What I’ve learnt from Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School 2014

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the 2014 Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School in Hsinchu, Taiwan. The Summer School, held for two weeks, 1-15 July 2014, was hosted by National Chiao Tung University. During the program, the participants stayed in a dorm at National Tsing Hua University. These two institutions are adjacent to one another, and there’s actually a path connecting them.

Having had such a great opportunity has really opened up my horizon. Not only that I met scholars and students whose interest is in Cultural Studies. The Summer School has really shown me how interconnected Literature and Cultural Studies are.

Here’s the final report that I submitted as part of the fulfillment of the program. Hope you find it worth reading.

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Let me begin my impression note by telling you about my academic and professional background. Prior to my PhD study in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, I have earned two Masters, one in American Studies from Gadjah Mada University-Yogyakarta, and another in Literature from Texas State University. Back in Indonesia, I am a tenured lecturer at the English Department at the State University of Surabaya (a.k.a. Unesa), and am now on a study leave to pursue my PhD. I hope to finish my study next year, and will resume my teaching position at Unesa. Thus, with this academic and professional background, I signed up for the 2014 IACSS Summer School not only to get benefits for my study, but more importantly for my teaching profession. We are planning to develop our English literature curriculum with a Cultural Studies perspective.

I knew that my expectations would be fulfilled and even exceeded ever since the first day. During the self-introduction session, I was amazed at the various backgrounds and research interests that the participants have. Here we have people who travel overseas to study about other cultures, and we learn that other people are studying or know more about your own culture. Truly, my first impression was that going inter-Asia is going global. We are here because being Asian is no longer a singular idea. Being Asian is being interconnected and working together to create a better understanding. That’s what Inter-Asia is all about.

Being more familiar with Western thinkers as a result of my previous academic trainings, I found that all readings were really new and challenging. Yet, these kinds of texts are what I actually need to help me develop my thesis’s conceptual framework on Alternative Modernities. That is why I like the group discussion sessions; because they helped me and the other members of my group interrogate the texts and attempt to translate them in different sociocultural and political contexts (which was not always easy). We tried to manage our group discussions in such a way that those who have more knowledge on a particular issue would take the lead. That way we were able to have everybody give a fair contribution to the group.

In relation to the readings, I especially liked the way literary texts were treated. With a background in literature, I am actually already familiar with the various extrinsic approaches to literature (psychological, sociological, etc). However, taking the authors as thinkers and using their works as entry points, I gained more understanding of how to approach literature with critical engagement. Just to give an example, reading Tagore’s Nationalism made a lot of sense when it was related to the movie Ghare Baire, which was based on his novel, The Home and the World. The idea of nationalism was made even more problematic when the two texts were met with Ghandi’s Hind Swaraj. Also, reading Ashis Nandy’s Final Encounter, I learned a new, interesting way of understanding the complication of Indian history. I really wish I could find similar texts to comprehend my national history.

Tagore’s and Gandhi’s texts speak a lot about the kind of nationalism that Indonesia shares. In fact, the concepts of Swadeshi, Satya Graha, and Vende Mataram also exist in Indonesian context. Yet, knowing the original concepts now, I can better understand the dialectics of Indonesian and Indian sociopolitical histories.  To a large extent, they have also been appropriated. For instance, Indonesian society commemorates Swadhesi every year in the form of Swadeshi week, following celebration of the Indonesian Awakening Day on 20 May. People are encouraged to use Indonesian products and wear batik, Indonesian traditional cloth, as the symbol of Indonesian product. However, it is currently being questioned as batik may actually be printed in China. Thus, the slogan ‘I love Indonesian products’ no longer rings true here.

Prior to the Summer School, I had very little knowledge of Taiwanese history in relation to China and Japan. The text like Loyalty and Filiality Park is a nice entry point as it shows the complications of the relationships. The same thing is true with Mao’s The Protracted War.  Communism is a very sensitive issue in Indonesia, and there is no way that we would discuss Mao’s writings in an academic context. This is understood as Indonesian educational system attempts to protect people from the influence of communist ideology. Now I see that reading Mao’s writing actually helped me understand the trajectory of Indonesian history in a more realistic way.

