The Future of Central Asian Studies: A Eulogy

Yesterday I gave the keynote speech at the 22nd conference of the  Association of Central Eurasian Students at Indiana University. I am an alumnus of the Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) program at IU so it was exciting to get to talk to the next generation, even though I may have traumatized them with this talk. Below, the text of my speech:

As you may already know, I am a CEUS alumnus, and I look back at my time here mostly with appreciation.  While I was here, of course, I complained about CEUS with everyone else, even coining the phrase “afCEUSki” to describe it – that’s a joke for the Uzbek specialists in the room — but the truth is there is tremendous value in area studies programs, particularly programs that emphasize languages and history in the way CEUS does.

You never know how much you appreciate CEUS until you’re out in the real world answering questions like “Where is Central Asia?” with “It’s in the center of Asia”. So it’s great to be talking with young scholars who know beyond the basics and are interested in the future of the field.

I started my MA in CEUS in 2004, and looking back, it’s hard to believe how much has changed. I thought about titling this talk “The Future of Central Asian Studies” until I realized how much my keynote resembled a eulogy. Because the truth is, Central Asian studies is in bad shape. Our field is a great example of how funding impacts knowledge, and how without money and jobs, research on a region declines. Our field is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of linking independent academic research to military intelligence, and what happens to scholars when the wars that indirectly fund their training end. And our field is also a fine example of the challenges of research in authoritarian states, and the limitations of what scholars can do in restricted information environments.

That said, I still feel very strongly that research on Central Asia is important, and that we need to figure out a way to keep it going despite these obstacles. Though great strides in scholarship have been made since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is still a woefully underexplored field, regardless of your discipline. It is a field of untranslated texts for historians, unexplored regions for anthropologists, and untested theories for political scientists. It’s a field of unanswered questions. And one of the biggest questions, unfortunately, is how to keep the field alive. I would imagine that is a question many of you are asking as you wonder what you will do with your degree.

But first let me back up. I want to describe what the field of Central Asian studies was like back when I was a student here, a decade ago that feels like a lifetime. When I enrolled in 2004, the U.S. was fully immersed in the war in Afghanistan. This meant that Central Asia, which heretofore had continued its long and historic tradition of being utterly ignored, was suddenly an object of great geopolitical interest to the West.

Suddenly the US government needed area specialists and speakers of Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh and other languages of the region – and suddenly money was available to fund study for speakers of those languages, whether we planned to work for the government or not. (I think we all lied and said we planned on working for the government, which I’m sure looked not at all suspicious on the FLAS application of the guy translating 15th century poetry from Chaghatay.)

2004 was a very good time to be a specialist in Central Asian studies. The field was flush with money, but more importantly, it had established itself as an intellectual field separate from its Soviet roots. The first generation of post-Soviet scholars, scholars who had conducted fieldwork in the region in the 1990s, was beginning to publish their work and help lead my generation in new directions. Native languages and primary sources were emphasized over Russian-language scholarship. Sovietology was no longer a veritable field but an object of history to be studied in its own right.

For my generation of researchers, this was an exciting time to be a student of Central Asia. There were so many topics to be explored, and all of the Central Asian countries, with the exception of Turkmenistan, were receptive to foreign scholars. Research grant programs like Fulbright, IREX, and ACCELS were still active in nearly every country. It felt like there was a lot of work to be done. And my cohort, which at the time was CEUS’s largest on record, was in a great position to do it.

So it’s sad for me to look back and see what has happened to my generation, and to the field in general.

First, and most importantly, are the traumatic changes that have occurred in Central Asia itself. In 2005, I was supposed to go to Tashkent for the summer to do research on Uzbek politics. I had a grant through the ACCELS program and a plane ticket marked June 1. That program, obviously, was canceled because of the mass shooting of 800 civilians in Andijon. I was horrified by what had happened in Andijon, and the massacre itself ended up being my scholarly focus: as a graduate student here at CEUS, I published a paper disproving the Uzbek government’s claims that a group called “Akromiya” was a terrorist cell responsible for the massacre. This rendered me banned from Uzbekistan, but it was still a pretty good paper.

Later as a PhD student at Washington University I did my research on the Uzbek dissidents who were expelled from Uzbekistan but had started using the internet for discussion and mobilization. Central Asian online media is still my primary area of research, but it was one born out of necessity as much as scholarly interest.

