Virtual Roundtable: The “Rebirth” of Japanese Studies
Paula R. Curtis, Yale University
Paula R. Curtis is a historian of medieval Japan. She is presently a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer in History at Yale University with the Council on East Asian Studies. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 2019. Her current book project focuses on the history of metal caster organizations from the 12th to 16th centuries.
She collaborates on several online projects, including Digital Humanities Japan, an online database for digital resources related to East Asia, the blog What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies, and the archive Carving Community: The Landis-Hiroi Collection.
Let me first express my deepest gratitude to everyone who took the time to write for the roundtable, read the responses submitted, and share the content with their colleagues, students, and institutions. In the first three days of the virtual event and the job market dataset going live on this site, it received over 2,300 visitors, with many more returning as additional rounds were published. It is difficult to know where to begin reflecting on the insightful comments so many people contributed, but suffice it to say that I am heartened by the investment, commitment, and raw honesty that each writer shared.
I have already addressed the origins and motivations for this roundtable at length in my recent post for the Association for Asian Studies’ #AsiaNow blog and to some extent on the main page itself, so here I will simply say that after the outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of our event, our discussants and chair felt that it was important for the roundtable to continue in an alternative format.
As I stated in the #AsiaNow post, in the face of a pandemic, and now protests worldwide against racial injustice, it can be difficult for some to imagine that these questions are pressing. And yet, if the very fabric of our institutions and profession at large are enduring an unrivaled transformation, if not now, when? Here, I will not attempt to summarize the 47 submissions that have eloquently articulated where Japanese Studies has been and where this field might go from here. Rather, I’d like to use this space to illustrate the process of organizing and hosting this virtual roundtable through questions that were posed to me during its creation and maintenance, highlight the work that remains to be done, and, in the spirit of Round 3’s call for actionable solutions, offer some practical prompts for self reflection on the part of readers. I also hope to provide a guide for others who may wish to conduct a virtual roundtable as to its challenges and benefits.
Why go digital?
We chose the virtual format for a number of reasons. Going digital provided us with a unique opportunity to manifest forms of more equitable engagement that were the very subject of our roundtable discussions— many people, for financial, personal, institutional, or other reasons, may be unable to attend expensive conferences located in the United States. Some have academic calendars that don’t fit the timing. Some are caregivers or parents who find it difficult to leave home for several days at a time. Some are graduate students, contingent faculty, or independent researchers who don’t have the funds to attend, especially if they are not presenting or eligible for small grants. And, of course, we are in a moment of global pandemic and quarantine, when, in addition to travel restrictions, all of the issues that are already challenging our everyday lives have intensified.
Ultimately, we agreed that if we simply held a video conference over Zoom or another platform, we still risked excluding many scholars in other time zones from attending, people who had to take care of family, and non-native speakers who might have an equally difficult time following along at the rapid pace of multiple presentations and discussions. In contrast, asynchronous participation through written statements allowed individuals to take their time, to read and respond when it was convenient for them, and to thoroughly consider both submissions and responses. To ensure that people did not feel the format was overburdensome, and to ensure that space was allocated equally to all members, limits of approximately 1,000 words and 1 submission per round were established. The decision to use written statements, as opposed to live chat or pre-recorded videos, also allowed for a more enduring format that could reach a greater audience and be cited by the faculty and administrators who are critical mediators in the decisions that affect our field, as well as by early career scholars who are often at the forefront of advocacy for institutional and cultural changes in academia.
What went into making a virtual roundtable?
Tristan Grunow’s recent #AsiaNow post on the importance of recognizing digital labor underscored that digital projects entail a great deal of invisible labor, and I appreciate the gratitude expressed by many roundtable participants and readers along these lines. I received many questions about how I executed the process, so here I’ll provide some insight into the technical, practical, and ethical considerations.
The first question was here to house the virtual roundtable. Did we ask AAS for space? If we did, who would maintain it? How would we update it easily? Who would coordinate? How long, and where, might it go? I worried about overburdening an outside party with our virtual event, especially when AAS staff were already scrambling to manage pandemic-related affairs. There was also a question of sustainability— how long would the site be hosted? What if there was a last minute change needed? The logistics would have been too complicated, so I chose to host the roundtable on my own site, which I build myself. This allowed me to make any immediate corrections and to control aesthetic factors that affect user experience.
