Josephine Lee arrived at MIT in 1978 intending to emulate her scientist father. While she did earn a bachelor’s degree in physics, the Institute’s literature and arts programs proved so engaging that Lee took a second SB in humanities—a step that has led her to a career in both theater studies and Asian-American studies. She recently served as president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
“MIT is great, because while it’s engineering-focused, there’s also a side that’s very interested in history, society, and culture,” says Lee, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota and a founder of the university’s Asian-American studies program. “There’s something philosophical in a lot of the best scientists and engineers. It’s very interesting to talk to them about the world outside the lab.”
Lee, who also holds a Princeton PhD in English language and literature, was born in New Jersey, to parents who met in the United States after emigrating from China. “Today there’s a lot of engagement between the U.S. and Asia, but for many years, Asian immigration was restricted,” she says. “After World War II, the restrictions were lifted, and the Asian-American population grew astronomically. Asian-Americans have changed the nature of what we think of as ‘racial minorities’—they don’t necessarily follow the old models of migration and assimilation.”
In a 2011 book, Lee drew on her knowledge of culture and theater for a unique perspective on Western perceptions of Japan. In The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” Lee, who played clarinet in Gilbert and Sullivan productions as an undergraduate, surveys the performance history of the popular comic opera and analyzes how its racial dynamics have been adapted to different times and places.
“Theater has dimensions that are very interesting in a world of technology,” she writes in a recent anthology she coedited, Asian American Plays for a New Generation. “It provides an opportunity for a live connection between people, while also integrating music and visual art. As an academic, I don’t always get into the creative side, so it’s very gratifying to work directly with playwrights and directors.”
Lee, who competed on MIT’s gymnastics team and got interested in skating at the Institute, is still athletic; she and her ice-dancing partner, Jim Kamin, recently won their division at the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships. She has been married for 22 years to Kevin Kinneavy and has two sons, Julian and Dylan.