The Career Pathways in the Study of Asia series aims to help demystify potential career pathways for those engaged in the study of Asia, particularly at an early stage. First in the series is Dr Elly Kent who is a Lecturer in Indonesian Studies on Ngunnawal country at UNSW Canberra.
How did you become interested in studying Asia?
I was really fortunate to have studying and being in Asia as a formative part of my childhood and family life. My father began working on an aid project in the Philippines when I was about 5, so I spent 18 months in Pagadian, Zamboanga Del Sur in the early to mid 80s, and then in the late 80s, after a bit of time back in regional Victoria, we moved to Kefamenanu in West Timor for two years.
On that second posting, my family were given an intensive, month-long course in Bahasa Indonesia before we left. I was eight and I was hooked. I loved living in Indonesia and travelling around Southeast Asia and I loved how much deeper and more fulfilling the connections I could make were by speaking the language. It was like having a superpower. We would roam around with the local kids, playing in the river and joining in the parades with the local Pramuka (Indonesian Scouts); it was a very formative time for me. Later in high school we connected with the Indonesian-Australian community in Bendigo, where we had settled in Australia, and I participated (and succeeded!) in all the language competitions and community events. Speaking Indonesian and studying society and culture in Indonesia seemed highly valued.
I gradually became much more conscious of the politics and history of Southeast Asia, as well as the arts and culture. Because West Timor has lots of familial and cultural connections with what was then East Timor, we also became involved in the Free East Timor movement. A lot of our lives in Australia revolved around our connections to Asia. My other obsession was art and making, so when I went to university it was a natural fit to come to Canberra and do a specialist double degree in Asian Studies and Visual Arts at the ANU.
What was your first academic job and how did your career progress from there?
I didn’t go into academia straight after university. Instead, I worked in the museums and galleries sector and really aspired to be a curator of Asian art at a national institution. By the mid-2000s it was becoming clear that those opportunities were shrinking, so knew I was going to have to make some hard choices.
I gave up a permanent public service position at the National Portrait Gallery to pursue my interest in Indonesian art, first through an Asialink research residency at the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive in Yogyakarta, and then through doctoral studies at the ANU. I was in the School of Art and Design, but my research focus was very much centred on Indonesia. It was kind of a strange in-between place to be, as the School had moved away from what had been a strong connection with Asian Art through it’s previous director, David Williams, so I felt a little isolated. But I had support from some great colleagues, and I tutored in the Art History and Theory department, which still had a few academics who were focused on Asian art.
The incredible Caroline Turner, who was the co-founder of the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane was also at ANU and a huge support for me, and I found an amazing mentor and friend in the College of Asia and the Pacific in my former Indonesian teacher, Virginia Hooker. I received an Australia Asia Award and was able to take my family to do field research in Indonesia for two and half years. This was absolutely the highlight of my career so far and, just like for me, a really formative time for our children.
Once I finished my PhD, I was incredibly fortunate to become the inaugural Academic Program Officer (more or less a course convenor) for the Creative Art and Design Professional Practicum in the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), of which I was also an alumnus. It meant spending six blissful weeks in Indonesia every summer, introducing Australian university students to Indonesian art and design in a really hands-on, practical and engaged way. I also joined AFS Intercultural Programs Australia to project manage the DFAT initiative, the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP), which had been running for over 30 years at that point. I was heavily involved in the bilateral space and I loved my work, but I really had no job security.
Fortunately, by the time COVID-19 hit and put both those jobs in the bin, I had already joined the board of the ANU Indonesia Institute. My book had been tentatively accepted for publication so I had put the word out that I was looking for positions that would allow me to work on that. I was fortunate that the editorship of New Mandala fell vacant, and at the same time (because the same person had both positions) the ASAA digital officer/Asian Currents editor role. These positions, while still precarious and limited, gave me the time I needed to rewrite my thesis into a book, and also introduced me to an incredibly valuable network of peers and colleagues who gave me advice, helped me hone my academic skills, mentored me through the book and all sorts of other aspects of academic life.
I kept applying for academic positions, such as post-doctoral and lecturer positions, but I had very little luck in that. I was also hampered somewhat by this sense that you have to go somewhere else to progress your academic career, and with my kids now in high school, that was just not a good option. I taught Indonesian language and Asian art history as a sessional lecturer at the ANU, and just kept plugging on. Eventually, after three years as the odd-academic-job lady at ANU, I was offered a position as lecturer in Indonesian Studies at UNSW Canberra.
What is the focus of your academic teaching and research now?
I’m now teaching a huge cohort of first year Indonesian language students – 56! – as well as a smaller but lovely second year cohort, and working on a translation of my book. I have some new research directions in Southeast Asian visual art and media which I’ll be moving towards in the next few months. I am feeling intensely privileged to be able to do what I do best and love most, and get paid for it! It’s not a tenured position, but it’s another step on the path, I hope.
What piece of advice would you give to your students keen to build a career as an academic in Asian Studies?
It’s hard to give good advice on pursuing a career in Asian Studies, as we all know that as a field it’s under intense pressure and there’s no guarantee that things will improve. But this is what I’ve always been passionate about and driven to do, so I think if you have a real commitment to it, you have to keep going! Being resilient is important, as is being willing to take some risks and get out of your comfort zone. But most importantly, make connections with your peers and colleagues, join associations, volunteer if you can, promote yourself and your field, go to conferences, and get out there. I think it was a real turning point for me when I found other people who believe in my research and teaching, and share the passion, even when it can feel like the rest of the world places little value in it. You have to keep fanning your own flame and everyone else’s!