GAS Interview with Profs. Tamara Sears and Andrew Urban (Co-directors of Global Asias Initiative, Rutgers University)

“Global Asias, ways to build sustainable intellectual community

and locally grounded social spaces

—— Why and how did you initiate this Global Asias at Rutgers in first place?

Tamara Sears: “I have been co-director of what has become the Global Asias Initiative at Rutgers for the last four years, but the movement towards building what is now a formal initiative is something that precedes my time at Rutgers. A group of faculty had been charged by the deans to form a working group to think through the possibility for developing an Asian studies program or to better integrate Asian studies programming and curricula across the university. They generated an extensive report, submitted in 2016, and concluded that Rutgers had a lot of potential for developing Asian studies programs, for developing dialogue among faculty located in different departments and university units. At large research universities, faculty usually are hired within individual departments that have their own curricular needs. As a result, faculty working on Asia end up in different schools and in different units, without ready opportunities to meet and talk with each other. The Global Asias initiative provides an institutional mechanism for bringing diverse interests together. The desire to bring people and programs together is particularly important at a place like Rutgers, which is one of the most diverse universities in the United States. It is the state-university of New Jersey, which is home to many immigrants, including some of the largest populations of Asian immigrants from Asia in the US. So, a lot of our students are in fact Asian, either first or second generation, now increasingly the third generation as well. So, there was also a demonstrated need for curricular development.

When I entered the conversation after arriving at Rutgers, we were thinking about ways to create an institutional presence. Many of the key originators of the earlier working group were going on leave, and so I volunteered to keep the conversation going in their absence. I thought my involvement was going to be temporary. However, I ended up involved for much longer, continuing through the pandemic, for a total of four years. The first year of my involvement, we were just a working group, holding meetings with a small group of faculty, talking, thinking through our intersecting interests, and brainstorming about how we could potentially build broader conversations involving a wider circle of people. We tried to think as creatively as possible as we could and began to reach out to colleagues. This went on for the two years, and it has just been over the last two years that we started generating new programing. In the first year, we were just sitting in the room and talking, and the following year, we started working more actively with other programs and centers at the university, and collaborating with a widening group of faculty. We organized a series of research briefings, inviting our colleagues to talk about their research in thematic panels. These involved different people from different departments and even units across the university to come in and give a very brief, 7-8 minutes’ overview of the work that they are currently doing, so that we could begin again to explore further connections. Finally, we applied for and received a two-year grant through the Rutgers Research Council to develop our idea. The theme of the grant was “Global Asia and its Future”, and we were seeking to think through questions of mobility, interconnectivity, not only in the present day but also engaging deeper historical pasts.

As we built off the strength of the faculty, staff and students who were already here, we also began to develop new initiatives. It became clear that it would be useful to foster greater interaction among graduate students, so we encouraged them to form interdisciplinary working groups. Now we have five graduate student working groups run by Ph.D. students from different departments working together on shared themes, such as Cold War Asias, Decolonization and Heritage, Global Anti-Caste Thought, Nature and Urbanization, and music.

The process of building Global Asias has been a process of developing broader intellectual communities, exploring ways in which our work intersects. We also looked at what was going on with other institutions in order to think through new possibilities for ourselves. So, Global Asias at Rutgers grew through a collaborative process involving faculty, graduate students, and, more recently, undergraduates. Last year, we also were successful in getting a Mellon postdoctoral scholar, who has proven to be an invaluable asset.”

Andrew Urban: “I can talk a little bit more about a broader economic context, in which a lot of this work develops as well. I have been serving as co-director for this past academic year and will step back at the end of our fiscal year. Even though Rutgers has this incredibly diverse undergraduate student body and graduate student body, roughly 25% of the undergraduates at Rutgers are identified as Asian-American. Support of Asian-American studies on an institutional basis has been a long-time sort of struggle for some of us within the university to make a valuable, greater resources, faculty hires, and other means for essentially embracing interdisciplinary Asian-American studies. So, there has been an effort, obviously, to connect East Asian-American studies to Global Asias.

It also, I think, is an intellectually earnest connection and relationship to most of us, like myself, who have been trained in Asian-American studies as a historian. From that on I have been working closely with scholars in American studies interdisciplinarily. When I was learning about Asian immigration to the US, I was encouraged to think about the transnational and global implications to compare Chinese migration to the America with the Chinese migration to Australia and Southeast Asia, as part of this global expansion. I think that is safe to say that our project at Rutgers and research have evolved. The Global Asias has been a great community to keep us earnest on that respect to make sure we are not isolating ourselves, so maybe engaging in a kind of exceptionalism around the uniqueness of the Asian diaspora to the America versus other parts of the world. It has been great to that respect.

