The Futures of Asian Studies

I begin this final President’s column in a moment when the word “future” takes on a particularly uncertain cast. There is no doubt that Asia will loom large in the American future in the coming months and years, and that whatever stands in front of us cannot be navigated without expertise and the wisdom of experience. But will such expertise be sought? Heard? Valued? By whom, and in what fora? I use the plural “futures” in my title with careful intention. Forward motion assumes a strong contingent of young Asianists working on many fronts. Support for this cohort is a primary responsibility of the Association for Asian Studies.

Two of our core programs—the annual meeting, and the publication of a high-profile journal—give professional visibility to new work and new faces. Many of us gave our first professional papers as graduate students in the more intimate and supportive atmosphere of AAS regional meetings, and this tradition continues. Medium-sized AAS-in-ASIA meetings are another opportunity to present new ideas, gain visibility, and network, and mentoring sessions with AAS officers have become a part of these programs. For several years, AAS Dissertation Writing Workshops, held around the national meeting, have helped cohorts of graduate students to hone their arguments into well-defended theses, some of which ultimately developed into first books. Our program in Emerging Fields also encourages the participation of junior scholars in broad intellectual projects which also foster networking across institutions and disciplines. In other words, AAS has a good idea of how to nurture scholarship, and will continue to support and develop projects that enhance the intellectual growth and professional viability of young academics. We should do this, and we will. Where AAS falls short is in the recognition that many young Asianists, however brilliant and well-trained, will not find employment in the academy. 

Tenure-track positions have shrunk, there is little ground for optimism that they will return, and many young Asianists are seeking jobs outside the academy. This is not easy. University advisors and mentors know how to train a student to do research and write a creditable paper. The academy offers advice on how to make an effective scholarly presentation and give a creditable academic job interview. But most academic Asianists are clueless about how to prepare for non-academic employment, and some of us are tempted to feel betrayed when a carefully-nurtured student breaks with academe, feelings that sometimes translate back to the student as a lack of sympathy and support.

AAS must do better. Last year, when we interviewed Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, our new Digital Media Manager, and asked her about the future of AAS, she spoke passionately to the issue of younger scholars in her own cohort, well-trained in scholarship but facing precarious futures. Maura is an effective communicator. She made us recognize that if AAS is to have a future, many of our standard-bearers will not be academic Asianists. In fact, throughout our history as an association, many of our longstanding members and some of our best-informed voices have had non-academic careers as diplomats, foundation people, NGO workers, and in business. Some have found careers that have been more interesting, personally rewarding, and/or better remunerated than had they continued on the academic track. 

But to assume a more active role in supporting Asianists seeking non-academic careers, we need to brainstorm with those of you who are on the front lines, and we need to learn from the experiences of peer organizations. We need to become better informed of and get out the word about programs like Mellon/ACLS’s Public Fellows Program, which offers recent humanities and humanistic social science PhDs a two-year internship in government and the non-profit sector.


At the Toronto meeting, AAS will be taking one small step in the direction of a possible larger initiative by hosting a roundtable, “Beyond the Academy: Careers for Asianists,” drawing on the expertise and willingness to share experiences that some of our membership will provide. David Janes is Director of Foundation Grants and Assistant to the President at the United States-Japan Foundation, the largest private foundation focused on U.S.-Japan relations, where he oversees all aspects of the Foundation’s grant-making program in the U.S. and Japan. Helena Kolenda is Program Director for Asia at the Henry Luce Foundation, with a career track that includes a degree in Chinese Language and Literature and a stint as an attorney before joining Luce, initially as a Program Officer. Christian F. Murck, Chair of the Yale-China Association, has been President of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, Vice Chairman-Asia, Chief Executive Officer-Asia and Managing Director of APCO Worldwide, and before joining APCO, he was the Managing Director and Senior Country Officer of the Chase Manhattan Bank in Beijing. Margaret Scott, a journalist, was Cultural Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and writes about Indonesia for The New York Review of Books from her current base at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. Krisna Uk was most recently Executive Director, Center for Khmer Studies, Siem Reap, Cambodia. During her tenure she strengthened CKS’s major exchange programs and developed institutional partnerships with American, Cambodian, Southeast Asian, and European academic institutions, while creating funding and academic network opportunities for Cambodian scholars; she previously worked on various consultancies. Our participants will all speak briefly about how their careers intersect with Asianist knowledge, giving us their sense of what they did right in making these moves and what they might have done differently had they known what their futures would hold. The session will be chaired by Maura Cunningham, and there will be ample time for questions and discussion.


Please join us at 7:30pm on Thursday, March 16 in the City Hall room, 2nd floor of the Sheraton. The Graduate Student reception is immediately after this session. The conversation that is begun in this roundtable will continue well beyond the Toronto meeting.

To maximize time for Q&A, audience members should submit questions in advance (email them to