No Time to Lose in Advancing Cross-Disciplinary Asian Studies

May 9, 2024 By Helena Kolenda
No Time to Lose in Advancing Cross-Disciplinary Asian Studies
Helena Kolenda (center), at the LuceSEA 2023 grantee convening.

At the end of 2023, I retired from the Henry Luce Foundation, where I was proud to have worked for 25 years as a member of its Asia Program, first as a program officer and later as program director. At this moment of transition, I offer a few reflections on some of what was accomplished during my tenure and my hopes for the future.     

The Foundation's Asia grantmaking mission has always been clear: to enhance understanding of the region and foster exchange and knowledge sharing between Americans and their Asian colleagues. In recent years, the Program has also worked to increase awareness of Asian American experiences and the nexus between international and domestic concerns. The Program's primary geographic scope has historically been East and Southeast Asia.   

Our grants have supported three main areas:

  • Asia-focused teaching and research in higher education 
  • Study and dialogue with policy relevance 
  • Public education/engagement 

These three areas overlap, reinforce, and inform each other. For example, grants have encouraged conversation between academic and policy communities and scholarly engagement in public-facing work.   

Between 1998, when I joined the Foundation, and 2023, the Asia Program supported 874 projects totaling over $187 million. This represents dollars and other numbers—of people engaged and informed, ideas brought to life, infrastructures built or reinforced, careers inspired, gatherings organized, publications, exhibitions, cultural events, works of art created, and much more. 

Supported projects have crossed oceans and terrains, strengthened fields and communities of practice, created new cohorts and networks, and nurtured new generations. They have advanced scholarship, policy, and public education, and helped forge new personal and professional ties, regardless of the field of study or arena of interaction. That is where the magic happens. 

Our grantmaking has encompassed "Responsive Grants," requests that come to us without solicitation, and "Special Initiatives," RFPs with external review panels that provide concentrated funding over multiple years to address a particular need or opportunity identified by fields of interest to us. Special Initiatives researched and designed during my tenure would have been difficult to envision without the constant deep conversation made possible by the Responsive Grants process, a two-way and sometimes multi-directional call and response. 

The Foundation prides itself on long-term investment while striving to remain open to new communities and others outside our current field of vision. Because the Foundation’s guidelines are broad, even if a strategy or topic looks familiar, the ideas coming to us and the people moving through the stream of our grantmaking are new. That is what gives our work cumulative impact while keeping it fresh. 

Over time, "border crossing" has become a central goal of our grantmaking. To examine the complex intellectual and practical issues relevant to Asia, we have found it essential to use a multi-disciplinary lens and prioritize collaborative, transnational, and cross-sectoral efforts. Doing so brings different perspectives and encourages innovative ways of researching, teaching, and engaging Asia. It underscores that Asia is not a monolith, but rather a diverse continent with flows, crosscurrents, interactions, influences, and interdependencies rather than fixed geographies and bounded positions. Emerging themes, including Global Asia(s) and work that intersects Asian studies, Asian American studies, and Asian diaspora studies, contribute to re-envisioning area studies as scholars seek to move beyond colonial and Cold War legacies.  

Innovation, scholarly infrastructure, and collaboration have been essential guideposts. We should continue to seek ways to catalyze compelling intellectual and institutional responses to changes brought about by globalization, climate change, the digital revolution, demographic and generational shifts, public health crises, discrimination, racism, inequality, challenges to democratic institutions, and other "wicked" problems. Effective work in, on, and with Asia requires deep, contextualized knowledge of the region and thus requires continued attention to core scholarly infrastructure. We must encourage collaborations of all types, across disciplines, departments, divisions, academic institutions, and non-academic constituencies to tackle today's challenges and opportunities, particularly when institutions face financial constraints.  

Our grantmaking continues to center on the humanities and social sciences. Still, in the spirit of crossing borders, we have encouraged projects with a broader ambit, such as those that bring the humanities and social sciences into conversation with STEM fields. Many of the Special Initiatives--Archaeology Initiative, Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE), and Luce Initiative on Southeast Asia (LuceSEA)--incorporated this approach.   

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we consulted with grantees and others and discovered a gap in scholarship and training in archaeology and early history. Rapid development in Asia had unearthed new archaeological finds, creating a need for further study. To address this gap, we funded ten new faculty positions and seven collaborative research projects between 2005 and 2010 through our Archaeology Initiative's institutional grants. Additionally, we provided support to the American Council of Learned Societies, which funded 135 fellowships for Asians and North Americans working in archaeology and cultural heritage preservation. Our support helped bring together social sciences, humanities, and STEM disciplines to understand better how humans and non-humans adapted to shifting environments and climate change in the past, learning applicable to devising sustainable futures. The projects also engaged communities in the exploration and documentation of their pasts, providing fresh perspectives on heritage, history, and identity.

LIASE (2011-2017) aimed to expand Asia-related content in the undergraduate curriculum and foster collaboration between Asia specialists and non-specialists, to enrich the study of the region, broaden literacy about Asia among constituencies on college campuses, and encourage collaborative work on pressing issues of the 21st century. Thirty-eight grants to liberal arts colleges provided opportunities for students and faculty to connect with their Asian peers and colleagues and raise awareness about environmental challenges and solutions. LIASE inspired new research and encouraged thinking outside of the disciplinary, institutional, and cultural silos that often constrain imagination.

LuceSEA (2018-2023) furthered some of the LIASE approaches, seeking to strengthen the study of Southeast Asia (SEA) in higher learning institutions through the provision of resources for developing new strategies and partnerships to bolster existing program structures and contribute to field-building. SEA comprises 11 countries and is known for its economic, political, cultural, and environmental diversity, yet it is poorly understood in the U.S. In the wake of the Indochina Wars of the last century, American scholarly and policy attention to SEA declined. However, the recent rise of authoritarian governments and the assertion of Chinese military and economic power have reminded Western nations of the region's strategic importance. Geopolitics aside, SEA has much to offer, including with respect to biodiversity, Indigenous knowledge and practice, climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, urbanization, displacement, and migration.    

LuceSEA's 20 grants support work in new and emerging areas of inquiry; enhance scholarly infrastructure for teaching and research relevant to SEA; foster collaboration by linking academic centers to each other and with partners outside academia; and expand engagement between North American and Southeast Asian scholars and institutions. The projects emphasize place-based knowledge, employ community-engaged approaches, and explore universities' societal roles.   Many address the growing impact of climate change. Through their cross-disciplinary, multi-sectoral, transnational efforts, LuceSEA grantees are also helping shape the academy's future.    

I urge philanthropic and educational leaders to double down on efforts to encourage cross-disciplinary work and new structures to facilitate it. Young Asia scholars are willing and able to embrace this challenge but need to be given the space and the trust to do so. Barriers between disciplines, departments, divisions, institutions, and countries must be broken down. Administrators must rethink how students are trained and socialized, what counts as scholarship, and how reward structures for tenure and promotion are designed. They must recognize and support visionary leaders who understand the urgent need to put the pieces together in new ways.

It will take all of us working with attention and intention and imagining together to create novel assemblages.  We need new theories, common languages, and tools that cross disciplines, and new institutional structures to foster their creation. We need conversations between keepers of Indigenous knowledge and Western scientists. The humanities and social sciences must have a central role because technical fixes, although critical, can only be crafted with an understanding of histories, cultures, places, and context. I hope to see coalitions of philanthropists incentivizing this change, within Asian studies and beyond.   

There is no time to lose!


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