Q&A with geography postdoctoral fellow Son Ca Lam
Lam was one of three Dartmouth scholars in 2023 to win the prestigious American Council of Learned Societies fellowship.
This year, the American Council of Learned Societies awarded three Dartmouth scholars with 2023 fellowships: history lecturer Sarah Carson, second-year geography postdoctoral fellow Son Ca Lam and assistant religion professor Sara Swenson. The fellowship program “supports exceptional scholarship in the humanities and interpretive social sciences,” according to its website. The three join a cohort of 60 early-stage scholars from a pool of nearly 1,200 applicants, leading Dartmouth to tie the University of Washington this year for the largest number of recipients from a single institution, Dartmouth News reported. The Dartmouth sat down with Lam to hear more about her fellowship, research and goals.
What are your main research interests and questions?
SCL: My work really focuses on thinking about displacement — not only refugee displacement, but also displacement in terms of generally being out of place in the world as this ongoing embodied process. At the core of my work, I’m interested in understanding how people on the margins continually find ways to create spaces of belonging for themselves and for other people, and how they use those spaces to build community. We are facing the largest global displacement crisis in history, so a lot of what drives my work is thinking about how we’re all connected and how people’s experiences — which are seemingly very different and distant from ours — are actually very tied to our own.
Tell me about your project for the ACLS fellowship: “Lost (in) Time: Making Home in Diasporic Space and Time.”
SCL: The project is about refugee displacement and place-making, and it’s part of my larger research agenda in thinking about how displaced people reconstruct homes. When I first set out to do this project for my dissertation research, my focus was thinking about how geographic displacement is also social, cultural and linguistic. While these are still the core elements of my work, an unexpected theme around time — or not having time — emerged when I spoke to research participants in the field. They would often say, “There’s no time in the U.S.,” or, “Everybody in the U.S. is so busy working, going to school, trying to put food on the table and surviving that people don’t have time to be together. Even family members who live in the same household don’t have time to be together or rarely see each other.” There is this friction between refugee temporality and the way that time is structured in their country of resettlement — in the U.S. This has a huge impact on family relations and social relations, so that is the focus of this book project, thinking about refugee displacement and placemaking through the lens of time. This research is based on two years of video ethnography that I conducted between 2017 and 2019 in the U.S. and Vietnam. I shadowed 10 families through three generations of women through their daily life, about a week for each person. So I spent about three or four weeks with each family over two years.
What drew you to investigate these issues?
SCL: I feel that research in the U.S. and in a lot of Western contexts is very individualized. For the Vietnamese community, a lot of research is thinking about the family and the collective.
My family are refugees, so I was born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, and I came to the U.S. when I was three months old. I didn’t really understand the significance of my background because we’re not taught that history. Growing up, I felt isolated, alone and lost when it came to my identity and my purpose in life. It wasn’t until high school, when I was exposed to Asian American history through a youth-run, youth-led activist organization called the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth, that I was given the space and the framework for reflecting on my family’s history. Learning this history really changed my life. It’s empowered me to become a youth organizer and to no longer feel like a victim, helpless and trapped by my circumstances. That background really informs a lot of my work. I can’t leave my identity at the door. A lot of my research and teaching is centered on making space for these marginalized voices and experiences. This project is one aspect of that, but those values shape any project that I embark upon.
What resources will the American Council of Learned Societies fellowship offer you, and how will these resources change or impact your research?
SCL: The ACLS basically gives me the equivalent of a year salary to focus on my book manuscript. My post-doctoral fellowship at Dartmouth College is coming to an end. Being a junior scholar who’s not on the tenure track, the fellowship is actually a huge opportunity to have this support to work on my research, on my terms and in ways that reflect my values. It will also allow me to prioritize doing the work that’s important to me.
How has your education shaped your experiences?
SCL: I went to college at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where I was able to take Asian American studies courses and design my own individual major in comparative ethnic studies with a focus in Asian American studies. I wouldn’t be who I am without that experience. I don’t come to Dartmouth with the kind of elite pedigree that a lot of people would typically imagine scholars have.
If UMass Boston, which is an under-resourced public commuter institution, can have such a robust Asian-American studies program — and it’s changed my life and the lives of many students before and after me — there’s no excuse for why Dartmouth doesn’t have a robust program after nearly 30 years struggling for one. Dartmouth can and has to do better than that. I digress to talking about my research, but to me, it’s really all related.
What are your main goals or plans moving forward?
SCL: This upcoming year it’s going to be the book project and other passion projects, but I’ll be really completely honest — it’s uncertain whether I’m going to have an academic career going forward after this. There’s not enough jobs, academic jobs, out there for all of us, especially with the neoliberalization of higher education. That’s a taboo topic that we don’t talk about, but I really think it’s important to talk openly about this kind of employment precarity that a lot of us face. Many people with Ph.D.s are made to feel as if we failed if we are not on the tenure track. I want to push back against this and this notion that my job defines my worth, my values and my life. I really think that we all have a lot to contribute, whether that means our job pays us to do that or not.
Regardless of the shape my career takes, I hope that my work will contribute to building the kind of community, connection and dialogue that helps us become more open-minded and more inclusive as a society, as well as creates room for those who have not had the opportunity or space to speak or to be heard.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.