Few awards are as sought after as those granted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows Program. Often called “genius grants,” the $625,000 awards, with no strings attached, are given annually to about two dozen individuals in diverse fields. Since its creation in 1978, Berkeley faculty and alumni have been among those receiving the prestigious fellowship. This year’s group included two Berkeley alumni — among them cultural historian Josh Kun, a professor of communication at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who received his PhD in ethnic studies from Berkeley in 1999.

Kun’s current work explores popular culture and music as ways of thinking about cross-cultural dialogue and connection, with special focus on Los Angeles, Southern California, and Northern Mexico. We talked to him recently about his time at Berkeley and the importance of financial support in his academic career.

How did your experience at Berkeley influence your outlook? Did it play any role in the arc of your current career?

With my interest in ethnic studies, Berkeley’s breadth of knowledge was crucial. Here was a rich intellectual community of people dedicated to thinking about social justice and change. Writing about pop music in creative ways was never looked at as strange or marginal, as it might have been at a more traditional university. I took advantage of everything it had to offer – and I’m still in touch with many of my professors.

What role do graduate students play in scholarship?

Graduate students bring in fresh perspectives and new questions that change our national conversations. That’s part of the role of scholarship, to do that work so we have the research and tools and original thinking to change the ways the larger public has these conversations. My work revolves around thinking about music, race identity, and cultural equity and commonality — work that’s still seen as asking difficult questions about American culture.

Like most doctoral students, you received financial support in the form of fellowships. How important was that funding?

It was crucial. In addition to the financial assistance, it served as external recognition of the work I was doing. When you’re a grad student, you’re not sure if your work really matters. And when your field is interdisciplinary, you’re extra nervous about being considered legitimate. So when the system says “We want to help and give you the time and space to do this on your own terms,” it’s transformative.

What did the funding you received as a graduate student enable you to do?

I was always working part-time, writing for the East Bay Express and I had a weekly column on music and culture in the Bay Guardian. The funding really just gives you time and a break from the routines of being a teaching or research assistant. Suddenly you have the time to read and write and focus on your own ideas to get your dissertation done in a year instead of two or three. The support also allowed me to travel to research libraries, work that informed a chapter of my dissertation and became a chapter in my first book, which won the American Book Award. There was a direct link from that early work to my later success.

What do you think you would have done without such financial assistance?

I had thought many times of dropping out of graduate school and wondered if academic life was the right fit for what I wanted to do. I considered just trying to be a full-time journalist. But with my funding, the university was saying no, this work is important to us as an educational pursuit.

How does philanthropy support emerging areas of inquiry?

If you look at all the people who were awarded MacArthur Fellowships this year, most of them are doing work in non-traditional, interdisciplinary fields. That’s a really important sign about where our funding needs to be directed. These are urgent and politically necessary subjects right now, ideas that are dealing with diversity, immigration, and civic engagement. It could be in the sciences, in engineering, or any field, but we need to examine what some call “the wicked problems of contemporary life.” Let’s move the needle, change the air, make some new tools for thinking about how to make our world a better place.