Q&A with HxEast Asia Community Leaders Shaun O’Dwyer and Joseph Yi
Meet HxA Members Shaun O’Dwyer and Joseph Yi! O’Dwyer teaches in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University in the south-west of Japan. His research interests range widely over educational theory, history of ideas, and comparative, moral, and political philosophy. Yi is an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University. He studies the development of individual liberty in various settings, from mature democracies (e.g., the United States) to young democracies (South Korea) to closed autocracies (North Korea); and communication and cooperation across social groups and countries. Both are leaders in the Heterodox East Asia (HxEast Asia) Community.
This exchange is part of our member Q+A series where we chat with members about their scholarship, intellectual life, and issues around open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.
How did you first get involved with HxA?
Yi: In early 2021, I coauthored an op-ed in The Diplomat, calling for more open, self-reflective discussion of the “comfort women” issue among Koreans. More specifically, my co-author and I argued for intellectual debate, not just moral condemnation, of a controversial article by Harvard Law Professor Mark Ramseyer. A public uproar in South Korea and a vocal campaign to terminate my university employment ensued, with 1,500 students petitioning for my immediate termination. I asked the association of Korean Studies of professors to support my academic freedom, but the leadership declined. My university and department also declined to speak out on behalf of academic freedom. A few colleagues in the Korean Studies association and in various universities did support my academic freedom, and I realized the need for a new association—HxEast Asia Community (HEAC) — that would support the academic freedom of scholars working in East Asia or on EA-related issues.
I and other HEAC members are disappointed that political considerations influence whether one can openly support (or be associated with) another scholar’s academic freedom. One should support the procedural liberal tradition of academic freedom and free speech, as a matter of principle and regardless of the defendant’s political ideology.
O’Dwyer: At the invitation of my HxEast Asia Community colleague, Joseph Yi.
How has your membership with HxA added to your academic life?
Yi: It means a lot to me, my colleagues, and my students to affiliate with an academic organization focused on academic freedom and viewpoint diversity. Specifically, through the HxEast Asia Community fora, my students dialogue with various speakers on controversial issues. We recently finished a forum on academic freedom in Hong Kong, and another one on comfort women issue in Korea.
What does “heterodoxy” mean to you?
O’Dwyer: Ideally, a state of affairs in which reasonable opinions can be freely expressed, in good faith, even though they go against the grain of mainstream thought; this contributes to furthering inquiry even if the opinions or ideas are proven wrong.
What or who inspires you to advocate for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry on your campus?
O’Dwyer: My students, who — despite some coming from countries mired in fraught geopolitical relations with each other — are willing to discuss potentially sensitive historical, political, and ethical topics with one another civilly and constructively.
Yi: I am inspired by 1) my teachers, from grade school to grad school, who nurtured rigorous, intellectual inquiry, for instance, David Leonard at UC Berkeley, and Nathan Tarcov and Terry Clark at U of Chicago; 2) writers who did the same (e.g., Allan Bloom); and 3) my colleagues (including those in HEAC); and ultimately 4) my students from Korea, China, Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere who contribute to this intellectual journey.
Share something cool you’re doing in the classroom or in your research.
O’Dwyer: In one of my courses, I teach about perception gaps over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a sensitive topic that my students from Japan, and from other East, South, and South-East Asian countries take a keen interest in. Often very positive results come from them expressing their divergent viewpoints about this topic and reflecting on them through their interactions with each other.
Yi: It is always cool to teach or learn something new. In my fall course (Civil Society and Social Movements), my students read about, and personally dialogue with, gay Christians (i.e., persons who identify as both gay and Christian) in Korea. In spring (Comparative Political Economy), international students are surprised to learn about surfing camps, English-language classes, and other recent changes in North Korea (pre-pandemic), and South Korean students are especially surprised by the long history of state-supervised sex work (“comfort women”) in Korean peninsula, such as during 1970s.
Is there a book on education that particularly influenced you and/or that you would recommend to other HxA members?
O’Dwyer: Yes – John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Still so much to offer even over a hundred years after its publication.
Yi: Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy; Allan Bloom, Closing of American Mind; Francis Fukuyama, End of History.
When you’re not in the classroom, researching, or writing, what do you most enjoy spending your time on/doing?
O’Dwyer: Spending time with family, cooking, keeping fit, reading a good novel (currently Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate).
Yi: Reading news, sports, arts; watching humorous (e.g., Young Sheldon) or thought-provoking TV and movies; and coaching my sons and other youth to write/publish fiction and nonfiction.
It’s been a tough few years, but what’s one thing that you feel most proud of looking back?
O’Dwyer: Editing and publishing a volume during the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, collaborating with its thirteen other authors and with the translators who helped several of them find expression for their thought in English, even as the pandemic imposed professional and personal disruptions on all of us.
Yi: Not getting fired! In 2021, I compromised with my department to keep my professor job: I temporarily excised a controversial book (Sarah Soh, Comfort Women, 2008) from my required reading list (syllabus), switched from teaching some political science to general English writing courses, and temporarily refrained from publishing more op-eds on Korea-Japan relations.
Practically and philosophically, I was glad to retain my job. It is important for liberal-minded teachers who value academic freedom and viewpoint diversity to continue working and training the next generation of students. Better to teach with some restrictions than not to teach at all.
Coffee or Tea?
O’Dwyer: No competition there — coffee, preferably from my espresso machine!
Yi: Morning coffee, afternoon tea.
Cook or Order Takeout?
O’Dwyer: Cook – I’m vegetarian, and not many takeout choices where I live.
Yi: Cooking and washing dishes are my reserved, guilt-free time for watching TV and movies.
Dogs or Cats?
O’Dwyer: Dogs. Apologies to cat-lovers, but cats are too mean.
Yi: Definitely dog (ours is a Korean adoptee named ‘Latte’)
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