I was not the only young scholar whose research was transformed by Andijon. All my classmates who had been learning Uzbek suddenly found themselves unable to carry out their projects, as Uzbekistan closed off the country to foreign scholars and cut ties with programs like Fulbright. Keep in mind that at this point, fieldwork in Turkmenistan was largely prohibited, so the only Central Asian countries left to do research in were now Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. The Uzbek minorities of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan suddenly become subjects of intense scholarly concern, as researchers with Uzbek language skills had nowhere else to use them. Between 2005 and 2010, Osh and Khorog were flooded with Uzbek-speaking American graduate students. But then things began to take a turn for the worse in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well.

In 2010, Kyrgyzstan, long described by many as the most open of the Central Asian countries, was wracked with violence disproportionately targeting the Uzbek minority of the southern region. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands were displaced, and ethnic relations in the region were transformed. The most important thing about this, of course, is not its effect on foreign research, but I’d like to bring up the difficulty of conducting research in an environment of pain and trauma – because for much of Central Asia, that is the environment with which we contend.

Kyrgyzstan still allows foreign research to be conducted, but friends of mine who have done research in Osh since 2010 describe a population understandably reluctant to speak out on a deeply painful personal tragedy, and terrified of the political repercussions of doing so. There is no safe space for political discussion in Central Asia, and it is our responsibility as researchers to not endanger anyone or reinvigorate their trauma. I think Central Asia scholars should have to take something akin to the Hippocratic oath. These are hard times, and our presence in the region, however noble our intentions may be, does not necessarily make them easier.

So Kyrgyzstan, once the easiest place to do research, has become more closed off since 2010. The same is true of Tajikistan, where last year University of Toronto political science PhD student Alexander Sodiqov, a native of Tajikistan, was detained and charged with treason and espionage. This was deeply shocking to scholars who had conducted research in Tajikistan relatively unimpeded for years, some of whom were working directly with Alex. What Tajikistan did to Alex sent a clear message to researchers both domestic and foreign: you are not wanted here. Tajikistan has now joined Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as a place where it is very risky to do research – both for scholars and for the people they study, who become implicated by their association with a foreigner assumed to have secret evil motives.

Where does that leave us? With a lot of Central Asia researchers going to Kazakhstan, which despite the violence in 2011, and despite a harsh political climate, especially concerning speech, media and religion, is one of the easier places to carry out fieldwork – which is not to say it is easy, only that it is possible. It is no longer possible in many other regions. From the time I enrolled in CEUS to the present day four out of the five Central Asian countries became essentially closed to foreign research, Kyrgyzstan a little less so, and all of them have faced domestic political violence. Central Asia has become a more dangerous place – not because of the terrorist threat that is always proclaimed by war hawks but because of the lengths Central Asian governments will go to repress their own citizens, and in turn, anyone who wants to know what those citizens are thinking.

*             *             *

So that’s what’s happened in Central Asia over the past eleven years. Meanwhile back in the US, we’ve had to deal with our own problems – the biggest of which is the global economic collapse of 2008, and the fallout we are still facing. Some of you know that since receiving my PhD in 2012, I’ve branched out into analyzing the U.S. economy and have written many articles about elitism, corruption, and the death of the American dream.

What is funny to me is that I’m not the first Central Asia scholar to do this. Gillian Tett of the Financial Times started out as a scholar of Tajikistan; she went on to be one of the few people to predict the 2008 crash before it happened. I do not think this is a coincidence. A lot of the problems we see in Central Asia – a terrible job market, rampant nepotism and opportunity hoarding by elites, a sense of loss among the youth and the corruption of our elders – are the same problems we see in the U.S., only in a different form.

If Central Asian studies teaches you anything, it is to have a keen eye for bullshit.

And there is a lot of bullshit surrounding the job market, regardless what industry you are in. If my cohort of Central Asia scholars from the mid-2000s were to reunite today, it would be a grim reunion. Almost none of us are employed in a field having to do with Central Asia, and some of us are not employed at all. Others disappeared after graduation, so I assume they are gainfully employed in an undisclosed location. But for those of us who want to keep our work public – and keep our last names — there are few options.

I haven’t kept up too closely with the funding situation at IU, but I’m guessing that like most public universities, it’s in bad shape, and I know that Russia and Eurasia programs have been a particular target of budget cuts. So from the graduate level, there is already a loss of monetary support, and that loss continues on into the job market. My generation is one of the first to have language proficiency in national languages and in-depth knowledge of the Central Asian region, but we have rarely been in a position to use it. I’ll give examples of what happened to some of my friends so you can see what I mean.

