Interview with Professor Helen Lee
June 18, 2021 by Yejin Kim
Professor Helen Lee is the Associate Dean of International Affairs, as well as a professor of Japanese Literature at UIC. She received her Ph.D. in Modern Japanese Literature from the University of California in 2003. After teaching as an assistant professor of Japanese Literature at the University of Florida for five years, Professor Lee moved to Korea in 2008 to become part of the UIC faculty. Her main courses include World Literature: Modern Japanese Literature, Culture, Media, and the Politics of Beauty, and Masculinities, Modernities, and Men. She is also an active scholar in postcolonial studies, mainly on Imperial Japan, and has many publications in both English and Korean. The UIC Scribe has had a chance to interview Professor Lee for the second time, her last interview being back in 2008 when she was still settling into her life in Korea and at UIC.
Q. Since your last interview with the Scribe back in 2008, how has your life been at UIC? Were there many changes?
Back in 2008 I was more “American” than I am now and I did not know exactly how to maneuver as an adult in Korean society, let alone in an academic environment. Thirteen years have lapsed, and in 2021, I feel at home in Korea and at UIC. During the first semester at UIC, coming to school felt like a laborious field trip to a foreign place, feeling totally alien and lost. From a single division of a little over hundred students, we have grown exponentially as a college with three divisions across two campuses. With the opening of our International Campus at Songdo in 2011, I spent four years teaching Songdo-based UIC classes and have a special attachment to the place as someone who has seen it from day one. It is a rare opportunity, indeed, and privileges for me, to have witnessed UIC grow over such a short span of time.
Q. As the Associate Dean of International Affairs, a professor of UIC, and an enthusiastic scholar with many publications, how do you manage your time?
One indispensable skill I acquired while in graduate school is to sit at my desk every morning and late at night. It does not mean I am productive every day, but following a daily work routine has greatly helped with developing my self-discipline.
Q. Despite your courses being infamous for the large amount of reading and intellectual challenge, there is a constant supply of students each semester. How do you find your UIC students? Do they live up to your standards?
Those students who have taken my courses have heard me say, ‘We are the sky of the SKY.’
It is a statement of UIC pride and a bold declaration that we have no competition in Korea. That is, we are not one of the SKY institutions but we rise above the SKY. I believe that our students can be where they wish to be. We have placed our students in the top graduate programs including Harvard Law School, the Wharton School of Business, and Yale graduate programs. The list is long, but I will mention just a few. Our alumni have done exceptionally well in the job market as well, both domestic and overseas. I am pleased to say that our UIC students have more than lived up to my expectations, and it is my job to continue telling them to be that sky of the SKY.
Q. Aside from the Japanese literature, culture, and history courses you teach, what motivated you to first open courses such as “Culture, Media, and the Politics of Beauty” and “Masculinities, Modernity, and Men”?
I have always been interested in the way culture and media operate in our society. My research projects make an inquiry of culture and media in colonial settings. In many ways, my courses are an extension of my research interests, but tailored to accommodate student interests. In terms of course topics, gender and sexuality are at the core, but course discussions and readings center on denaturalizing the hegemonic norms and values and understanding the structure of conflicts arising from clashes, biases, power struggles, etc. that are central to the human condition.
Q. In relation to these courses, how has examining and dismantling ideals, tropes, and social norms in relation to gender, race, class, etc. affected your view on the world? Are you a different person than you were 10, 20 years ago?
The world I knew 10 or 20 years ago is no longer. That is not provocative hyperbole or an opinion— that is an objective fact. Everything has changed. Many norms and values that were once taken as bedrock truths have been challenged or overturned. People’s consciousnesses have been greatly expanded or altered while, tragically, countless others have isolated themselves into social media “bubbles”. Nearly all aspects about the ways in which society operates, and how individuals maneuver within it, has evolved in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. To take a small but powerful example, consider that we are living in an era of unprecedented, automated convenience, where so much can be done with just the tip of a finger— ordering meals, grocery shopping, video conferences, Netflix, dating, and even parking a car. With a prevailing optimism surrounding these blindingly rapid technological advancements, tempered by a hyper-fluid techno-socio landscape where people can barely keep pace with the constant change, we have not had the time to collectively reflect on the societal consequences that will inevitably result from an increasing loss in making and maintaining deep, diverse, and direct human connections. The “Metaverse” is in many ways already an alternate reality for us. So, our seminar-style curriculum is a novelty in the sense that we try to preserve and foster genuine human contact and dialogue so that we can learn from each other and understand the basic mechanisms of human societies.
Q. You mentioned in your previous interview that your course of study and choice of career was not one that was expected. Many students are hesitant about their paths of career and face difficulties in the job market today. Having experienced many ups and downs during your college life, is there any advice you would give to these students?
Anxiety about the future is common to all generations, I think, especially for those who are entering the “real world” for the first time. You were born into the so-called “post-millennial generation”, and the world is changing at a dizzying pace. It is a daunting task—perhaps impossible—to try to seek something stable and secure in such a moment. I grew up watching a cartoon, The Jetsons. We are now currently experiencing some of the once “sci-fi” features from The Jetsons— a live instructor from a flat screen TV, conveyor belt sidewalks, videophones and robot assistants. Some other features, such as flying cars might become available in just a few years. A UIC education equips you with a basic, but very powerful skill set; it is up to you on how you put these skills to use. If you are imaginative and adventurous, you will ultimately find your place. I believe in the strength and potential of our students.
Q. I am aware that you always start your courses with one-line introductions from each student – what were the best ones you have heard so far?
One of the most memorable lines was from a Class of 2009 student; she said plainly, “I like reading literature.” She is currently in a PhD literature program at the University of Chicago. Another student said that he founded a hip hop dance club, the Bionic at UIC. He is pursuing a PhD in Media Studies at USC. The last one was a big surprise. The student said that he was from Valencia, California, the town where I grew up. It turns out he and I had gone to the same high school and had the same calculus teacher! What a small world!