AAS 2020: Program Trends and Highlights

Since we don’t offer a theme for our AAS Annual Conferences, we never know exactly what to expect when proposals start rolling in. We generally anticipate at least a few sessions focused on major anniversary dates or placing recent events in a broader context, and we know that some topics are, at least in their broadest incarnations, evergreen. But for the most part, it’s a surprise to see what the Call for Proposals yields: from year to year, the key themes and areas of study that appear most frequently in the conference program are subject to change as trends in scholarship wax and wane. 

As I look over the 441 sessions that will appear on the AAS 2020 program in Boston next March, there’s no question that gender studies will feature very prominently in the conference conversations, with 41 panels that either have gender in their title or as a keyword. This is, of course, very exciting for those scholars who work at the intersection of gender and Asian studies. The downside, as always, is that having a lot of panels on one topic makes it impossible to avoid some scheduling conflicts, as those 41 panels must be distributed among 11 session timeslots. There will, inevitably, be some overlaps, and conference attendees will have to make some tough choices about which panels to attend and which to forsake. We know that this is always difficult—“too many similar sessions in the same timeslot!” is a recurring comment on our post-conference surveys—but it’s also the logical outcome of growth in the field, which on balance I see as a positive development.

Gender studies is also the focus of two special sessions sponsored by the AAS. First, the Journal of Asian Studies has invited Judith Butler for its Thursday evening JAS-at-AAS roundtable, “Revisiting Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Reflections and Critiques from Asian Studies.” Former AAS President Mrinalini Sinha will chair this conversation, which will feature Asian Studies scholars Gail Hershatter, Tamara Loos, and Geeta Patel offering comments on Butler’s pathbreaking 1990 book, with Butler responding to their remarks. Second, one of our #AsiaNow panels will be a roundtable on the topic of “Promoting Gender Equity and Fair Practices in Professional Development and Mentoring.” Many thanks to the Gender Equality in Asian Studies (GEAS) group for suggesting and organizing that session; the panelists will be announced next month.

The second major theme that I identified as I perused the AAS 2020 program is far less cohesive, involving not one keyword but several; I jotted down in my notes, “Borders, Mobility, Identities, Space.” These words appeared again and again—either directly or by implication—as I read through the session titles. Across many disparate disciplines, regions/countries of study, and time periods, Asian Studies scholars are grappling with questions of boundaries, of place, and of belonging. This feels appropriate in late 2019, when so many news headlines are dominated by similar topics: Brexit and border walls, refugee policies and religious identities, claims to sovereignty and crises over autonomy.

Our inaugural Digital Technologies Expo at the 2019 Denver conference was a definite success, but several participants commented that it was confusing and not always convenient to have the expo as a separate event running in parallel to the rest of the conference. My colleagues and I agreed, and decided that in Boston the digital technologies sessions would be incorporated into the main conference program. In addition, we invited proposals in the new category of digital lightning presentations—very short introductions (5-8 minutes) to digital topics or questions. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these changes, and thank the Digital Technology sub-committee of Hilde De Weerdt (Chair), Leiden University; Song Chen, Bucknell University; Paula Curtis, Yale University; and Debashree Mukherjee, Columbia University, for their time and work in organizing this segment of the conference.

As we explain in the Call for Proposals, the AAS has long conceived its Annual Conference as one primarily focused on organized sessions, with only a small percentage of individual paper submissions accepted to the program. In the breakdown of session proposals, however, South Asia receives relatively few—most likely because many scholars choose to attend the Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin.  At this year’s Program Committee meeting, the South/Southeast Asia sub-committee members decided to form more South Asia individual paper sessions than in the past, as they were impressed by the large number of high-quality individual paper proposals submitted for this region. Instead of the three such sessions that past conferences have featured, the Boston meeting will include eight individual paper sessions for South Asia.

Finally, AAS 2020 attendees who are interested in learning more about Boston’s ties with Asia will have a number of opportunities to do so. The conference program includes two sessions on Asian holdings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—“Museum Gallery as Public Classroom: Experimenting with Virtual Technologies and Japanese Buddhist Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” and “Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: The Next 150 Years.” We have also revived the institution of the Local Arrangements Committee, which had been discontinued (for reasons no one currently working at the Secretariat knows) after the 1990 conference. Merry White (Boston University) and James Robson (Harvard University) will co-chair this committee, joined by members Marie Abe (Boston University), David Odo (Harvard University), Sarah Pinto (Tufts University), and Eve Zimmerman (Wellesley College). The Local Arrangements Committee is working on setting up multiple performances, walking tours, museum tours, and more. We will post information about these opportunities as soon as it is available.

These are, of course, only a few of the highlights of the AAS 2020 program, and the conference will, as always, be chock-full of special events in addition to the panel sessions I’ve mentioned above. My colleagues and I at the AAS Secretariat all look forward to a busy but productive conference in Boston next March, and we hope to see you there.