I also think the Global Asias has really been opened to thinking about the public and digital humanities as well, which coincided with a lot of other works that are taking place at Rutgers. We have always had an interest in doing works that both public facing but also community engaged, for example, to begin archiving the history of the Gujarati or Indian, South Asian migration, or, to go even more broad to central New Jersey, something that is absolutely deserved to be studied but also has strong implications for students who come from these communities, who go to local high schools, who may not be encountering in Asian-American studies or Global Asias curriculum. In some ways as much as we can, we also get involved in effort to implement in the U.S. K-12 standard, to go to high school for them to learn about Asian history or Asian-American history and others. We try to build relationship in those kinds of settings with the partners in potential stakeholders, using Public Humanities or Public History language.

Then last reflection in some ways that some of these works might occur, major and maybe traditional departments at Rutgers were having actually taken the lead, History, English, and my field in particular. It is often and instant when you have to build this interdisciplinary relationship even across traditional fields of what we might call Area Studies. It, again, comes out of necessity, but at the end of the day really rewarding and actually helpful. I have also learned that I have to reach out to other colleagues and other areas of the university to receive fulfillment and shared intellectual interests that are really there in English and History. That’s my perspective and how I ventured the picture.”

—— Thank you. Let us relate the meaning of Global Asias back to your answer. When you use the term “Global Asias,” does “global” here mean more of the connection and interconnectivity than the comparison, for example between the US and other Asian countries?

Andrew Urban: “I think it can be both. My research right now is actually on a frozen food agrobusiness in Southern New Jersey, by the name of Seabrook Farm, which during the Second World War recruited incarcerated Japanese-Americans but also Japanese-Peruvians in turn. For me, it is interesting to think about the side of labor migration context of Asian diaspora in the America broadly conceived. But a lot of the work that Global Asias does is also thinking about the relationship between China and India, for instance, or between Japan and Korea, thinking about connections across geographic regions within Asia as well as the diaspora of Asians broadly conceived. Also, we certainly welcome scholars at Rutgers who are thinking more a comparative framework as well. I think we are really open in that sense and haven’t drawn any sharp boundaries, intellectually, who can participate in this community.”

Tamara Sears: “If I can add to that as well, we have scholars who work more regionally, broadly, comparatively. Some of my own work is regionally specific, contained within India, but also, the book I am trying to finish has a chapter that looks at opium in the 19th century and connects India to China in very specific ways. All our faculty members do different kinds of work, and so we try to think about Global Asias broadly as not regionally contained but existing anywhere that Asia is in the world (including the diaspora) and anyplace with which there is interaction with Asia, whether it be looking broadly across in terms of comparative studies between different regions. We emphasize interconnectivity, even looking at Asian diasporas in the Caribbean, in the United States, or sometimes within Asia itself. We do want to complicate notions of geographically fixed catagories and engage the complexity of inter- and intra-regional interactions.

I want to make a comment in relationship to the article on Asian Studies Inside-Out Collaboration that we did.* One of the things I particularly appreciated was the nuanced treatment of the dynamic between looking trans-regionally, cross-regionally, comparatively, while also recognizing the importance of doing locally and regionally based studies. One of the problems of comparative studies is that one could potentially wind up with very broadly based conclusions that are not rooted in regional expertise. My Ph.D. was in Arts History in the University of Pennsylvania. I was trained in a more traditional Area Studies and took many courses and closely affiliated with South Asia program, which is the oldest South Asia Program in the United States and historically had been designed around the Cold War model of area studies in the United States. These earlier area studies models were nationally and regionally bounded in ways that we are trying to break apart today. As a historian that looks at a much earlier period, disentangling the geographic boundaries is so important in no small part because the geopolitics today don’t necessarily correspond to geopolitical boundaries that were relevant in earlier periods.”

—— Thank you. Among the activities of Global Asias at Rutgers, we think the graduate working group makes your center very unique in terms of pedagogy. We would like to know more why you decided to establish to have this working group in the first place.

Andrew Urban: “Again, it also gives graduate students an opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary work. A lot of the departments at Rutgers, because they want to emphasize the disciplinary coursework, don’t necessarily allow for too much enrollment in other courses outside the department and the field. So, this graduate working group becomes very crucial space for encouraging conversations that enable graduate students to really open up the parameters of their dissertation research and think about how they might position themselves as Global Asias scholar. This is an opportunity for them to take a step outside of that. This is a pedagogical idea. The more the graduate students are encouraged to organize themselves in these working groups, often culminated in a guest lecture for keynote address, but also a more intimate seminar with other graduate students. I think it is incredibly valuable to encourage graduate students to think about how they can organize in that respect, to come together to make a decision on whose research at that moment speaks across interests and as relevant enough to them. All that is important intellectual work that they will have to do again and again as part of their career. This is a first opportunity to have a small budget but autonomy to come up with key decision about whom they want to hear from, how they conduct that and so forth.”

