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member spotlight: emily rook-koepsel

emily rook-koepsel is a historian of modern india and assistant director of academic affairs at the asian studies center at the university of pittsburgh. contact her at [email protected].

how long have you been a member of aas?

i have been a member of aas since i got my first job out of graduate school (2011). i have tried to maintain this membership and vote in each aas election.

why did you join aas and why would you recommend aas to your colleagues?

aas is often seen as primarily an east asian organization, and while it is true that the bulk of presentations at the annual conference are focused on east asia, it is deeply rewarding to be able to work with and learn from other scholars of asia. but more importantly for me, i think the regional conferences offer young scholars of asia a first glimpse into the world academic presentation. both the regional and national conferences also work hard to include new scholarship on pedagogy, cross-national scholarship, and innovative moves in media studies and digital humanities. i found the recent aas-in-asia to be an exciting opportunity to engage with scholars from across asia.

beyond the conferences though, the aas sponsors so many useful tools for research and teaching, including the journal of asian studies (of course), the new short texts on asian studies (key issues in asian studies and asia shorts), and education about asia. i think that the collaborative nature of the aas adds to the value of these publications.

how did you first become involved in the field of asian studies?

i never anticipated being a historian of india, but during my second year in college (before i knew anything about anything) i took a graduate class entitled “historiography of orientalism” that i had no business being in. i was forced into a 20-page paper on modern indian historiography and i was hooked. indian history was so innovative and so bold, and i just wanted to be a part of it.

what do you enjoy most or what were your most rewarding experiences involving your work in asian studies?

i feel so lucky to have stumbled into asian studies through coursework, and now i feel most excited about seeing students surprised into love with indian history themselves. i can’t wait to celebrate with students when they come in to let me know that they are studying abroad in india or have gotten a scholarship to study indian languages after my courses.

i also really love the fact that after more than 15 years in the field i still have questions that i am interested in exploring about the history of india. even when i am irritated about the distance to the archive or the problems that researching in india poses, i am always surprised and intrigued by both the history and the historiography i am able to work within.

please tell us about your current or past research.

my research has largely focused on questions of gender, caste, and power in modern india. my first book, democracy and unity in india: understanding the all india phenomenon, 1940-1960 (routledge, 2019), focuses on the all india women’s conference and the all india scheduled castes federation to argue that the politics of the 1940s and 50s offered the potential to indian minority political groups to try to create a key concepts of the indian state, like democracy and unity, in such a way that would be more open and inclusive.

other recent research considers the role of public order and state power in policing minority citizenship in india. i am currently working on a book-length project focused on the way that middle-class women used social service work and later professional social work as a way to create a gendered form of political citizenship for women in india from the 1920s through the 1970s.

what advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in asian studies?

i hate saying this, because i have struggled with language learning myself, but if you want to have a career in asian studies you have to know some asian languages. i would also encourage any student interested in asian studies to consider attending a regional aas meeting. collaborating with other graduate students and junior scholars is the best way to build a community in the field.

outside of asian studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

i like to be outside; even just walking around the urban parks in pittsburgh is great. i am also very fond of reading (almost anything) and love sharing movies and live theater with my family. i have recently started playing soccer again after more than 15 years, and was shocked to find that it is still really fun as an adult.

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