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March 17, 2012

Chancellor Daniel Little's AAS guest blog

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Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, professor of philosophy at UM-Dearborn, and CCS faculty associate, shares his experience from the Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies in Toronto, Canada. We are grateful for his time and attention.

Asianists in Toronto

The AAS is a genuinely multinational, transnational gathering. Think of a particularly active oasis town on the Silk Road and you'll get a bit of a sense of the international and intercultural exchanges that take place here. Scholars born in India, Indonesia, China, or Malaysia now teaching in the United States join scholars based in those countries as well as US-born scholars based in the US and abroad, all focusing on Asian topics and coming together on lively, informative panels. The book display area would be familiar to the medieval traveler as a souk, where academics greet old acquaintances, make connections with acquisitions editors, and examine the latest publications from dozens of publishers.

And we can't overlook the occupational variation. Much as merchants, animal handlers, religious specialists, and itinerant artisans came face to face in Xi'an, the AAS is a place where political scientists, literary specialists, economists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists come together for only partially comprehensible exchanges. (What is that economist nattering on about, the art historian wonders.)

So why is there an Association of Asian Studies anyway, and why does it need an annual conference? There are of course many scholars passionately interested in Asia. But Asia is a large place with a long history. Is "Asia" a construct of a Eurocentric view of the world? Why should we assume that a single association can fruitfully serve this range of academic and regional interests?

One reason is proximity. If you are a historian of Indonesia or Burma, the history and politics of China are of deep importance to you. This is true historically, and it is true in the present. The policies of Ming China towards its southwestern periphery had major effects on the polities now sectioned as Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And if you're interested in the environmental prospects for the Mekong River basin, likewise you will be interested in China.

Another is methodological. It is valuable for a China specialist trained in anthropology to have a stimulating exposure to a well-conducted study of evolving CCP policies. It is useful for an historian of China to be exposed to subaltern histories of South Asia, since the perspectives of the subaltern school have little traction in the China field. It is useful for a scholar of the Congress Party of India to have a more engaging exposure to pre-colonial India.

One thing that is difficult to assess is the disciplinary background of people who present on AAS panels. My impression is that humanists are strongly represented -- literature, art history, film and media studies. There are generally a number of panels on topics of contemporary politics and government, including popular movements in Southeast Asia; this implies a representation of political scientists. There are often a few sessions on demographic topics, including historical treatments of famine. And of course historians are very well represented. Unfortunately the conference program doesn't make it easy to do this kind of snapshot analysis, since presenters are identified only by their institution and not department. Some people I've talked to have felt that AAS needs to try to do a better job of bringing the social sciences into the program, and finding some ways of encouraging more comparative research. AAS is very good on highlighting the particular, but some participants would like to see greater efforts at an integrative view as well.

Another practical function of the AAS annual meeting is its role in the job market for new PhDs in fields subsumed within Asian Studies. Mentors are introducing their students to other senior faculty at universities that may be hiring in Asian history, politics, or culture. And there are lots of presentations by late-stage graduate students and recent PhDs introducing their dissertation research to a broader audience. It is often very interesting work, following new topics and sometimes new methods. For example, I heard a paper by Ke Li on Friday describing her fieldwork in China observing the strategies pursued by rural women to gain divorce from unhappy marriages. (The deck is stacked against them.)

I've attended AAS since 1988, as a philosopher with an interest in China. And I've found it to be one of the more welcoming interdisciplinary convenings that I've attended (much more than the American Philosophical Association or the American Political Science Association, for example). As an oasis town, it's a thoroughly rewarding stop on our academic itineraries.

Posted by zzhu at March 17, 2012 10:13 AM