Tamara Sears: “Part of this also grows out of a need on the part of graduate students. I have been graduate program director for Art History for the last six years, and a number of my Ph.D. students were already beginning to reach out to find other students who were working on South Asian Studies across the university. I know that was a very important part of my graduate training – to be able to have interdisciplinary conversation. Here in the United States, your always straddle regional specialization and disciplinary training. Most departments are Eurocentric or Euro-American centric, or American centric. So, when you begin working elsewhere in the world (e.g., Asia), you wind up always having to have two sets of conversations, depending on the audience for a talk or a grant. You have to pitch your work either in a disciplinary-specific context where you have to talk broadly and be able to emphasize the importance of your work through the disciplinary lens. Or, you have to talk to area studies specialists, where the nuance of the disciplinary contributions is not as exciting or important as the question of how you contribute to broader conversations within area studies.

So, being able to talk to both audiences is a very important part of graduate training, particularly at the Ph.D. level but also at the M.A. level. It felt like creating graduate working groups was a good way to build an interdisciplinary community. When Allan Isaac and I initiated it, we talked to some colleagues in History and other departments, and to graduate students, who were excited by the idea. We don’t give them a huge budget – just 500USD per group. But if they want to invite a speaker, they can talk to us, and we can co-sponsor to cover cost additional expenses. There have been times when they have wanted to screen a documentary or invite a very high-profile speakers, in which case we can help them find co-sponsorship. These groups give them the opportunity to take control of their own learning. Organizing workshops is also really useful in terms of professionalization as well. The working groups add to the intellectual community at Rutgers, and they also do a huge service to the graduate students who are involved for many reasons that Andy already articulated.”

—— When it comes to the Japanese situation, the main components of Area Studies expert are so different from U.S. humanities scholars, and social scientists have their own association, which means the difficulty of the scholars of social sciences working together with humanities scholars. Students are more flexible and understand the importance of interdisciplinary approaches. When it comes to older generation who are more accustomed to a very conventional ideas or disciplines, especially social scientists find it difficult to work with scholars of humanities. We wonder, what is the incentive you are trying to provide so that they will feel happy to join with your attempt?

Tamara Sears: “That is a very good question and is something we are still trying to solve. A lot of our hard social sciences don’t have people who work extensively on Asia, and that is another huge gap here that we are also trying to work on. A lot of us at Global Asias initiative are in the humanities even though we are not exclusively in the humanities. We have been pushing the university to look to expanding social sciences to get more people in political sciences, or economics, or sociology who can better integrate. Again, we learn from each other as well. We have, through our research briefing, invited scholars, colleagues from a medical school, from a law school, to present on the research that we learn a lot from that. But, building those connections, I think, the real barrier here is less intellectual barrier than institutional barrier to find the spaces in order to introduce us interactions. I could see us having particular affinity with colleagues in the law school especially, or in the political sciences. But if we had more people who are actually working on Asia, the problem is, in our case, the law school is geographically remoted as well. So, Zoom was actually very good in bringing people together. I think it is just a matter of continuing to try to create those spaces. It is incumbent on us to create more of those online forums and spaces where we can have conversations.”

Andrew Urban: “We also work with the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences because we pursue the focus on environmental studies as it is related to Asia and Global Asias, thinking about Anthropocene in particular. We have had some really interesting research briefings on climate change and its impact on Vietnam, for instance, which has also corresponded nicely with work by members of our Initiative that come out of humanities. It is hard to sustain because we are siloed literally. Even in New Brunswick, those who work in the social and hard sciences tend to be on different campuses where the humanities are located. We are working up against the system that has tried to separate us in some ways.”

