Every year, AMINEF, the organization that administers Fulbright in Indonesia, hosts a conference for current Fulbrighters in Indonesia (and Indonesian Fulbrighters and Fulbright alumni heading to or already returned from the US). This year, the conference was held in the lovely and familiar Jogjakarta, Central Java…which is lucky for me, since AMINEF is based in Jakarta, and only crazy people like taking a few days’ trip to that mega-mess.*
The three-day conference was organized into two segments: the American and Indonesian grantees were split into two groups on the first day for program-specific sessions, and the second and third days were a formal seminar on society, environment, and education in Indonesia. Most of the presenters in the seminar were senior scholars from Indonesia and the US, and a few of the grantees from my cohort also presented. The majority of the fourteen of us–about ten people, including myself–presented in a less formal setting on Tuesday. It was a little disappointing that we all didn’t get to present in the larger seminar (which was open to the public), but I assume it’s because our topics were only tangentially related to the seminar theme if they were related at all rather than we didn’t make the cut or have an interesting enough project or the right qualifications or whatever. Ha! I didn’t get the explanation (or if we did get it, I can’t remember), but it has something to do with the new AMINEF director wanting to change the conference format…
Overall, I felt by far that the Tuesday portion of the event was the most engaging and exciting. I was so excited to hear what others in my cohort are/were researching; we were all in touch over email in the beginning of the fall semester, but never having met in person made it feel quite distant. I can’t speak for everyone, but there is only one person I’m somewhat close with, and it’s because we happened to arrive in Jakarta at the same time for our orientation and the start of our grants. There are some others who knew one another from language training in Jogjakarta (if you apply for a Fulbright in a critical language country, you can get extra funding to study language before starting your grant. I applied for this but didn’t get it because I speak too much Indonesian…), but I think for most of us it was our first time meeting in person. All of the presentations on Tuesday were incredibly interesting, and I felt really wowed and inspired–also kept thinking, damn, I’m a part of this group??
Just to give a sense of some of the things people are researching: I heard talks on civet coffee production, the relationship between ancient kingdoms in Indonesia and contemporary/independence era nationalism, alternative education, evolutionary diversity in cone snails (or something along those lines–it was complex and I’m not a science person!), captivity/rehabilitation and post-captivity orangutans and their stress levels (measured through urinary and fecal samples), women’s role(s) in organic/sustainable farming initiatives in matrilineal tribes, neuroscience programs and science education in general in Indonesian higher ed., heritage building restoration/preservation, and a few more. One lady is researching/tracking Sumatran tigers and plans to catch and collar five of them. Others are doing environmental research and looking at land degradation, palm plantations, and resources exploitation. All of the projects are fascinating and so different from one another. Lots of fields and disciplines are represented in the cohort, and it’s great!
The only bad thing about Tuesday was listening to the horror stories some people were telling about their research permit, data collection, and instrument/equipment struggles. Many of the student researchers are scientists and need to take samples of biological material back to the US for analysis in labs over there since adequate facilities aren’t available here and/or it will take a longer amount of time to do the project than what the grant allows. Most of the researchers doing scientific research have to spend tons of money on buying specialized equipment or paying extra baggage fees to get it from the US to here when they come over, though their grant monies are just the same as mine (and all I need is a computer and a cell phone / digital voice recorder). Certain researchers are having a hell of a time getting their permits in order to even get an adequate number of samples to validate their results, and others are having trouble getting permission to take samples out of the country. One lady was held back five months in getting her permits. This sucks on many levels, particularly because everyone in the cohort but me and my friend from orientation is enrolled in a doctoral program (or doing post-doc) and are actually–unlike me–on an academic timeline for completing their dissertation. It’s a shame that they’re experiencing difficulties.
I’m know there’s a long history of foreign researchers coming and abusing the country and stealing material, samples, etc etc from Indonesia and heard recently that foreign firms sometimes hire students as interns and use them to illegally transport materials out of the country, but giving problems to student researchers with Fulbrights isn’t the solution to these problems. We do actually care about Indonesia and want to teach other people about it through our work and engage with Indonesian academics…goes without saying perhaps that we’re not in the business of stealing from the country for our own professional gain. All of the student and senior scholars I met at the conference were incredibly passionate about Indonesia–preserving its natural resources, documenting the lives of people here, protecting and helping animals and conservation efforts, seeking understanding of the complex eco- and cultural systems, etc. It’s just a shame that history makes the present so difficult for some of us…and even though I do think that post-colonial countries have to be particularly vigilant about foreign interest, it seems that Indonesia would do better to look at the hundreds of multinational corporations–especially in the extraction industries–abusing this country and make things more difficult for them rather than wasting manpower and economic resources giving researchers the runaround. But it’s easier to make money off business than academia, and I think that’s why so much else slides; I can see how if there’s no tangible ($$) benefit from the research it’d be easier to focus on the drawback…as in, you’re gonna use this to get famous or published in your country and leave us with nothing, so why should we let you do that? I totally see the logic, but…from an academic perspective, it’s rubbish. It reminds me of when I arrived in country and the AMINEF director at that time wanted me to shift the focus of my project to researching the increasing commercialization of traditional medicines and their entry into consumer markets; there’s something to be said about knowledge for its own sake, and when other interests get thrown into the mix, other parties put themselves in the precarious position of devaluing knowledge for its own sake.