I coded the pages myself (different from content source management sites like Wordpress or Squarespace, my portfolio is a static site), created the graphics (including most photographs) for each page, and generated links and footnotes in each submission where applicable. Studies have shown that people become less likely to interact with a webpage if they have to click through multiple links to get there, so any time a roundtable writer referenced another entry for the roundtable, I added a direct link so they could be easily consulted.
The public-facing nature of using a webpage needed special consideration. When the original discussant and chair entries went up, I sent PDF previews “proofs” of each page to authors to ensure they felt their work was being represented accurately and to their liking. For submissions, I worried that early career scholars, especially graduate students, would be hesitant to write in to the roundtable (just as they would have been hesitant to speak up in public at a conference), so I decided to allow anonymous responses. Although I did use email collection through Google Forms to enforce the one-post-per-round rule, names were not required to be used, and I highlighted on the submission page that I considered all emails, known only to me, to be confidential. Google Forms was also helpful as a means of easily collecting submissions in a single excel sheet.
Although some early career faculty chose to post anonymously, to my surprise, it was senior faculty who were the most anxious about submitting work. Whether as a result of uneasiness with the digital format or the public nature of the virtual format, I fielded several requests for clarification or to review work before it was submitted. Early career faculty mostly expressed concerns about feeling they would be too bitter in their responses and asked me if they should write at all. I encouraged both to reflect on what a productive contribution that they would want to see might look like, bitterness and all.
Even during the most ideal times, soliciting engagement from overworked academics is a challenge. For this event, a balance had to be struck between time enough to allow for constructive responses, but not so much time that the event dragged on and people grew disinterested. It also required a lot of hands-on advertisement and flexibility. Early on the roundtable members discussed lengths of time and we settled on 2 rounds over 2 weeks each, though I waited until I got a sense of interest before adding a 3rd round.
I advertised on social media via H-Net, Twitter (example to the right), and Facebook, also sending emails to the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies alumni and asking others to circulate through channels like the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources (NCC). I sent personal invitations to graduate students, recently hired faculty, postdocs, librarians, international researchers, and scholars of color, attempting to diversify the responses we would get. I also advertised in Japanese, hoping to encourage non-native English speakers to take part in our conversations. I reached out to people who mentioned publishing on or who were actively advocating for new directions and inclusivity in the field. It’s tough to figure out where you fall on the spectrum of drumming up interest, sending timely reminders, and being genuinely annoying. With each advertisement, I tried to find new ways to impress upon people the importance of the event and the opportunity to articulate their own experiences, needs, and hopes for the future.
Promoting digital events can be problematic, as we often rely on the intersections of our various communities to carry information about our events and our work beyond the information bubbles we frequent, but even then, they only go so far. I found that even with my abundant publicity, several people only learned of the virtual roundtable days before it closed— despite our best efforts, the digital does not reach everyone. This can be as true for our colleagues as for our students, for whom online work is not always accessible work, a division the pandemic has made starkly clear.
Throughout the process of running the roundtable, I fielded questions via email and Twitter to clarify technical issues, alleviate concerns about public statements, and assure flexibility for authors who needed slight deadline extensions or wanted to add links and footnotes into their work. Having a digital format allowed for this kind of negotiation and control over the terms of engagement, which was ultimately helpful for generating enthusiasm and a sense of ownership over written submissions.
In addition to determining whether or not writers could be anonymous and encouraging a wide variety of scholars to participate, on a technical level, I had to consider how writers would be represented. What was and was not off limits to do when writing? What if we received a harsh critique of a person or institution? How would submissions be displayed: In the order they were submitted? Alphabetically? By country? To address some of these issues, I created a set of rules for engagement to ban discriminatory writing and encourage collegial exchange, which I ran by the original roundtable members for review. After reading the first round of responses, I then decided that it was most productive to roughly group them by theme, though there was no elegant solution when there were so many topics thoughtfully addressed in each submission. To encourage writers to stay engaged with the roundtable and potentially write again, I personally emailed participants from the first round (though, due to other deadlines, was unable to follow through on Rounds 2 or 3) and thanked them for their submissions encouraging them to write again.
