Kathryn Robinson on Connecting and Learning across Disciplines

Kathryn Robinson on Connecting and Learning across Disciplines

Kathryn Robinson is Emeritus Professor in the School of Culture, History & Language at the Australian National University. She was President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in 2009-10. In this post, she reflects on how the ASAA facilitates connecting with other women academics and learning across disciplines. Read more in this series celebrating women’s contributions to the ASAA here.  

What roles did you have on the ASAA Council? Why did you get involved?

I was Vice-President of the ASAA in 2007-8 and President in 2009-10. I first became involved in the Women’s Caucus (later called the Women’s Forum) at the second Women in Asia Conference at Monash University in 1983. The Women’s Caucus was then just a few years old, so it was very buzzy and exciting.

I was always a very active member of the Women’s Caucus, for example in scheduling conference programs and chairing meetings. After the Women’s Caucus was formed female membership of the ASAA expanded hugely, as did attention to feminist topics and gender issues. A key part of this was the Women in Asia conferences.

The Women’s Caucus meetings were very informal. It was a chance for people to swap information such as news from their institutions and upcoming job opportunities. The Caucus played an important role in encouraging women to nominate for the Council and in facilitating members who could first and second their nomination. When I became Vice-President and then President, it was for this reason: I was urged and nominated by other people from the Women’s Forum.

During your time serving ASAA, what were some of the initiatives you were involved with to support women academics?

Getting other women onto the Council was an important for me – it was important for the organisation but also good for people in their careers. Members of the Council would gain confidence in a leadership role and gain new knowledge about how an organisation like the ASAA works.

Through the Women’s Caucus I was involved in getting behind the Women in Asia publishing series, which has been a fantastic series and very successful. Louise Edwards is an amazingly supportive editor and a lot of people who have published in the series, including myself, give her a lot of credit for the final form of their books.

I also convened the Women in Asia Conference in 2001. The conference was held in September – it was a very emotional time after the attack on the Twin Towers. A lot of our speakers had trouble getting visas granted, or even had huge problems getting through security at the airport. I remember getting emails from people all over the world, for example women in Nepal, who said that although they couldn’t come to the conference, they were just glad to know we were out there.

Image: Brochure for the 6th Women in Asia Conference 2001 held at the ANU and convened by Kathryn Robinson.

Something I’m really proud of about that conference is that we had a lot of women coming from different parts of Asia. I was good at getting funding, and used this to fund women from Asia to attend the conference. I used a lot of people coming from overseas as chairs of sessions and for the plenaries. One woman from India commented to me that she was used to attending international conferences and sitting in the audience. But at this conference she and others from overseas were up on the platforms, and they were being noticed. I thought: that’s a fantastic thing.

We also instituted the Women in Asia Lecture at the ASAA conferences which were meant to be a chance for crossover between academics and activists. We wanted the lectures to be driven by a kind of feminist politics, so we would always get someone to speak to us about important issues in women’s activism. That was something I was really proud of.

You have supported the careers of women academics in Asian Studies in many ways. How do you feel the ASAA has supported you in your career?

I think networking has always been important for me for a huge number of reasons. It’s great to be able to go to a conference where you can find topics you’re interested in and form an academic friendship group with people who you can swap ideas with and be stimulated by. I think that’s the point of these kinds of networking activities. For example, I can’t even remember the amount of books I’ve launched that have been produced by people from the Women’s Caucus. They asked me because they knew me from the Caucus/Forum itself.

What else do you think the ASAA could be doing to support women academics these days?

I haven’t been to a conference in a few years – I guess I’m a little out of touch with what the ASAA is doing. But having workshops and activities either at the conference or between conferences around mentoring, writing grant applications or publishing work can be a great form of support.

There’s also scope to ensure the Asian Studies Review remains attentive to gender equity both in terms of authors and the content of the journal. The gender and sexuality thematic editor is important in this respect. The great thing about the Asian Studies Review is that it allows you to read broadly and across disciplines. When working in an academic environment, it’s important to have knowledge beyond your disciplinary expertise. I always make an effort to keep up with Indonesian history, politics, language and culture. I will also read publications outside of Indonesia with great interest, especially when it comes from something that is not my own discipline.

Why would you encourage other women to join the ASAA and become involved in the Council?

Like I said, I think the ASAA is really important for women academics when networking. As academics, we have to keep reinventing ourselves and going where the jobs are. This means that people might find themselves in new academic contexts or where they don’t know a lot of other people. Networks such as through the ASAA are important for making new contacts, using people as referees, or finding out about new jobs. The key message is that if you don’t put yourself out there, nobody will know you’re there.

I also think that going to ASAA conferences and listening to things that are outside your normal area can be incredibly stimulating. The book series, the journal, the newsletters and Asian Currents are all important ways of connecting and learning across disciplines. These are all really good reasons to be involved with the ASAA. So if you are a woman scholar involved with the ASAA – you ought to put your hand up and nominate for Council!

This post was compiled by Natasha Naidu based on her interview with Kathryn Robinson. 

Feature image: Kathryn Robinson with participants of the 2022 Indonesia Update on the theme of gender relations in Indonesia in a carpark at the ANU, distributing books from the library of late feminist scholar Suzanne Bellamy (supplied).

Kathryn Robinson is Emeritus Professor in the School of Culture, History & Language at the Australian National University. She was President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in 2009-10.

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