint Joseph’s University, 2004; MA (East Asian studies), Yale University, 2006; PhD (history), University of California, Irvine, 2014

Fields of interest: modern China, urban studies, gender, pop culture, creative nonfiction writing

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I always wanted to be a writer, and nonfiction is the only genre that has ever felt natural to me. (I do occasionally venture into fiction, but those drafts are all safely secured behind passwords on my laptop!)

In college, it gradually dawned on me that becoming a historian would combine my three great interests—history, writing, and travel. But I also realized quite early on that I do not love teaching in the way that I think great teachers do; I am more comfortable writing and doing other kinds of work, such as program management and communications. So when I applied to PhD programs I wrote a personal statement about my interest in becoming a historian who would find another way to do history and share knowledge with various audiences. I did not know the term “alt-ac” at the time (2008), but that is what I wanted to be.

The faculty in UC Irvine’s history department were early supporters of alternative career paths, and UCI also has a very strong China program, so it was an ideal place for me to do a traditional PhD with many, many alt-ac side hustles (blogging, editing, working for the Journal of Asian Studies, and more). After graduation I became a program officer at the National Committee on US-China Relations in New York, then moved to Michigan and joined the Association for Asian Studies staff. I have an 80 percent time position at the AAS, which enables me to begin each workday with a couple of hours to devote to my own research and writing projects at home.

What do you like the most about where you live and work? I am very fortunate to live in Ann Arbor, which is a great college town with a lot of strong community-focused businesses and institutions. Some of my favorites are Literati Bookstore, Ita Yoga Studio, the Ann Arbor District Library, the Michigan and State Theaters, and the Rec & Ed social tennis league.

What projects are you currently working on? Jeff Wasserstrom and I co-authored the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. Now I am working on a graphic history—part of a higher ed series produced by Oxford—about the life and work of Chinese cartoonist Zhang Leping.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? I wish I could read every new book that my colleagues publish, but since that does not seem possible, I rely on the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast to keep me apprised of what is happening in the field.

What do you value most about the history discipline? I think it is crucially important that we examine present-day events and debates in a broader context, to understand how we got to where we are today, as well as the roads not taken. I also appreciate the attention that many historians pay to writing and narrative in their work—I love settling in with a book that tells a well-researched story in an engaging way.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you? Through its blog and social media, the Perspectives on History magazine, and the annual meeting, the AHA helps me stay connected to what is going on in the field. Since I do not work with other historians on a day-to-day basis, it is through my membership in the AHA that I track and participate in disciplinary conversations.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share? I have absolutely no self-control in the book exhibit: I’m always the person who goes on a shopping spree and is then faced with the problem of getting everything home. In 2018 in DC I wound up mailing two boxes of new acquisitions to myself. Whoops.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Dailyfeatures a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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