Tamara Sears: “Since the institution has grown in that way, we have had better collaborations with the people in different units at Rutgers. The university is large and is made up of many different divisions and “colleges,” some of which are spread out a vast campus. Global Asias here is based in the humanities – it is a humanities initiative within the School of Arts and Sciences. But our main goal is to build institutional structures that also bring units together. Even within individual units and subunits, such as ours in the humanities, one encounters disciplinary hurdles because methodologies and sources are often different. But the fact that we are geographically proximate on campus (our buildings tend to be very close to one another) has made it much easier for us to come together and recognize what these different disciplinary approaches have to offer. In my mind, what you are talking about is transcending disciplinary differences, thinking about “what is the right way of producing knowledge”. I think one of the advantages of working outward from within the humanities is that we are often less invested in determining ‘what is the right way to produce knowledge’ as we are in thinking through questions of how new knowledge is produced, what are the mechanisms, and what can we learn through different disciplinary approaches. We want to engage our colleagues in the social sciences, the natural sciences, the school of law, the fine arts, and other areas. The key is to create the social structures and the spaces – both physical and institutional – for having conversations.”

——  We are very interested in how you help maintain this connection. What we learned from many centers and interviews is that it is not hard to call in people and it is not hard to hold an event, but it is very hard to maintain the community. So, what do you think is the key to that success?

Tamara Sears: “Just to make it clear, we are not a center, we are an Initiative rather than a center. Creating a center would be ideal for many reasons, but, nonetheless, we have managed to create the center-like presence, where we operate a lot like a center. The graduate working groups have become extremely important for continuing to maintain the community. There are many centers at Rutgers that have working groups, both faculty working groups and graduate student working groups, and the center usually offers small sum of money to working groups so they can bring in speakers and purchase refreshment or food for meeting.

The process is that every year we have a call for new graduate working group proposals, as we want to be reflective the changing intellectual environment within the university. The working groups are meant to be open for anyone else who wants to join. As long as those people are still here and invested in having them, they reapply and can get renewed, and this is not unique to the Global Asias. I think that they are sustainable because people want that intellectual community. The working groups tend to meet around a set of readings and come together in seminar-like settings. They come from a self-generated desire to form an intellectual community in ways that are also useful for feeding their hunger for developing their research. As for how we sustain it, I have to say that we can’t take too much credit. The graduate students themselves have been extremely motivated.

We also have certain types of programs that we have begun to do every year. They give the initiative structure. These include semesterly research briefings, in which graduate students make short presentations on their research. We have also started running book launches and celebrations, with panels, for faculty publications. And introduce new series every year.”

Andrew Urban: “I think it is a great point because it has been established as a tradition. Once the graduate students are admitted to Rutgers, I mention Global Asias and the couple of working groups they should reach out. Even if you are not a member of working groups as a graduate student, you can be a Global Asias affiliate, I think that’s a title. We put brief description of that graduate student’s research on website, and they have a small visible profile as part of Global Asias initiative. I think all of us, as faculty members involved in Global Asias, have now that kind of a custom, and incoming graduate students are also aware of this opportunity.”

Tamara Sears: “Also, Global Asias has been functioning as a great recruitment tool for new faculty. When departments run job searches for any sort of Asia- or Asian-American-related positions, we offer them the opportunity to meet with the Global Asias group. Many new hires have commented on that fact that they find it exciting to be coming to a place where there is already an interdisciplinary intellectual community. This opportunity has been extremely attractive. I know that we can use it as a recruitment tool for also graduate students, for Ph.D. students. It also adds tremendously to faculty-graduate students’ interactions. When they organize event, we come. It is a great way to build interdisciplinarity and better conversations between faculty and graduate students. The last two years we have been trying to integrate a bit more with the undergraduate students as well. I think that was important in terms of fostering conversations, not just between the faculty and undergraduates and also between graduate students and undergraduates who might be thinking about future training, future career path and directions. So, again, we are all very invested in public facing and community-engaged work and scholarship and research. We also are invested in broader public communities. We want to engage multiple stakeholders at Rutgers: the undergraduate, the graduate students, and the faculty.”

—— Thank you so much. How would you evaluate what your institute has done so far, and how do you look at the future of Global Asias Initiative at Rutgers?

Andrew Urban: “I am optimistic that Global Asias isn’t going anywhere and that it has enough institutional stability and support. There will always be a morphosis, but not in a bad way necessarily. A lot of that will depend on who is leading Global Asias at any given moment and what their interests are, what type of collaboration they want to facilitate. Again, there will always be this shared value of interdisciplinarity, thinking about Asia in the kind of broadest geographic and temporal scope. This will be a place where people who feel like they are part of the community can come together, develop programing, and collaborate. This Fall, we are going to try to do something social. That is actually also really important at Rutgers, and many universities returned to some semblance of normalcy after the pandemic. We continue to do things like that, which I am really excited about. I can’t say how important it is to have that in-person socialization as building a shared commitment to this Global Asias Initiative. I am trying to predict any uncertainties because in part it depends on who steps up to take leadership role in the years to come.”