The mid-2000s were not only a great time for academic study of Central Asia, they were also when commentary on Central Asia exploded online. Websites and blogs emerged run, not only by people from the region but people outside it who wanted to discuss its political and cultural affairs. One of those bloggers was my friend Nathan, who started the website Registan.net, to which I contributed from time to time. Registan was a very popular website, routinely cited in other publications and read by government officials. Nathan got the same kind of area studies training you all did, although he did so at an MA program at the University of Washington. After graduation, he worked for several government agencies and did some contracting on the side, all while managing Registan, which had grown so big it hosted its own national Central Asian studies conference in 2012.

And then the sequester hit. The money evaporated, and with it, the possibility of continuing research and commentary on Central Asia. Registan contributors were never paid, it was something we were all doing voluntarily for the sake of invigorating debate on the region. But bigger problems had arose. In 2013, nearly every person I know working on Central Asia for the government either lost their job or were switched to a division that had nothing to do with the region.

The drawdown in Afghanistan hastened the demise of “Central Asian analyst” as a viable career path. And so what happened to Nathan? He’s becoming a dentist, because he needs to provide for his family, and being a dentist is a steady job that pays. He may be the only dentist in America deeply versed in Uzbek provincial politics, but that’s the way it is these days. There are so many young analysts in his position – Central Asia analysts with regional experience and language skills who can find no opportunity to use them. So they stop working on the region at all, and we are the worse off for it.

The same thing is happening in academia. I can count the number of Central Asia scholars who got tenure-track positions since 2008 on one hand. Not quite Russia, not quite the Middle East, Central Asia doesn’t fit in anywhere, and it often occupies a difficult place within disciplines, as Central Asia’s history and politics tend to challenge dominant intellectual paradigms. You would think this would present an opportunity to develop new intellectual paradigms, and that academics might be excited about this possibility, but that’s not how academia works. Most disciplines are quite conservative and want to hire more of the same, and Central Asia scholars are different. We shatter the echo chamber. There is no place where we belong.

I will be brutally honest here – even more brutal than I have been so far – and say that it is unlikely that your research and achievements, no matter how impressive, will help you get an academic job if you study Central Asia. I have been to workshops of Central Asia scholars who are all working in some precarious capacity – everyone was an adjunct, or a post-doc, or like me, a researcher who has left academia and divides time between Central Asia and other topics. None of us had steady work in the field. As a PhD student, I published widely both in regional journals and in top journals of my discipline but it meant absolutely nothing when search committees simply did not want someone who studies Central Asia.

I have other academic friends who are similarly accomplished and well-published who are also doing jobs that have nothing to do with Central Asia, and it has nothing to do with the merit of their work. Again, this is a great loss for the field, because a lot of these young scholars were at the top of their intellectual game when they left due to the fact that they had no job and no monetary support. They left because they had to feed their families, to get by, and study of the region suffers for it.

Some of you in this room may be getting a PhD, to which I say good luck, and I hope this situation dramatically changes by the time you graduate. Others may be wondering if you should get a PhD at all. I generally don’t give out advice about this sort of thing – I think it’s a personal decision – but I have three pieces of advice for Central Asia scholars pursuing the PhD path. First: do not go unless you are fully funded for every year of study. This is not worth taking on debt. Second: pursue a project you truly believe in, something that you feel passionate about, instead of trying to placate the job market. There is no job market for Central Asia, so it’s pointless to try to anticipate its needs. It’s better to leave behind a notable contribution, because there is so much original research that is left to be done.

Third: publish your work. Even if all you publish is a summary of your research on your website, it is important that your contribution get out there. There are not many of us studying Central Asia, and we all benefit from each other’s contributions and knowledge. You may well be the only scholar in the world working on a particular topic, so it is important for the world to learn from your expertise. And don’t sell yourself short. Graduate school has a way of making your achievements seem less than what they are, but if you are studying this region, you are often doing something unique and special, you are often studying something for the very first time.

So I have discussed the academic job market for Central Asia scholars, which is dismal, and the market for government work, which is not quite as dismal but is much worse than it has been over the past decade. Other places where Central Asia experts can work are in journalism, which I don’t recommend because the pay is terrible and opportunities are few. Again, this is a field that has faced massive budget cuts over the past few years – organizations like Eurasianet which provide steady coverage of the region have had their budgets slashed, and Radio Free Europe, Ferghana.ru and other outlets have as well.

