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Assigned Reading: David P. Fields

To cut down on debt and save money for tuition, David Fields MA ’09, PhD ’17 took a break from his own education to teach in South Korea. The experience inspired Fields to continue studying Korean history and U.S.-Korean relations throughout his graduate and doctoral work.

Esther Seidlitz
November 08, 2021

David Fields MA’09, PhD’17 knew he wanted to keep pursuing history after earning his undergraduate degree at Trinity International University in 2005. He also knew that higher education was expensive. To cut down on debt and save money for tuition, Fields took a break from his own education to teach English in Maseok, South Korea.

Fields didn’t know much about Korea when he first arrived, but he quickly soaked up the language and learned about the peninsula’s history, and his interest grew stronger. “It was a combination of my already existing historical interests,” Fields explains, “and then really deep cultural immersion in a very rural place in Korea that got me started.”

Teaching in Korea was only the beginning. The experience inspired Fields to continue studying Korean history and U.S.-Korean relations throughout his graduate and doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After earning his doctorate, Fields returned to Korea as a Fulbright scholar. By 2019, he was back at the UW, where he’s now the associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS).

In addition to teaching and helping direct CEAS, Fields serves as an expert on North Korean politics and history. He is the book review editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, as well as the author of Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea. Fields often lends his expertise to the press, policymakers, and the wider UW community; many of these contributions can be found on his website. In November 2021, WAA’s Wisconsin Idea Spotlight will shine on Fields for his talk, “Understanding North Korea.”

My assigned readings include:

“It’s a very long list. I assign a lot of readings in my courses — almost 1,800 pages, generally. As painful as it is, there’s really no substitute for reading to understand a place that we can’t physically go to. We can’t take the class to Korea, and mainly I’m teaching about the past. We can’t physically go to the past, so books are the best way of doing that.”

I like to read:

“When we’re talking about just pure enjoyment, I love P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels. I feel like there’s nothing more escapist for someone who grew up in the Midwest than English aristocrats and their comedic relations with their servants.”

The book I most recently read:

“I finished Edmund Morris’s third volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt. The trilogy is really good, but the ending is particularly sad because you watch a human being who lived a life with such vigor and energy ... slowly come to a halt as we all will someday. This is what history does for us. ... It’s a reminder that both the great and the low ultimately come to the same end.”

The book I read over and over again:

“Every time I teach a course, I do all the readings with the students. I tell them, ‘This is 1,800 pages of reading, but I choose really good books that you’re going to enjoy, and I do the reading with you.’ ”

Fields explains that, out of all these repeated readings, The Orphan Master’s Son sticks with him the most. “I realized that, while I have in some ways a very robust knowledge of North Korea, I hadn’t spent much time imagining what life there must be like over the course of someone’s career, and what sorts of things are possible in North Korea and what kinds of things are not possible.”

The book you’ve been meaning to read:

“It’s such a fascinating place. It’s also such a disjointed place, as is any place that has over 150 years of history. At some point in my career, I would really like to pick up those four volumes and read them from beginning to end.”

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