Best Professors: Steven Ericson

The Dartmouth Review interviewed professor Steven Ericson from our History department. Professor Ericson specializes in Japanese history with a focus on the country’s modern transformation. His research focuses on government financial and industrial policies and their economic and social effects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Professor Ericson’s classes on imperialism in modern East Asia and Japanese history has made him well liked among majors and non-majors alike, and he has been one of the Reviewers’ favorite professors.
TDR: When you were younger, did you ever envision yourself becoming a Japanese historian and professor one day?
SE: Not really. My parents were missionaries stationed in Japan. From their work, I was born in Japan and grew up there through my high school years. However, I think when I was very young I thought I would follow in my father’s footsteps and become a bishop. Instead, life would happen, and in a sense, I’d become a missionary for Japanese history.
TDR: Do you feel that there is a higher value in studying a particular subject over another?
SE: Well at Dartmouth college everyone should embrace the liberal arts mindset and receive an extensive but varied education. But I do feel history is a subject that lends itself to a lot of different perspectives and different methods of understanding and learning. Not that I would privilege history over other topics but I think there is a real benefit to getting in-depth training in a subject that can translate rather seamlessly to other issues and fields.
TDR: Being an economic historian, how do you balance the fields of economics and history?
SE: For starters, I do not take not an economist’s perspective in regards to my studies. I don’t do a lot of statistical analysis and things of that sort. Instead, although I do work with numbers and figures, it’s in no small amount that I take a more political economy approach. So it’s borrowing from legislative history as well as economic history and combining them. For example, my first book was on the development of railroads in Japan which looked at business-government relations and on the government’s legislative policies on private railroad companies.
TDR: Speaking of your books, what products are you currently working on?
SE: I’m currently finishing my second book which is on the significant financial reform that occurred during the 1880’s in Japan. Funny enough, through my research on the topic my views on this reform have changed quite a bit since I sent in the original draft manuscript. When I started, I was originally going to argue Matsukata Masayoshi was very much a practitioner of orthodox finance by placing the Japanese currency on initially a silver standard and eventually gold which was quite an Orthodox. However, as I researched I came to realize his methods were quite heterodox for the time in terms of British orthodox finance. Instead of following the orthodox method by cutting spending and raising taxes to carry out this financial, he actually increased spending because of various unexpected events that occurred and he did raise taxes but for military expansion, not financial reform. On top of this, he doubled the socket tax which is the biggest consumer tax in the biggest revenue source of the government after the land tax you know. And he did that not to fund his financial reform but again for military expansion.
TDR: Your elective on the Emergence of Modern Japan is renowned for its quality and intensity. What is your favorite part of this course?
SE: This question is very tough because I love teaching that course, but I particularly enjoy one lecture I give on an early social change in Japan during the Meiji period. In this lecture, I talk about the Japanese fascination with the West, and more specifically I discuss how this fascination manifested itself in crazy combinations of Western clothing with traditional Japanese dress start to appear. Through this, I try to show that the Japanese people wanted to showcase their perceived progress but couldn’t quite afford a whole Western wardrobe. The lecture also highlights, on the whole, the intellectual changes that occurred by identifying that the Japanese saw Western society as more advanced. On top of this, I also enjoy that this lecture is not what I do my research and writing on.
TDR: Speaking of your elective on modern Japan, what degree of academic freedom do you have to teach the course at your discretion? And then more generally, what’s the relationship between the administration and the faculty when it comes to course content?
SE: In the history department, we have quite a bit of freedom of how we want to set up our courses. We do have to get approval from our department for syllabi for new courses. In these approval meeting, the department is very diligent about looking over the class outlines and making sure it is an appropriate amount of work. Specifically, the department looks over the number of reading assignments to determine if the syllabi appear to have a proper amount of weekly work.
TDR: What do you consider to be your most significant intellectual contribution to the study of Japanese history?
SE: I would say my main contribution to the field of Japanese history has been clarifying the role the government played in the economic and financial development of the nation. I often find that there are broadly accepted interpretations of the government’s relationship with corporations that do not represent the most accurate picture. Specifically, there is a notion that the Japanese government had a massive influence over the economy. To correct these misinterpretations, I try to present a more complex view of the relationship between government and business in regards to the economy. From this, I try to show that the relationship was not, in fact, cut and dry. Overall, I’ve always decided to give my manuscripts a different more encompassing look from what you would get in a typical textbook in an attempt to paint the clearest picture of the situation.
TDR: Expanding upon your idea of misinterpretations in Japanese history, many people think we are living in a period of misinformation and deception. If you could set the record straight in one area of modern Japanese history what would it be?
SE: As I explained before, I have a lot of sort of smaller areas where I’m revising views and trying to paint a more accurate picture for my audience. One misperception that I frequently confront is that there is a sense that Bushido way of the warrior carried on into the modern period and became embodied in the Japanese army. In reality, I think there’s no connection with the kind of ideology that was that became instilled in modern society Japanese and to those who eventually became part of the army with that of the way of the warrior. Instead, it was more a kind of a modern nationalist ideology that embodied the army.
TDR: What are the characteristics of students who are successful in your courses and this department?
SE: Writing ability is very important. All of our courses in the history department require term papers or some form of essay writing. Having the ability to present their ideas clearly and effectively with combination relevant research often succeed in the history department. On top of writing ability, being an active and precise speaker helps as well. Although, I think I would tend to privilege a little more writing ability.
TDR: Our staffers have had enough great experiences with you to recommend that you be featured in our best professors list. What do you do differently in the classroom? What do you think contributes to the students’ reverence?
SE: I guess in my class lecturing I always want to hit the essential facts and trends. To do this, I try to find illustrative anecdotes and maybe even somewhat humorous stories that represent the main themes I want to present to build my lectures around. On top of this, students appreciate that I give a clear outline at the beginning of the lecture with the main interpretive problems that I’ll address in the course of the talk.
TDR: How did publishing a book spark change your writing process?
SE: When graduating students write their dissertations, it’s almost like a stream of consciousness. So you’re making an argument and then finally at the end of the work you make the point and come to a conclusion. Well when you publish a book, it’s almost the reverse. Instead, you put the conclusion at the beginning, and then you explain how you got to that. So the reader knows right away what you’re talking about as opposed to having to wait to the end to figure out what the argument is. This change has made my writing process much more conscious of being systematic and transparent in the argument that way. From this change, I’ve begun to stress the importance to have a clear topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph for my undergraduate students.