I grappled with some texts, especially Takeuchi’s Asia as Method and Mizoguchi’s China as Method. While the texts themselves are not difficult to comprehend, I found them rather impractical. However, knowing about Japanese thinkers has given me a new perspective in Asian thoughts. After all, there is always something new that we could learn from the readings.

I especially liked the field work, for which I previously signed up to visit TIWA. My thesis project is on the literacy activism of Indonesian domestic workers (IDWs) in Hong Kong. I certainly expected to be able to find any comparable activism here in Taiwan, and I did. Though I did not have the opportunity to meet Indonesian migrant workers, but the information given by Wu Jingru, TIWA activist, and testimonies given by Filipina workers, really resonated my findings. While the working conditions may differ to a certain extent, migrant workers in Taiwan are also engaged in cultural activism as a means to fight for justice, while at the same time, to empower themselves. My group wrote this observation in our group report, which we finished before we learned that we were no longer required to submit it.

I registered for the Summer School also with an expectation to be able to gain some insights on labour issues. The workshop provided this opportunity. While the group discussion did not run as expected (probably because of the new grouping), I found that the texts opened up various possibilities to approach labour issues from different perspectives. I particularly liked Prof. Tejaswini Niranjana’s proposal on Inter-Asia as Methodology. Looking closely at labour issues in Asian contexts by using Asian thinkers writing, I’m hopeful that I can develop my thesis conceptual framework on Alternative modernities later.

I was also grateful to have been given the opportunity to share my research findings at the workshop-Day 2. Aside from gaining useful feedbacks, I was glad to learn that my research has motivated some friends to think of possible research projects with migrant workers.

Surely, the session I loved most was Prof. Ashis Nandy’s lecture. His first-class talk on memory work really took me deeper to my psyche, and was best contextualized in the 1965 massacre in Indonesian history. That was why I found Hilmar Farid’s topic very relevant. He did a research on narrative accounts of the victims of the 1965 tragedy, with an idea to provide an alternative account of history to younger generation. I may state that memory work is important in coming to terms with one’s individual and collective history.

Last but not least, the two-week Summer School is the best opportunity for me to meet new people. It is not a mere friendship, but more about finding possibilities for networking in the future. Now that we, the participants, know what each of us is doing, we hope to stay connected and be open for academic and professional networking in the future.

Overall, I am really satisfied with the way the Summer School has been organized. My only disappointment is to learn that South-East Asian thoughts are not yet represented. I am sure that the faculty members are well aware of a number of great thinkers from this part of Asia. I just assumed that it may have been because no scholars from South-east Asian countries were on the list of instructors that the Summer School had not yet included texts from those countries. I hope the next Summer School will take this into consideration.

Just to do a self-reflexive evaluation, I signed up for the Summer School with a number of expectations. I expected to be able to develop my understanding of Asian modernities from various perspectives. One way to do this is to actively engage in any sessions and group discussions.  In practically any group discussions, I would raise questions and share my ideas. I also did my best to actively participate in the lectures by asking questions, especially when the topics are of my interests and concerns.

When an opportunity to share my research project was offered during the workshop, I took the opportunity to present my findings at the workshop. I was glad that I could get feedback for my research.

I attended the Summer School without an idea of getting grades. Yet, I did set my performance standards. Given that I fulfilled most of my expectations and reached my performance standards, I would not hesitate to give myself an A. To me, this grade should not be given in comparison with others, but more in relation to the standards we have set for ourselves.

As far as group work is concerned, I must say that every single person in the group has given his/her fair contribution. I was lucky that no members in group C attempted to dominate the discussions. Whenever we observed that one or two members have more knowledge or understanding of an issue, we would gladly let him/her take the lead. As in the case of field work, everybody in the group knew that domestic workers were my research interest. Thus, they asked me to facilitate the discussion and coordinate the report and presentation. The same is true when we discussed other issues, when other members would be in charge. Having said that, I cannot mention a name whom I thought contributed most in the group.

 

Pratiwi Retnaningdyah

PhD student

Cultural Studies

The University of Melbourne

Email: pratiwir@student.unimelb.edu.au

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