ASPAC 2004 Report: Mentors, Moments, Momentum
It was a very full two days, not least because I'm one of the members of the Board now. So far that only entails a commitment to attend the conference and offer words of wisdom at the board meeting. (They're dangling the Secretary-Treasurer position in front of me, but I'm not sure about that part yet.) My paper,"Economic and Social Effects of International Labor Migrants Return to Meiji-Era Yamaguchi and Hiroshima," was a revision of the paper I gave at the national meeting in San Diego (which was, itself, a revision and expansion of a portion of my dissertation), with new sources and a much stronger argument.
One of the great things about regional conferences, of course, is that motivated people can do innovative work in ways that a national conference wouldn't accept. For example, one of the centerpieces of ASPAC 2004 was a day-long series of panels called"Castaways, Refugee, Correspondents: Border Crossing and Travel Writing in East Asia" culminating in a round-table with every paper presenter (and interested audience members) participating. The guiding hand behind that was University of Oregon's Stephen Kohl, whose graduate students -- he made the" castaway" literature a centerpiece of a seminar last year -- made up the majority of the presenters. In a way, it was a continuation of the ASPAC 2003 panel, with a very similar title, in which I presented last year, along with Kohl and Michael Wood, one of his advanced students (who earned an award as one of the best graduate papers of the conference this year). The whole literature is fascinating, because it -- finally -- obliterates the concept of Tokugawa Japan as closed to the outside world, physically or intellectually. I really can't wait for some of this work to start getting published and noticed more widely.
I registered too late to slip into the sequence, so I got to preside over and present along with a bunch of Filipino MBA students (Panel 3c) rapidly presenting very traditional (and detailed) statistical analyses. We did OK as a panel: I have just enough statistics and social science to ask questions that aren't stupid, and they were intrigued by my qualitative socio-economic arguments. The good news is that there was nobody at my panel (there wasn't that big of an audience, but I'll get to that later) who read my handout closely enough to spot the glaring error. It wasn't a mistranslation, per se: the book I got the text from has introduced errors into texts before, and I think this is one of them, but I was working that particular text into the paper right before we left for the trip, so I didn't catch the oddity of it until I was looking over my handouts the week of the conference, too late to do much of anything about it.
Saturday I could kick back and relax a bit. I really enjoyed many of the papers I heard, particularly those in the"Law and Order" panel: online discourse as social/political protest in China; Korean Colonial Police; disarmament protocols; and, my personal favorite, a literary scholar's gender/discourse analysis of Qing judicial records in which she contrasted the testimonies with the summaries to tease out the distortions and tropes introduced by the officials processing the cases. Another paper that day caught my attention: an analysis of the early Tea tradition in Japan which abandoned the traditional sycophantic aesthetic genealogy in favor of an analysis of the business, political and family aspects. Very refreshing stuff, which I'll have to carefully consider how to integrate into my Tokugawa-Meiji course next spring.
But, to be honest, the high point of the conference for me was the fact that Mary Elizabeth Berry was there, in her capacity as current president of the AAS. While a young graduate student at Harvard, I made a bad personal decision which turned out to be a good professional decision, and I spent two years as an affiliate student of the UC Berkeley History Department. The faculty there were all quite welcoming and helpful, as I studied for my General Exams and began to work on my dissertation prospectus, but the one who had the greatest effect, without a doubt, was Berry.
She taught me to appreciate the difficulty of writing history with weak sources, both by her appreciation for the pre/proto-history we read and by her own work on the 14c-16c Sengoku (Civil War) period. She took a period which many scholars considered too disordered, too transitional to do anything with but describe the before and after, and insisted on treating it like an era in its own right, and produced some extraordinary scholarship. She's got a new book in press which will map the production, organization and use of knowledge in the early Tokugawa: challenging stuff, and overdue, and she's one of the only people in the field who can pull it off. I can't wait.
One moment, though, sticks out in my mind in particular. I described for her, one day, the project I envisioned as my dissertation. She said that it was a good topic, an interesting small question, but what was the big question, that this small question helped to answer? What would this study ultimately add to our understanding of Japan? The distinction between the small question, or topic, and the big question, where it fits in the broader historiography, has stuck with me, and I've used it quite effectively with students. And I always make those connections now, in my writing: what larger processes, what big question, does my work address in a small way? It's surprising how many scholars don't make those connections.
Berry did me the honor of coming to hear my paper (and I know it was my paper she came to hear, because she left after I was done), and she told me afterwards that she liked it, so that sealed the conference as a success for me. I got to return the favor, a bit, by introducing her at the closing banquet: nobody else, among the organizers or board, knew her personally, so when I offered, they jumped at the chance. I got to tell the"big question/small question" story, which at least one graduate student there has since told me he found quite useful.
Berry's talk was not the traditional AAS President's address, erudite and scholarly. It was a rallying cry for Asian studies scholars to envision an academy in which Asian studies faculty's share of the total resources was roughly proportional to the scale and importance of Asia in the world. She drew stark contrasts with European (particularly French and British) studies, but was careful to point out that we should try to avoid making it a fight over shrinking resources, but a redirection and expansion of the curriculum in more meaningful directions. We have, she argued, gone from nearly nothing to our present state -- kind of marginal, but at least represented -- in three decades or so, and we should consider the next stage -- transition to properly proportional representation -- a multi-decade process. We also need to make Asia more of a mainstream subject: whereas now European studies are considered essential background for any well-rounded scholar, Asian studies are an extra. But it's impossible to do meaningful comparative, or even narrowly analytical work, if your only models are European/American.
She's right, too.
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