Reflections on the SOAS-Oxford Graduate Student Conference (Part I)

Shae Frydenlund describes last month’s graduate student workshop.

The following is the first of two posts reflecting on the recent Oxford-SOAS Graduate Student Workshop, organized around the theme of “New Directions in Research on Myanmar.” The second part can be found here

The Burma/Myanmar Studies Graduate Student Workshop brought together 37 graduate students at SOAS and at St Antony’s College at Oxford University from 27 to 29 May, 2017. The workshop was characterized by a spirit of collegiality, which created a uniquely supportive space for reflection, debate, and collaboration among a diverse group of emerging scholars in Burma Studies. Prior to the conference start in Oxford, Dr. Mandy Sadan hosted the graduate student participants at SOAS for a tour of the British Library, which highlighted archival resources such as 19th century Buddhist texts and colonial records (as well as innumerable busts of British library founders). Students then attended lectures by Dr. Mandy Sadan, Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur, and Dr Elisa Oreeglia on research methods and ethics. As the Myanmar state becomes more accessible to scholarly research, new practical and ethical concerns arise surrounding data collection, dissemination, and storage. Lectures by Dr. Elisa Oreeglia and Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinapur highlighted the challenges surrounding the use and reuse of research data, and discussed methods for recording data and making findings accessible to communities while addressing concerns over confidentiality and the safety of research participants.

Following the day’s events at the British Library and SOAS, students arrived in Oxford the evening of the 26th for a group dinner at Thaikhun restaurant, where savory curries, salads, and cold Singhas were enjoyed by all. Beginning Saturday morning, Dr. Mandy Sadan and Dr. Patrick Meehan of SOAS and Dr. Matthew Walton and Dr. Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi of St Antony’s supervised twelve panel discussions over the course of the weekend, each of which included paper presentations from two students. Student papers ranged from initial doctoral dissertation project proposals to doctoral dissertation chapters and papers written for publication in scholarly journals. Graduate students came together from the fields of Anthropology, Geography, Sociology, Linguistics, History, Political Science, Law, International Relations, and South East Asian Studies. This diversity of disciplinary backgrounds provided a rich array of views that presented students with fresh perspectives on their work, many of which may not have been accessible in their home departments and institutions. Major themes that emerged from the workshop included critical examinations of the British colonial period, shifting terrains of Burmese Buddhism, conflict, resistance, and political authority, gender and conflict, capitalism and political economies of forced displacement and resettlement, and nationalism and state formation. The workshop was unique in that there was no central theme, which created the opportunity for each session to discuss the particularities of specific research projects without pressure to relate to an overarching intellectual thread.

Each student presenter had read the other’s paper in advance, and provided detailed feedback alongside the faculty supervisor. Panels lasted 90 minutes, and this extended period of time contributed to students’ satisfaction with the quality and depth of conversations and feedback. During the final meeting at conference close, students agreed that receiving 45 minutes to discuss their work, when the average conference allots no more than 20 minutes, made the Oxford-SOAS Graduate Student Workshop the most productive and inspiring meeting they have attended. I wholeheartedly agree with this view. The extended period of time allowed panel participants to work through more nuanced aspects of the paper’s methodology and conceptual framework, and, crucially, feedback was provided by at least two participants who had read the paper itself. During the average conference presentation, discussions are limited by the fact that panel participants and audience members have not actually read the presenter’s paper. While students may not have read each author’s paper in its entirety, digital access to all papers enabled participants to follow along throughout the presentation and discussion period, thus enhancing the overall quality of discussion and feedback for the author. The limited number of workshop panels (no more than two at a time) also increased participation in each session and created an easygoing atmosphere that differed from the typical conference experience of choosing between multiple panels and rushing between them.

I agree with a comment made by Matt Schissler, that the workshop’s “sidebar conversations” were the most stimulating of any he had experienced. The ample time allotted for discussion during coffee breaks and informal sandwich lunches opened space for extending and deepening conversations with peers and faculty. I had the opportunity to get to know my peers in an intimate setting where I felt truly inspired by their knowledge, experience, and insight. To this end, a highlight of the weekend was the long walk to Saffron Indian restaurant as well as the extended dinner itself. In what can only be described as a scene of Dionysian delight, wine and conversation flowed at the long tables where we assembled to celebrate the end of the first day.

Following Sunday’s final panel discussions, Master’s students presented posters on their theses, which ranged from critical examinations of Burmese photography and the analysis of ethnic minority languages to the relationship between conflict, capitalism, and agrarian change in Kachin. Faculty supervisors and graduate students mingled with Master’s students in the St. Antony College buttery, engaging in conversations and offering feedback on students’ work. The poster session created a useful space for discussions of Master’s student work, though it may be more productive in future meetings to offer both PhD students and Master’s students the opportunity to present posters, as many PhD students were at the beginning of their research and may have preferred a more informal presentation, while there were also Master’s students who may have benefited from extended engagement with their finished written theses. In discussing future meetings for the Oxford/SOAS Burma Studies Graduate Workshop, students agreed that the workshop’s success was attributed to its small group size, which also poses a challenge as the field continues to expand. The informal setting and extended time for discussion created an environment of unparalleled intellectual growth, and the collegial atmosphere opened possibilities for new friendships and scholarly collaborations that will benefit the field of Burma Studies for years to come. Sincerest thanks to Dr. Mandy Sadan, Dr. Matt Walton, Dr. Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi, Dr. Patrick Meehan and Mrs. Edit Greenhill for making this workshop a success. I look forward to our next meeting!

Shae Frydenlund is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research applies concepts from feminist economic geography to examine the intersection of race, gender, ethnicity and labor in the context of refugee resettlement. She has previously written on labor, race and ethnicity in Nepal’s Everest industry, and is the author of  “Labor Racialization and Territory in Nepal’s Indigenous Nationalities Discourse,” in the journal Himalaya.