It is worth emphasizing that despite the promise of anonymity, many people still felt unable to articulate their thoughts and concerns to the roundtable. One person in particular spoke with me at length about their desire to write some version of their (very harrowing) story as a means to highlight how systemic abuses of power in academia can destroy the confidence and, indeed careers, of young scholars, especially when those in power close ranks and enable abusers. However, they worried that they would be identified and potentially compromise an ongoing investigation. After drafting a piece calling on senior scholars to use their privilege and rank to support graduate students, rather than protect unethical behavior by colleagues and administration, in the end they regretfully withdrew. In the spirit of this panel and the writer’s bravery in disclosing to me, I felt it would be a disservice not to mention this to readers, many of whom have witnessed these kinds of activities at their own institutions. The above is just one example of circumstances that prevent certain scholars from speaking out about their experiences and manifesting important changes to our field and academia at large. I acquired permission from the individual to use the above description, as well as post their followup:
2) When hearing the story of an abuse, people avoid communication with the victim/survivor, and distance themselves from them. In some cases, this is related to the fact that a lot of people want to stay away from "drama," but the result is that the survivor is left in isolation with no support network. Antagonistic actions by scholars in positions of unequal power dynamics should be challenged with organized acts. Because we never know who could be the next victim.
Did the roundtable succeed?
We received an immense outpouring of support, encouragement, and interest. People who might not have otherwise been able to attend or participate in the roundtable in March of 2020 took part in our virtual event. In particular, graduate students, contingent faculty, and early career scholars, whose voices we especially aimed to highlight, wrote powerful reflections on the current state of Japanese Studies, some who were given a rare opportunity to write anonymously, given that fear of negative repercussions for their career would have been obstacle to speaking candidly at AAS. Numerous scholars, from first year graduate students to senior faculty, reached out to express their appreciation for an open discussion of these field-wide issues. In this regard, I am encouraged by the success of the panel and the amount of engagement it inspired.
And yet, the demographics of respondents still reflect the deep-seated biases long present in Japanese Studies and Asian Studies more broadly. For example, of the 41 writers for the roundtable, more than 30 were white, and only 17 (just under half) were women. At the same time as many attempt to be proactive about asking BIPOC1 colleagues to be a part of projects and events, it is also important to recognize that they are the ones most burdened with academic service and requests for participation in public-facing labor. To my knowledge, only 2 people who identify as Japanese or Japanese American (both working in the US) participated in the roundtable. Of the writers, 34 work in areas dominated by white scholarship (US, UK, CA, AU), and 7 in Japan. Only men wrote multiple submissions. We must ask ourselves if our efforts stop at inviting underrepresented people to be a part of these spaces, or if we find ways to actively combat institutional racism and sexism in the academy, reduce the barriers to education and scholarship, and promote inclusive environments.
Furthermore, despite the high number of jobs in Japanese Studies being located at small liberal arts colleges, only 7 submissions were from SLACs. Yet, writers on the roundtable took special note in their comments that many people experience a strong disconnect between training received at large research universities and the skills necessary to secure jobs at many different types of institutions (including those outside of or adjacent to academia).
As the recent petition to AAS in support of black scholars in Asian Studies, the 2019 AAS #MeToo and gender equality session, and repeated calls in academia in recent years have more broadly demonstrated, there is significant work that remains to be done to tackle the systemic issues like racism, sexism, and ableism, which plague our research, pedagogy, and communities at large. There are voices we need to make space for, elevate, and support. There are still alternative ways of seeing and valuing what we do that need advocacy. We have a long way to go, and I readily acknowledge that this roundtable, while generating incredibly productive discussions, is also indicative of the hurdles that we still face.
And so? Where do we go from here?