Mainstream outlets will accept the occasional Central Asia article, but it is often a challenge to convince an editor that the region matters. So while I love seeing new journalism on Central Asia, I am hesitant to recommend it as a viable career path. I do encourage you to try to publish for a mainstream audience if you want to though, because the world needs more Central Asia journalism, and I’m happy to give advice on this later on.

NGOS are another industry where you can make use of your language skills and area expertise, but once again, they’re facing budget cuts. Because of the drawdown in Afghanistan, a lot of think tank positions related to regional politics have been eliminated. Organizations that cover human rights still hire, but the salaries are often extremely poor and require you to live in some of the most expensive cities in the country, like New York or DC. I have no idea how people do this. If you can afford it, this is a viable option, but if you can afford it, you probably don’t need to be listening to someone like me anyway. Go enjoy your life.

*             *             *

So that is my assessment of the state of Central Asian studies. I hope it did not depress you. That’s not my intention. I think it’s far more depressing to go into a situation expecting it to work out than to know in advance that the odds are against you, and formulate a back-up plan. In other words, think like a Central Asian when you’re in the field of Central Asian studies.

I’d like to conclude by pointing out some positive developments in our field. Most of these developments have to do with social media, which has opened up Central Asia to the world – to a degree – and has made research and collaboration easier than it ever has been before. At a time when fieldwork is impossible in numerous countries and regions, it is good to have another way to connect with Central Asians, if not with Central Asia. Social media is how I’ve managed to stay active in the field despite not working as a professor or firmly within the bounds of an institution, and I’ll give a couple examples of things I’ve done that I feel are interesting or innovative.

Last year I joined the board of directors on an Uzbek legal project called Tashabbus. This is a group, founded by Uzbek lawyers, that answers questions submitted by people in Uzbekistan who want to know their legal rights. Many of the questions concern problems like bribery and corruption, and so they’re doing a great service for their countrymen, even if the government doesn’t necessarily think so. This project would be impossible without the internet or the impressive talent of this young generation of Uzbeks, who grew up with a vision for their country they have yet to see implemented. As a board member I occasionally collaborate but mostly just offer my name and moral support.

I think as Westerners it is important that we collaborate with scholars and writers from Central Asia on equal terms, to see them as partners and not research subjects, and to help get their talents noticed by the wider world. The internet has been paramount in helping to accomplish this.

Another area I’ve been active in is study of the internet itself. This is what I wrote my dissertation on, and I’ve continued study of it through my role as a research associate at George Washington University, where I lecture a few times a year and write research papers for their scholarly journal. My last paper was a co-written project about digital memory and the tragedies in Andijon and Osh. It would be impossible to research these topics on the ground in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, but the internet allows some insight into Central Asian debate.

One of the challenges Central Asia researchers face is how to archive and curate these materials. I’m currently working on a paper on the Andijon massacre, ten years later, and it’s terrible to see how many materials written by Uzbeks in the aftermath of the massacre have been lost. So if you are a graduate student looking for an enterprising project, taking on the digital archive of Central Asia would be a venture from which everyone would benefit.

Social media is also crucial to Central Asia studies because there is so much more mobility in Central Asian life these days particularly given the situation of the migrant laborers in Russia. People are moving across borders and are certainly talking over borders. The world of Central Asians now reaches far beyond Central Asia, bound together not by the geography of state lines but by language and culture. This is why language study is so important.

Since I tend to be a big critic of academia, sometimes people ask me whether I think my degrees were a waste of time, and my answer is always not in the slightest – the language skills I gained alone made it worth it. If you are at CEUS, take advantage of the language training. That is my number one piece of advice for you. Languages will open up worlds, and in a tough job market, it is one of the things that makes you stand out from the crowd, possibly leading to paid opportunities as well.

I’ll conclude by saying I have mixed feelings about the future of Central Asian studies. In terms of money and jobs, the situation is very bad, and it is a shame that so much regional expertise is underutilized and lost. But it is still, inherently, an exciting field. If you are studying Central Asia, you have the opportunity to translate works and bring them to a wider audience, to analyze political structures that have no parallel, to research historical archives that are untapped. Central Asia is worth studying because it’s Central Asia. And your work is worth something because it’s your work. I fear for the future of the field, but I have no doubt as to the strength of its scholars. I look forward to seeing what you all produce.

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