The Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Past and Present

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The 1971 AAS program (left) and 2015’s (right)

I spent last weekend in Chicago attending the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS, shorthand for both the association and the annual meeting). On the night before I left for the conference, my boss handed me something she had found in her office—the program for the 1971 AAS. Promising to treat it gently, I borrowed the program so I could take a closer look and see how things have changed at AAS over the past 44 years.

First of all, as you can see in the picture above, the 1971 program is much smaller than 2015’s. In 1971, the conference had 53 panel sessions; this year there were 322. That growth isn’t necessarily a good thing: today, there are too many sessions. As I was preparing my schedule for the weekend, I found multiple instances where two or three panels that I wanted to attend were being held in the same time slot. I could have “panel hopped,” or moved from one to the other hoping to catch the papers that looked most interesting. But I don’t like coming in late or leaving early (I’m guaranteed to be the person who knocks a chair over trying to make an inconspicuous exit), so I just decided which panel looked like it should be my top choice and went to that one. While 53 panels might be too few, 322 is too many, and I wouldn’t mind seeing that number drop by a third.

Those 53 panels were also much more spread out, time-wise, though the actual length of the conference hasn’t really changed (Sunday night through Wednesday afternoon then; Thursday night through Sunday afternoon now). In 1971, the first session of the day began at 9:30 (now it’s 8:30) and there was one panel session before lunch, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening (only on the first day; the other two nights featured special events). Now the panels go back-to-back-to-back, with only a 15-minute break in between most of the time. Of course, you don’t have to go to a panel in every session block—in fact, I can’t imagine having the stamina to do that—but the general atmosphere at AAS is one of harried people running from one place to the next. The 1971 conference gave participants much more time to socialize and talk on their own, rather than spend their days dashing around.

What about the content and makeup of panels then and now? In terms of topics, many of the 1971 panels were focused on politics, social structure, and development, especially in South and Southeast Asia. That didn’t surprise me: the 1960s and ‘70s saw a lot of scholarly interest in social structure and economics, as academics tried to figure out how Asian countries were built, in a way, and how they would move forward, many of them newly independent from colonial powers. In terms of East Asian history, what struck me was that several of the panel titles could have appeared just as easily in the 2015 program as in 1971’s: “Western Intrusion and Conceptual Change in Mid-Nineteenth Century China” (that might be phrased differently now, but the general topic is still a big one); “The Ch’ing [Qing] Conquest, 1621–1683”; “China and Southeast Asia: The Changing Patterns of Interaction”; “Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.”

One of the things that struck me most, perhaps not surprisingly, is that women play a much larger role in AAS meetings today than they did in 1971. Although, actually, the president of the association in 1971 was a women (Cora DuBois, professor of anthropology at Harvard), as is the president this year (Mrinalini Sinha of the University of Michigan). But the vast majority of panelists back then were men, and only one panel at the entire meeting focused specifically on women’s studies (“Women’s Roles in Southeast Asia”). This year, according to the “Panel Listings by Discipline” summary in the AAS program, there were 19 women’s studies panels. (So in 44 years, that field has grown from 1.9% of the conference program to 5.9%.) However, there are disciplinary categories now that wouldn’t have existed if a similar summary had been compiled in the 1971 program: gender and sexuality (43 panels), information technology (9 panels), and urban studies (27 panels), for example.

While it’s difficult to ascertain this from a quick scan of the participant index alone, I’d venture to say that there’s a much higher percentage of people either from Asia or of Asian descent at the meetings today, too. The field of Asian studies has clearly broadened, both in area of scholarly inquiry and inclusion of different groups.

I really enjoy going to AAS every year because the conference offers me the opportunity to see friends and colleagues from around the world; in many cases, that’s the only time all year our paths will cross. I’d like the meeting to feel less hectic, but I guess that’s the price of success—the field has grown and the conference has swelled in response. There’s something appealing about the small size and leisurely pace that I see in the 1971 program, though, and I sort of wish I had a time machine that enabled me to go back and attend that meeting. In the absence of that, looking through the program will have to be enough.

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