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President’s Column: Annual Conference Preview

We live in a world of Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, WeChat, Twitter, Facebook, and LINE, not to mention landlines, cell phones, email, online courses, and other technologies introduced in a previous century. These numerous means of communication enable us to cross the sometimes vast distances that separate us from our colleagues, our mentors, our students, and the people and places we study, write, and teach about. In such a world, resorting to airplanes in order to be in the same place at the same time with some of those people may seem a ridiculous or even wasteful luxury. And yet, it is a luxury that several thousand scholars of Asia are about to indulge in. In one month, the 70th annual conference of the AAS will begin, in Denver.

As those of us lucky enough to attend the conference—those whose proposals were accepted by the program committee; those who have U.S. passports or can obtain visas; those with the time, the good health, and the financial means to make the trip and find a place to stay—as we lucky ones prepare our papers and sort through our wardrobes, as we fill out our schedules with panels we want to attend, receptions we want to check out, and lunch and coffee-break appointments with old friends and future collaborators, we may suddenly stop and reflect: Why? Is face-to-face communication still worth it? Is it worth it to be in the same room, in person, with authors whose books we have read, whose articles we have pored over, whose ideas we have wrestled with? Is it worth it to present our own work—albeit in what is always to the speaker a painfully small amount of time—in person, to colleagues who are in a position to understand what we are saying and to offer us knowledgeable and constructive critiques?

My answer is a resounding “Yes!”

The Mahānubhāvs are a religious group from India whose 13th-century literature in the Old Marathi language I have studied off and on throughout my career. Mahānubhāv religious thought places a great deal of emphasis on something called sannidhān. The term means “nearness,” “propinquity,” or “presence.” Mahānubhāvs use this word to talk about the profoundly valuable experience of being with a divine incarnation. It is also extremely valuable, it seems to me, for scholars to have sannidhān with one another. We have much to gain by spending time with people who share our intellectual interests, who literally speak the language(s) we do, and who share our familiarity with some particular part of the world. We can learn as much—or even more—by encountering people who have interests analogous to ours with respect to a different part of Asia or who can tell us fascinating stories and present mind-boggling statistics about how different parts of Asia are, or have been, connected with one another and with other parts of the world.

If you are reading this, you may well be planning to attend the Denver conference. If you are still unsure of your plans, I urge you to make your hotel and travel reservations soon. Many of you have undoubtedly taken a glance at the online program and might have already begun to plot out a conference schedule. Before your calendar gets completely full, I’d like to highlight a few new events and exhibitions that I hope will be of particular interest to many of those who attend:

  • If, like me, you are not quite sure what “digital humanities” means, but you have a project that involves a great deal of “data” (words, images, locations, or other kinds of things that can be put into computerized form) that you would like to be able to organize, analyze, and/or present in a different medium than a traditional academic book or article, you should plan to spend some time at the Digital Technologies Expo. The exposition will feature a series of presentations running throughout the day on the Friday and Saturday of the conference. It will culminate with an open planning session starting at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday to discuss possible future steps for incorporating digital technologies into the annual conference.
  • A major theme of this conference will be censorship. The President’s Panel this year will focus on lending historical depth to the relationships between scholars and governments in East and South Asia. In recent months, the AAS has experienced the harsh side of this relationship directly: first, the Chinese government censorship that has affected the distribution of the Journal of Asian Studies in China for the past 20 months, and, second, the Indian government’s blanket refusal to grant visas to Pakistani scholars whose papers had been accepted for the July 2018 AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi. The panel attempts to explore the wide variety of government stances toward scholars over time. In addition, there will be a panel on contemporary forms of censorship (#160, “It Can Happen Here: Censorship, Press Freedom, and Media Development in Southeast Asia”) that will continue a discussion begun at an #AsiaNow panel during the 2018 AAS conference.
  • Not unrelated to the topic of censorship, but extending beyond it as well, the Denver program will feature a Town Hall meeting (quite likely for the first time ever at an AAS conference) focusing on the question of whether and how to continue the AAS-in-Asia initiative. So far there have been five AAS-in-Asia conferences, one each year from 2014 through 2018; the sixth is scheduled to take place in July 2019 in Bangkok. For many of their participants, these conferences provide a rare or even unique opportunity to interact with colleagues from across the globe. On the other hand, they cost the AAS a good deal in terms of financial and staff resources, and they almost inevitably involve political problems of one kind or another. Should the series of AAS-in-Asia conferences continue? Where can they be held, and which places should be avoided?
  • Besides political problems that directly affect our organization, the conference features three special events that will focus on other harsh contemporary political realities:
    • Thursday: Opening keynote address by Thant Myint-U, “Myanmar, An Unfinished Nation: A Story of Race, Capitalism and Democracy in the 21st Century” (sponsored by the Harvard-Yenching Institute);
    • Friday: #AsiaNow panel on “Arts under Military Occupation,” featuring artists from Kashmir, Tibet, Timor Leste, and Cambodia (sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council); and
    • Saturday: another #AsiaNow panel, this one on “The Future of Ethnic Autonomy in Xinjiang” (sponsored by the Ford Foundation).
  • The conference program contains many other panels and presentations. They cover a dizzying array of topics: past and present, political and not, ranging geographically from Afghanistan to North Korea and topically from lyric poetry to military campaigns. Besides going to sessions that relate closely to your own special area of research, it is a good idea to attend a panel on a topic or a part of the world that you know nothing at all about. You might learn something that enables you to look in a new way at your own subject or approach; or, if not revealing and fruitful, it might at least be simply restful.
  • On a more practical level, please take a look at the AAS’s newly approved anti-harassment policy and the information (and financial support) provided for parents looking for childcare options during the conference.

If, despite your strong wishes, you’re not able to attend the Denver conference in person this year, you can keep up with a great deal of it by reading #AsiaNow and following the AAS on Twitter and Facebook. Use the AAS member directory, available online to members upon logging in at our website, to get contact information for presenters you would have liked to talk with had you been able to attend. For those who are eagerly anticipating meeting new people, reuniting with old friends and long-time colleagues, hearing new ideas, and testing out your own latest work—I look forward to being in your sannidhān.

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