Tea Circle: Goodbyes and Hellos

Matthew J Walton introduces Tea Circle’s move from Oxford to Toronto and reflects on the site’s development.

Almost exactly three years ago, Courtney Wittekind and I created Tea Circle. At the time, we were some of the earliest members of a growing community of Burma Studies at the University of Oxford that had come into being with the establishment of the Programme on Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, in August 2013. We saw a need for an additional outlet for new work on Myanmar, something that would sit between the scholarly space of journal articles and the more descriptive and newsworthy realm of media pieces. We had originally thought that the platform would be particularly useful for Oxford-affiliated scholars to share their research and perspectives, but within a very short time it became clear that Tea Circle held much wider appeal and impact.

From a series of election-related pieces during the heady days surrounding the NLD’s victory in November 2015, our readership grew by leaps and bounds. (In a telling shift, that may reveal more about me than about Tea Circle’s growth, I’ve gone from being pleasantly surprised when someone working in or on Myanmar tells me they read Tea Circle to being suspicious of the credentials of someone in the field who isn’t aware of the site!) We have relied on a gradually-expanding team of volunteer editors whose work has been indispensable. But ultimately the quality of the work we publish at Tea Circle depends on the quality of submissions and it is here that we are proud to have created a space for an increasingly diverse set of contributors, writing about an impressively wide range of topics at consistently high levels. As editors, we have the privilege of learning from all of our contributors and we regularly hear from readers as to how valuable Tea Circle’s contributions have been. This has been especially true as global media attention has focused more acutely on Myanmar, but not always with the depth, nuance or multiplicity of perspectives that we seek to highlight here.

In recent years, we have focused particularly on attracting contributions from scholars and intellectuals within Myanmar, especially those who might be able to offer insight and nuance into long-studied topics, but who might be new to the field of academic writing or feel that more traditional platforms are not open to their views. To this end, we have become more proactive in seeking out collaborations with organizations in Myanmar where our team of editors can provide pre-submission feedback and general encouragement to potential authors. If you are interested in partnering with us in this way, please get in touch.

We know that we have benefited greatly from being situated in Oxford. (Well, that was probably true in the early years, although it’s clear that opinions of Oxford in Myanmar today are decidedly more mixed, as are opinions of Myanmar in Oxford…) Beyond this visibility and prestige, St Antony’s College has been a supportive and generous place in which to develop this blog and Modern Burmese Studies more generally. Sadly, the Programme itself, after a vibrant five years of rapid expansion, will be temporarily going into hibernation, but the leadership of the College has expressed its intention to pursue additional funding options to hopefully bring Burma Studies back to Oxford more permanently. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my colleagues at St Antony’s and at Oxford for their earnest and enthusiastic support of the programme and of Tea Circle in particular.

When it became clear that the programme at St Antony’s might not continue, we began to look for a new home for Tea Circle, recognizing that it had become an essential space for discussion on Myanmar and that it benefitted from having an academic, institutional base. Fortunately, we did not have to look far. Although my post at Oxford has ended, I have taken up a new position in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and my colleagues at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, housed in the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, jumped at the opportunity to welcome Tea Circle and embrace it within their exciting range of research activities. To that end, Siew Han Yeo, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a new member of Tea Circle’s editorial team, will share a post tomorrow that introduces Southeast Asian Studies, and especially the faculty, students and staff who work on Myanmar, at Toronto.

Little will change with this transition in terms of user experience; indeed, the transition has effectively already taken place. You’ll notice that we’ve re-configured our home page menus to focus not only on Burma-related activities at Oxford, but to also include links to other prominent institutions or spaces of Burma Studies globally. (If we’ve missed something, please do let us know.) We won’t be changing the urls or social media accounts (largely for technical reasons), but keeping Oxford in those spaces is a nice way to acknowledge Tea Circle’s roots while also making clear that this has long been a globally-oriented platform that simply originated at the University of Oxford.

At times, it has been a challenge to keep Tea Circle as open a platform as possible. We balance the desire to promote productive and respectful exchanges with the recognition that there are deeply-held opinions about various aspects of Myanmar’s politics and that there might also be incommensurable differences between some of these. We do this while trying to remain sensitive and open to concerns that the line between objectionable perspectives and hateful or dangerous speech might sometimes be difficult to discern. As an example, regular readers will remember a controversial post from Brandon Aung Moe in 2017 and the posts we published in response. We also weigh a commitment to high-quality posts with an interest in providing opportunities for young people to contribute to a political discourse in and on Myanmar by sharing their views and getting feedback. To that end, we are continuing to work proactively with authors on matters related to citations and other professional norms, recognizing that practices within blogging space might be relatively new and still coalescing, but that standards for scholarly writing remain consistent.

In part, these challenges reflect tensions inherent to the Tea Circle team’s values of pluralism and inclusion, and a commitment to the idea that learning and intellectual growth take place in both comfortable spaces and in situations where we confront perspectives with which we might vehemently disagree. But this is also a political statement, in that we seek to model a mode of discourse that we find sorely lacking in most political debates, whether in Myanmar or elsewhere. Bearing in mind the structural limitations of our blog platform and the ways in which it enforces particular norms, we remain dedicated to this project, and always open to receiving critical feedback from readers and contributors.

In recognizing contributions other than those structured like typical blog posts, we also want to encourage creative submissions. In the past, we have occasionally run photo essays or poems and we want to take this opportunity to encourage more ideas along those lines. We’re committed to working with contributors to make a wide range of perspectives and modes of communication visible on the site and in public discourse on Myanmar.

Another, more impactful, structural limitation is the fact that Tea Circle is published in English. This means that the audience for our posts is limited to a relatively elite population in Myanmar, as is the pool of possible contributors. Our reluctance to include more posts in Burmese (or other languages) is largely a resource problem, as Tea Circle’s editors are volunteers and a commitment to publishing regularly in Burmese would require more editors giving more of their time. However, now that Tea Circle has found a long-term home at the University of Toronto, we are exploring grants and other partnerships that might allow us to more regularly accept and publish pieces in languages other than English, or translate some of our most popular posts into Burmese and other languages.

I think I can speak on behalf of the rest of the editorial team when I say that it has been a joy to work on Tea Circle. Being involved with the site keeps us all engaged with Myanmar research and news and abreast of a field that has been growing markedly over the past few years. We are honoured that so many of you have told us that you consider Tea Circle to be an indispensable voice in public commentary on Myanmar and we will strive to maintain our high standards while also welcoming new voices to the conversation. We want to say thank you again to everyone who contributed to the site during our early years at Oxford, and to our new colleagues in Toronto. We want to share our appreciation with our publishing partners, other blogs and media within Myanmar that have reprinted our posts, sharing them with wider audiences. But most of all, thank you to our readers and our contributors, who have made this such an intellectually fulfilling and inspiring undertaking.

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford and was a co-founder of Tea Circle. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.