Discussing the “death” of Japanese Studies was easy. It was cathartic. We’re all overwhelmed. We’ve hit a breaking point. We want to scream to the sky that the old ways are not sustainable, they are not equitable, and in many cases, they’re not even desirable. But one of the main goals of this roundtable was to push us to remember that even if the work ahead is difficult, it can be worth doing. Why quibble over what was, instead of using the lessons we’ve learned and transformations we’ve observed to better understand our current situation and the possibilities the future could bring? These legacies are valuable, they inform us, they teach us what worked, what didn’t, what came before, and most importantly, where we have been lacking, and how to do better.
When we fail to have these difficult conversations or share our experiences and frustrations with one another, we run the risk of insisting on a narrow path forward, driven only by our own limited perspectives, and competing over a sense of injury and neglect. Through their many calls for change and new ways of envisioning academia, the writers of this roundtable have shown that we have the tools and knowledge to transform Japanese Studies. My own view, echoed in a myriad of ways across the statements featured on these pages, is that only through reflecting on our own positionality can we begin to enact change. Only by sharing our experiences, giving voice to the many diverse challenges we face, and leveraging our varied skills and privilege can we move forward towards a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable field.
Just as there is no single answer as to what Japanese Studies is, there is no single answer as to what it can be. So, in the spirit of my own call for practical solutions and ideas, I would like to end this statement with a series of (necessarily incomplete) invitations for reflection on the privileges each of us possesses as members of a global Japanese Studies community and of a broader academic system fraught with inherent inequalities, inequities, and biases. We have the innumerable tools that enable us to enact justice, create equity, and promote diversity, whether it is the knowledge we hold, the access we have, or the human empathy we feel. With them, we must begin actively reconceiving our profession and facilitating its rebirth.
- What do I wish I had been told when I was a student? What did I learn that others appeared to know already?
- What challenges have I faced that I do not wish to replicate or see replicated?
- How do current events in the world, the campus climate, or other institutional systems impact me differently than my colleagues? My students? My mentors?
- What resources are available to me to promote an anti-racist stance in my communities? How can I participate in enacting change?
- What emotional, affective, or community labor am I, my colleagues, or my students undertaking that may affect our work or daily lives? Is it being recognized?
- When was the last time I checked in with my colleagues/students about their personal well-being, not just progress on academic matters?
- What are my priorities as a faculty member? As a mentor?
- What are my priorities as an emerging scholar?
- How can I promote voices from other regions and perspectives in my work and events?
- What access to scholars and networks linked to other regions and perspectives do I have?
- What kind of support do I need to achieve my professional goals?
- What kind of support do I need to offer my students for them to achieve their professional goals?
- Have I articulated my professional goals and/or needs to my mentor? Have I collaborated with my student/mentor to understand what progress in the program/my career might look like?
- Am I open to criticism? How might I be responsive (instead of defensive) to criticism received?
- How does my work style differ from that of someone to whom I’m responsible for working/reviews/grading/feedback?
- What formal and informal academic spaces do I have access to?
- How have I worked to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in my academic spaces and work?
- What committees do I have experience on/do I want to be involved in?
- Have I explained administrative processes I have experience with to those I mentor? What would be helpful for them to know?
- How easy is it for me to intervene in administrative decisions?
- Who are my colleagues? How could their work be beneficial to mine or my student’s?
- What forums for scholarly exchange can I or my student engage with? Would a collaboration be helpful for them?
- How responsive to a new project or idea would my department/institution be if I offered my support to it?
- Have I actively sought out mentors outside my committee? Discipline? Geographic region? What are their strengths?
- Have I ever explained the ins and outs of publishing different forms of research? How has publishing changed in recent years? How have I prepared my student for publication?
- How do personal or family circumstances affect the work or engagement of my student/mentor?
- What kinds of funds do I have access to, and how can they be used to support others?
- Did I have to work as a student? Is my student working? How does it affect their schedule?
- How has the job market changed since I was on it?
- What resources are available to my students for pedagogical training? Job market preparation? Do I know what advice they are receiving?
- What resources are available to me to update my pedagogical/mentor training?
- Have I updated my syllabi with diverse scholarship (including BIPOC authors) and methods that reflect new academic work and voices?
- Am I aware of and versed in non-academic or academic-adjacent work available to recent PhDs? Do I know whom to contact to learn about that?
We would love to learn more about how this virtual event was or was not useful for readers and writers.2