Tamara Sears: “I like to use the words capacious and expansive to think about how Global Asias can grow. Because of how we built it, we can incorporate many people, and I think it will continue to grow in correlation with the faculty that join the community at Rutgers. One of the points I can make is that a lot of people involved in Global Asias are involved in other centers and programs at Rutgers, which also makes it easier in a way to coordinate with other groups and get a better sense of what is going on in campus. The other thing is that a lot of us are taking on major leadership roles in or beyond Rutgers. A lot of us are professionally broad reaching as well. We are trying as much as possible to bring some of them also into Global Asias and to think through not just what we are building in our institution but how we link it up to broader developments that are happening, across these various organizations, which we are involved professionally.”

—— We have one additional question to you. Most of the talk you mentioned is the linkages among the faculty members, and we wonder whether you have any intentions or plans to find global partners to promote the concept of Global Asias with other institutions in or outside or U.S.

Tamara Sears: “We would love to. That has been the part of the conversation that we have been having. I think that is one of the next steps to think about how to do that. For that we have couple of things that we try to figure out institutionally, how to make it happen, because if we are going to build an institutional partner, we don’t simply want an MOA (Memorandum of Agreement). We would want active institutional exchange. For that to happen, we need funding. We also need to have support from Rutgers Global. We did have a conversation there at Rutgers Global in the Fall, and I wanted to follow up on that at some point in the future. The person who will probably be taking over as the next primary director of Global Asias has been collaborating extensively, particularly with Japan. So, I think we are going to see increasing partnerships hopefully there.”

Andrew Urban: “We are at a stage where we are doing. We are especially keen on doing informal Zoom events, with the time difference as you all know it can be tricky. But, beyond that, we can all do that and hear each other’s research. What gets really complicated is that if we establish formal exchanges where maybe students, undergraduate or graduate, can go there and take course and can even exchange on that level, then, we have to go to entirely separated office, Rutgers Global, which manages that. It just becomes a lot of bureaucratic logistics, and I think we are gradually moving there but taking our time for administrative work necessarily.”

Tamara Sears: “With question about stability and maintainence, I think we have been working so hard because we are really young. We are only about four years old, and some of the institutional structures are even newer. We put together by-laws just last summer. We did that with the idea of establishing an institutional apparatus that articulates a clear structure of our leadership and programming. We have been really trying to put into place the kind of institutional presence that will ensure that Global Asias is institutionally stable. I would say it is a grass-root effort from the bottom-up, from the faculty up. We started to get a little bit of compensation at Rutgers just two years ago. This is really one of those cases where, if you built it then they will eventually fund you somehow, and eventually there will be an opportunity. That has been a lot of labor on our part, and we finally have it established it in a way it is sustainable. So, now we are in a good position to begin to reach outwards.

I think, the next year or two years will be a test because I have been the co-director for four years and we have had at least a constancy of institutional memory. Allan Isaac, who was co-director with me for two years, has now become the Associate Dean for the Humanities overseeing the growth of Global Asias across the School of Arts and Sciences. So, that is going to continue contribute to maintain the stable institutional presence for us. But, at the same time, we are going to have the change of leadership, so, I think, this is going to be really our test to see whether what we built can be sustainable. I have great faith in the people who will succeed us.

Eventually, we would love to have develop cross-institutional engagements or partnerships that are not merely surface level but that would contribute more fully to intellectual life for our scholarly communities. We don’t want them to simply be a pro forma superficial relationship, and we want them to actually be generative and productive. In my mind, probably for a number of years down to road, I would love to have cross-Asia engagement. Cross-Asia engagement has been vital to building new institutional relationships. For example, if we look at Pan-Asianism, which developed in the 20th century, we can connect the formation of new narratives to conversations between intellectuals in Japan and India and also follow those ideas into the United States, into the building of American museum collections by individuals who were participating in those conversations in Asia. I feel it would be great to have cross institutional engagements that bread down geographic boundaries and link our university communities with broader conversations ongoing today in Asia.”

—— Yes, it is a very encouraging answer, and we can see the bright future of this Initiative. Thank you so much Profs. Sears and Urban. We think we could hear and learn in a very short time, in a very effective way. We really appreciate your time and your insightful comments.

* The articles on this conversation are as following.
Isaac, A., Mathew, J., Nerlekar, A., Schalow, P., & Sears, T. (2021). Further thoughts on Asian Studies “inside-out”. International Journal of Asian Studies, 18(2), 217-224.
Sato, J., & Sonoda, S. (2021). Asian studies “inside-out”: A research agenda for the development of Global Asian Studies. International Journal of Asian Studies, 18(2), 207-216.