I do think there should be a stronger push from within Fulbright and AMINEF to encourage greater collaboration with host country academics to boost the benefit for Indonesia and host institutions and to make sure that knowledge about Indonesia in Western academia is more frequently co-produced by Indonesian scholars. This was one topic of discussion during the Thursday session at the conference, and it was nice to reflect on and discuss together. Indonesian academic and other non-Western academic publications in general don’t get as much “air time” as publications by Western scholars in Western publications, even internationally-focused ones…this is wrong, of course, but it’s reality right now, and one way to change it is through collaboration and co-creation of new projects and knowledge. But back to the problem of hassling student researchers; I don’t think that targeting student researchers and making executing their research projects (for which they already gained approval from the Indonesian government) difficult is going to foster mutual collaboration and growth between academics across cultures. All it’s going to do is dissuade young academics with passion for Indonesia away from coming here to conduct research…and for crying out loud the US government is paying for us to do this anyway.
The Indonesian government makes money off of Fulbright anyway because of our permit and visa fees (which aren’t minuscule, especially if you think about how many people are coming through each year in addition to the ETAs and senior scholars; I have spent about $400-500 on permits and visa fees so far for the grant, if not more…so multiply that by about 75 people per year maybe? And the fees the Indonesian Fulbrighters need to pay to get their passports in order to leave to the US? Maybe it’s a small amount, but I’m sure there’s more revenue from taxes or other fees AMINEF needs to pay…blah blah blah. We’re not giving nothing to the government, at the very least, and it’s a reliable annual free funds generator. Right?). And we help the Indonesian economy by bringing our dollars here to spend. I’m sure I sound entitled–Indonesia shouldn’t make troubles for us!–but really, we love Indonesia, we love our work, and we want to do good. Uh, and we’re students. We’re not very wealthy and we do have to make professional progress for our own livelihoods. I get that there are power dynamics at play and research can be exploitative and the government has to look out for its natural resources and its population, but…but. But. But. Can’t everyone just look out for each other? Can’t the government look out for promising young scholars of whatever nationality with deep love and interest in Indonesia, because ultimately the more people doing important work here (hopefully with Indonesian counterparts), the better? More interest, more research, more international funding, more support for college students and scientists here, more education, more engagement, more international attention and respect, more Indonesian scholars travelling abroad and representing their country.
Ranty rant! One of the student researchers said that the government is keeping track of all of our blogs. I hope that’s the case, because if someone is reading this, then I can feel a little better about the lack of response to my legally obligatory quarterly reports that I sent to the research ministry. At least someone somewhere is hearing what I have to say, maybe! I just feel bad; I haven’t had any issues with my permits or anything. I had to modify my research plan once I realized the bureaucratic hoops I’d need to jump through to do research in more than one regency, but it wasn’t a major complication and ended up helping the logistics of my project re: grad “assistants”…but I don’t have anyone telling me I can’t take my interview recordings or transcripts out of the country or anything like that. That would be terrible. From what I heard this past week at the conference, it seems like it’s hit or miss–some people have troubles based on their topic of research and what they want to take out of the country, sure, but also what time of day they call or visit the requisite offices and with whom they end up speaking. No consistency, and it’s the grantees who suffer (alongside Indonesia). Why?
The content of the Wednesday-Thursday sessions was interesting, too, although I wish the conference topic had been more germane to my field. It’s hard to sit through sessions and maintain active attention for hours and hours on end, even with knitting in hand, if it’s not pertinent or at least tangentially pertinent. Sadly, I spent a lot of time forcing myself to be interested and engaged, and that’s not a fun feeling. I think it was a lot of stimulation and socialization, and you know that can be overwhelming to me. Anyway, it was nice to meet senior lecturers from both the US and Indonesia whose regional research interest(s) overlap with my own, and the side-chats I had over those two days with people over lunch and between sessions were great. I don’t yet feel super connected to the tiny part of the academic world that focuses on Indonesian studies, and that was remedied somewhat. I know that if I continue graduate school and study with an Indonesianist this feeling will change, of course, but it was refreshing to feel stimulated and energized about my project and the region of interest (not that I’m not energized or stimulated by Indonesia; I’m speaking of Indonesian studies in the formal sense, and since I still feel I’m on the periphery since I hadn’t had formal exposure to Indonesian studies prior to this, it feels hard to get a grasp on, at least on my own).
I think this is all I want to say right now; I’m going to write another post about my research and my research presentation as well as what I’ve been up to recently. I think this post is long enough and photoless enough to just post and get it over with!
Thanks for listening! I’ll let you know if I have anything else to say!