Twelve years ago, Helen Siu founded a tiny intercultural studies program in Hong Kong. At Yale, she will now head a half-million-dollar program to connect Asian scholars across the world.
Last week, the Carnegie Corporation of New York accepted Siu’s $500,000 grant to Yale to support the “InterAsia Initiative,” an effort between Yale and six other universities and think tanks from New York to Lebanon to encourage collaboration between scholars of different Asian cultures. The grant, which is planned to last two years, will pay for two InterAsian studies post-doctoral fellows at Yale, a number of Yale professors and graduate students to attend an Interasian conference in Instanbul this fall, an Interasian studies conference on campus in 2015 and an online database for the sharing of Asian studies scholarship.
Siu, who is an anthropology professor and helped bring the funding to Yale with fellow anthropology professor Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan GRD ’96, said she hopes the grant will break down traditional divisions in Asian studies scholarship and inspire a new generation of scholars to see the multiple interconnections between different Eastern cultures.
“Many of us have been exposed to a century of humanities and social science that is land-based, nation-state focused and emphasizes rather static populations and economies,” Siu said. “We want to break down those categories.”
The “breakthrough” for the initiative came in 2008, Siu said, when the Social Science Research Council in New York approached her and former University of Chicago professor Prasenejit Duara at an Interasia conference in Dubai about working on a collaborative intercultural studies conference. But Yale was not formally a partner of the project until 2011, when the SSRC approached Siu again asking her if Yale would be willing to be the American partner for a SSRC Carnegie Foundation grant proposal that would bring an institution from the United States into the Interasian initiative. Siu said she checked with Yale’s three councils on Asian studies — the Council on South Asia Studies, Council on Southeast Asia Studies and Council on East Asia Studies — and ultimately she and Sivaramakrishnan became the principal investigators with SSRC for the grant.
Siu said part of the grant money has already been used to recruit two post-doctoral fellows who will teach courses with Interasian content to undergraduates next year — Rajashree Mazumder, currently a history doctoral candidate at UCLA, will teach a course on the history of trade across the Indian Ocean, and Chika Watanabe, an anthropology doctoral candidate at Cornell, will teach a course on humanitarian aid between Asian countries. Siu said she hoped the courses, in addition to the Yale-hosted workshop, will get undergraduates interested in Interasian studies.
The Carnegie grant will fund Yale graduate students and faculty to travel to Koç University in Istanbul, which will host seven workshops on topics from Asian Postneoliberalism to “Oceans, Borders, and Culinary Flows” as part of the Interasian conference this fall. Siu said the grant will fund a conference similarly focused on Interasian studies that will be held on Yale’s campus in 2015.
Nancy Ruther, associate director of Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, said such conferences are worthwhile because they let scholars debate cultural studies issues in person. But because these face-to-face meetings are expensive, she said, scholars need an existingnetwork to allow relationships to develop.
“Academics work in networks,” Ruther said. “The more networks you have, the more pieces in the spider web, the more filaments connecting the parts, the stronger the network.”
The rest of the Carnegie grant will go toward an online database that will host resources for Asian studies research and teaching, including Interasian-focused research papers, background materials, bibliographies and curricula. Siu said the database will broaden the scope of Asian studies scholarship.
Anthropology professor Erik Harms, who will be leading a panel at the Istanbul conference on master-planned communities throughout Asia, said the database will encourage new ways of teaching how to reconcile a global perspective with the typically granular discipline of area studies.
“It’s going to take experimentation and sharing of knowledge and best practices [to teach Interasian studies],” Harms said. “You can’t just have an old-fashioned lecture sometimes if you want these people to see these new ways of seeing the world.”
The Carnegie Corporation of New York was founded in 1911.