LRCCS MA students guest blog from the Association for Asian Studies annual conference in Chicago

Ryan Etzcorn (Second-year LRCCS MA student/MPP student, Ford School of Public Policy)

In preparing for my first visit to the AAS conference, I can only imagine that my experience has been shared by plenty of eager graduate students before me. The moment I got my hands on a conference program I began poring over panel offerings -- starring and circling anything that remotely resembled any worthwhile relevance to my own particular topics of research interest. In the first days of AAS I quickly came to realize that my thinking in navigating such a massive catalog of scholarly production was all wrong. 

With each talk I visited I progressively noticed a pattern that defied expectations. It seemed that the closer a talk drew to my research interest, the less I took away when each presentation reached its conclusion. It wasn't that the quality of the research was necessarily lacking, I found, instead I came to realize that the real limitation was just that the presenters themselves weren't afforded enough time to engage a particular issue I cared about in any great depth. 15 minutes gave them just enough time to flash through the broad strokes of projects they had slaved over for years. 

What seemed to be a pitfall, however, quickly transformed itself into a more valuable understanding of how to reallyappreciate the conference. This happened for me when I stumbled across a talk on labor migration from Indonesia and NGO advocacy. I had come to this particular panel in search of more empirical ammunition on my own ongoing research of China's complex civil society, only to find -- to my great disappointment -- that the speaker addressing this issue had fallen ill and failed to attend. But halfway through this presentation on an Indonesian context that I knew next to nothing about, I was struck hard by something the presenter said about this context that made me look at China in an entirely new way. Without boring anyone reading this with the details, I quickly understood that I may have finally caught on to the research question I've been hunting for weeks. From then on I decided that the true gold at AAS is at the panels that featured topics, regions, and methods that I had little prior exposure to. I've always felt that the most memorable experiences I could have are those where I'm one of the most novice people in the room, and now that I've reworked that thinking at AAS, I feel recharged for the rest of the conference! 

Neal McKenna (First-year LRCCS MA student)

Friday at AAS has been a great day. I've attended panels on urbanization, thought work and adaptive authoritarianism. The conference is taking place in a great part of Chicago and I've taken advantage of my free time to sample local cuisine (Portillo's, Pizzeria Due). I have yet to check out the exhibition hall but I look forward to the book selection. 

I am going to focus on the second panel I attended this morning, titled "Adaptive Authoritarianism in Cyber China." Dr. Ashley Escarey gave a very interesting talk about work he is doing with a colleague, examining online censorship in response to the famous article by King, Pan and Roberts. King, Pan and Roberts concluded that the censorship apparatus of the CCP focuses on censoring posts with high collective action potential but allows posts that criticize the government. Escarey performed a content analysis on leaked Hunan government directives to website administrators. His study finds that the government in fact attempts to censor criticism, but fails very often. The directives most frequently emphasize the importance of monitoring/censoring references to the media industry, Internet providers and telecommunications. They also not the importance of preventing the visibility of instances of pluralism within the government and the importance of hiding internal differences.

Dr. Jonathan Hassid presented  thought-provoking consideration of the potential risks of the CCP's responsiveness to issues that are raised online. He examined whether the responsiveness of the government to issues that gain traction online will actually undermine reforms and lead to increased influence of Internet commentators, a shift from the proletariat to the commentariat. He also importantly considers the demographics of Internet users, and considers how the issues that are raised online by Chinese Internet users are not necessarily representative of the issues important to all Chinese people, and yet many social issues that get the quickest response are those that gain momentum online.

While I have benefitted from all the panels I have attended, I am dismayed at the lack of panels examining media, technology and information in China. While Dr. Escarey was responding to King, Pan and Roberts' study, Jennifer Pan was herself presenting in a panel titled "Information Gathering in Contemporary China", which I also very much wanted to attend. It was disappointing that both these panels were scheduled for the same time, as I feel that many people would have liked to attend both, and many of the presenters would have benefitted from discussing their work together. 

Unfortunately I leave tomorrow but I am very glad to have attended and rubbed elbows with so many experts and educators in Asian Studies, and to have gotten my first taste of AAS. Looking forward to Seattle in 2016!

Andrea Valedon (First-year LRCCS MA student)

As my first academic conference, I imagined I would be overwhelmed at a conference as large as AAS where over a thousand people come to attend hundreds of panels. By the time I wove around scores of people in search of the registration booth, I had already seen four people I knew, both professors and graduate students from various universities. Even among hundreds of strangers, I still felt like I was part of a community.

Each day of the conference, my community grows. Meeting the scholars whose work I have read and admired feels like meeting a celebrity. As a student who focuses on Islam in China at the University of Michigan, I don’t really have many other students or professors to chat with in depth on this topic, as no one at UMich has this particular specialty. In two days, I have already met scores of students and professors who share my interests and have freely offered me valuable insight and advice regarding my thesis project and future academic goals. Even as strangers, our mutual academic interests allow us to feel a particular connection, and it’s exciting to talk to others who are as fascinated by Islam in China as I am. It has amazed me how open and willing to help everyone I’ve met has been, whether they be a graduate student or an established scholar. 

These past few days have been a whirlwind of rushing from panel to panel with few breaks in between. My bottom is sore from sitting and I have the conference room layout nearly memorized from rushing back and forth to the panels- Arkansas room, level 2, Sheraton ballroom IV, level 4, Fairview room, level 3. Outside of the conference, I have eaten Chicago style hotdogs dripping with pickles and peppers and experienced the “wind” part of the Windy City. I have shared drinks with old friends and new while looking out over Lake Michigan and stood in line for coffee at 8amalongside everyone else who needed an extra jolt of energy for the early morning panels. AAS has been an exciting way to find out what research is currently being done in my field, learn more about topics I don’t directly study, and connect with people who nerd out over Islam in China just as hard as I do.