Jerry Zee, Assistant Professor

June 17, 2021

Photo: Micah Hilt

How did you first become interested in Anthropology? When did you get into the field?

When I started college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do except that my parents wanted me to be a doctor, which I was not interested in. So, I took lots of psychology classes because I thought that it would be an okay compromise. I ended up working in a field called, Cultural Psychology. When I was taking classes for that requirement, I ended up taking my first anthropology class, which really changed my life. It gave me a language for talking about a lot of stuff that I intuited, but I didn’t know exactly how to put into words. From there on out, I decided to take more classes and ended up being an anthropology major. I got into the field in earnest, when I was a sophomore in college, after I had gone through a bunch of different things. I thought I might be a math major or a design major. I thought I might be all sorts of things. For the first couple of years you read about other people’s field work. Then, in the summer between my junior and my senior years, I put together a field project in San Francisco, applied for money from the university, and they sent me out to do field work over so I could write a thesis and graduate.

There’s something about anthropology that is “magical” because it’s “a discipline that’s less into fixing the world into place and more about constantly experimenting in ways of trying to understand the world.”


When did you know you wanted to pursue this field as a career choice?

The moment I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist was actually when I read Anna Tsing’s Friction for the first time as a freshman. So that is the book that made me feel like that’s what I want to do when I grow up. 


What motivated (or motives) your continuation of education past your doctorate degree?

I knew that I wanted to be in academia because I felt that it was the register that I want to serve and think in. I also really like the idea of being a teacher, so that’s part of it. I remember what it felt like being an anthropology student, how it changed a lot of the ways I approached the world and I thought, to be able to do that for other people sounds like a really good life. It happened in my senior year of college and a lot of it was because all of my friends were very much on this academic track. My friend group ended up getting PhDs in anthropology in different institutions. The reason why that was important to me was because it had never occurred to me, growing up, that it was an option. There was no one, in terms of academia, in my family and the expectation was always that I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I sort of figured that I would be a lawyer, which was not something that I was especially interested in. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a whole friend group, a couple of them were children of academics, for whom that was just a reasonable thing to do. I took one year out of college to work in China for environmental-geo because I knew I wanted to work and live in China. So, I applied while I was there and got in.


Do you have specific goals as an anthropology professor or researcher?

I’m working on a book right now that adapts my field research from when I was doing my PhD. The book is about the politics of weather in China, how the Chinese government is trying to figure out ways for controlling the formation of large-scale dust storms in China. I have a few projects that I’m thinking about right now, some of which are in China and some of which are elsewhere. I want my students to come out of every class and feel like everything about their world has changed a little bit. My biggest goal as a teacher is that I want students to go back to their apartment or to their house or their dorm and to keep on talking. The thing about anthropology that I think is really incredible is that its goal is trying to see the common place around you, in different ways. What I’d like for my students is for them to leave the class feeling a sense of wonder and a sort of curiosity about the world, and also a kind of urgency about all the problems that they see and things that they know. I really want them to feel animated by everyday life and I think it’s great.


What influenced or prompted your fancy to became a professor here at UC Santa Cruz?

I’ve wanted to teach here for a long time, especially because a lot of the scholarships that comes out of Santa Cruz are so unique. I think Santa Cruz Anthropology is asking questions that are trying to continually remake the field of anthropology. I like that not a lot is taken for granted here about the field. I’m really amazed by some of my senior colleagues and the kinds of work that they do. I feel like this is going to be a place where there will always be interesting conversations and I could learn a lot. I could continually change the way that I think about things, which is what I think anthropology does.


Which courses do you teach at UCSC? Are there other courses or topics you are interested in teaching?

First, I’d be happy to hear what students think that the department needs. I think that teaching is also a way of learning. I’m not committed to anything in particular. This year, I’ve taught a class on China and two classes on environment. Next year, I will be teaching classes on China and environment again and also graduate seminars. I’m interested in teaching classes about anthropology and materiality, so how to think about matter, especially non-living matter. Anthropology and its relationship to science both in the history of anthropology, so the various moments that anthropology has or has not been defined as a science, but also how anthropologists engage with natural sciences. In this upcoming fall, I will be teaching ANTH 130C: Politics and Culture in China and ANTH 146: Anthropology and the Environment.


So far, what has been your most memorable experience here in Santa Cruz?

I’m obsessed with Sammy the Slug appearing everywhere. Actually, I just took a picture of Sammy the Slug on my way over here because I thought it was so funny. I started keeping a blog of all the Sammy the Slugs that I find on campus or Sammy the Slugs that people send to me. A lot of times my students send Sammy the Slug to me and that is my favorite thing about being on campus. I think it’s so amazing and funny. Sammy the Slug is my most memorable experience. The magic of Sammy. I have a couple that I am waiting to post.


How would you explain anthropology to a student who knowns nothing about it?

I don’t know how I would do that! I’d defer to my other colleagues and how they explain anthropology. I don’t know that people know what it means when you say that anthropology is the holistic study of humans, so I don’t know exactly how to explain it. I can barely explain what I do myself except that I know that it is anthropology because I’m constantly changing my mind and learning new things. I still don’t know what anthropology is. It’s a space where you don’t have to know. To me it’s more about curiosity and a commitment to thinking closely and reading closely and taking care of other people’s worlds.


Thank you to Jerry C. Zee for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. It was a Wednesday afternoon directly after his flight had landed in San Jose.


Date: Wednesday April 25, 2018

Location: SS1 Office Room 331

Time: 2 PM



What’s the most rewarding part about teaching and/or lecturing in the anthropology department at UCSC?

Professor Zee states that the he enjoys the “off the wall” nature of the questions that students ask in class that make him think about anthropology in a different light. He also adds that through classroom dialog he is able to not only conversate with students about a certain topics but also learn from the students have to say.


If you can choose another concentration in the field of anthropology to pursue, what would it be and why?

If Professor Zee would choose a different concentration in the Anthropology department to pursue, he would choose archaeology due to some conversations hes had with fellow Anthropology faculty that sparked an interest in him.


What is one thing that you are most excited for in your future work and why is that important to you?

"I’m really excited in thinking more about how I can challenge myself to think about all the different ways the environmental processes really matter in our understanding of human history and cultural and political life." Professor Zee describes the center focus of his current work is “thinking about how we can think about changes in global politics at large but especially these kind of new interesting and political experiments that are happening in China’s post socialism.” He ends his thought with a very interesting point which is the way these environmental problems are happening on a global scale to similar degrees yet each government has a different way of “ conceiving of their own political legitimacy.”