Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

A ‘powerhouse’ scholar: In memoriam Jim Schiller (1944 – 2018)

Published: Nov 05, 2018

Himawan Bayu Patriadi

In the middle of September 2018, I heard that Jim Schiller’s health had worsened. I immediately contacted his wife, Nella, and she replied by asking me to pray for him: ‘May God Almighty allow him ease to go and grant him a good ending’. Although I knew that Jim had suffered from illness for years, Nella’s latest request still gave me a shock. Sadness suddenly hit me. My wife then also sank in sorrow when she heard about his condition. It reminded both of us of our interactions with Jim when our family lived in Adelaide in the mid-1990s, when I undertook a MA program at the Department of Asian Studies, Flinders University. Jim Schiller was my co-supervisor with Professor Colin Brown.

Within the next ten days another message from Nella came and further shocked me, as it was a notification that Jim had passed away. My sadness sank even deeper. I felt a big loss of a figure who, among others, was academically inspirational. In that moment I felt driven to find all documentation about him. When I was googling him, none of his photos were available. Fortunately, I found his picture on Facebook uploaded by Novi Kurnia, a Flinders University graduate, in her tribute to Jim. Although Jim was one of the leading Indonesianists he was far removed from any publicity. This was part of Jim’s character of being a ‘simple’ man. Another illustration of this is my memory of Jim during a freezing winter, where I found him to be merely wearing a jumper, riding a bicycle to campus (something unusual for a university professor), crossing the hilly Bellevue Heights area where he lived.

Jim supervised me for both my MA and PhD degrees. For me, Jim was not only a teacher, but also a close friend who was keenly interested in my life. Besides being a ‘simple’ individual, he was humble, open, friendly, kind and generous; he could never refuse any requests for help. This reminds me of my own experience. Once, on a Friday afternoon, I became stuck with my dissertation. As I did not want to postpone my writing, I phoned Jim asking for his supervision the following day at his house. In a plain tone, Jim replied: ‘Bayu, are you aware of the time? This is the weekend, in which people normally spend their time with family!’. I responded by arguing: ‘Yes, I know it Jim, but I don’t want my current lively writing spirit to be stopped until next Monday. So, please just give me fifteen minutes to consult! Jim, in a friendly tone said: ‘Oh OK, please come then!’. At our meeting we ended up engaging in deep-discussion about my dissertation for more than two hours, without any complaint from him.

Such kindness also applied to others. Although he officially belonged to the Department of Asian Studies, which then become the Flinders Asia Centre under the School of Political and International studies, many staff from other departments often asked him to be involved in supervising their postgraduate students, whose dissertation topics related to Indonesia. When I took the PhD program under his supervision, I ‘protested’ against this by arguing that I needed more of his time to handle my dissertation. He surprisingly was not angry, and in a pleading tone of understanding he instead even apologised to me. Having this kind of reaction, I then felt ashamed of myself: Why was I so egoistic, while my supervisor was so altruistic both in academic and non-academic affairs?

Jim was also an important part of the wider postgraduate academic community. During my MA program in the mid-1990s, the Department of Asian Studies at Flinders University was glowing with a motto of ‘Study Indonesia outside Indonesia’. In fact, it was supported by several reputable Indonesianists. Besides Dr. Jim Schiller, there were Professor Colin Brown, Dr. Anton Lucas, Dr. Keith Foulcher, and Dr. Barbara Martin. For us, the postgraduate students included Pratikno, Priyambudi Sulistiyanto, Kevin O’Reilly, Elizabeth Morell, Syarif Hidayat, Rossi von den Bosch, Stephen Miller, and myself; their presence was academically meaningful and encouraging. The weekly postgraduate seminar was exciting and stimulating. In this forum, Jim used to be critical, insightful, and inspiring, particularly for his postgraduate students such as myself. It was not rare for his suggested arguments to stick out in my mind.

Anton Lucas is exactly right when he commented in his tribute to Jim, that: ‘Jim’s careful polite questioning always got students to see things in a different often broader way … without students feeling devalued’. When I came back to Flinders Asia Centre to undertake the PhD program in early 2000s, though his health was no longer as strong as it was during my previous MA program his critical, sharp, and insightful attractiveness was undiminished. I am convinced my fellow PhD colleagues who were also under Jim's supervision, such as M. Mas’ud Said, Hetifah, Afrizal, Suke Djelantik, Vincensio Dugis, Nur Rachmat Yuliantoro, Hajar Pramudyasmono, and Dianto Bachriadi, would agree with me.

How do I put Jim’s scholarship on the map of Indonesianists’ academic thinking and traditions?

Born in Ohio on October 1944, with the full name James William Schiller, Jim is an American. He received his MA degree at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA. He then undertook further research and earned a PhD from Monash University in Melbourne. Afterwards, he joined as a faculty staff member at the Department of Asian Studies, Flinders University in Adelaide. His academic interest in Indonesia can be traced back to his MA program at Ohio University where he wrote a thesis titled ‘Development Ideology in New Order Indonesia: The Soeharto Regime and Its Critics’ (1978). It is unclear why he was initially interested in studying Indonesia but Professor R. William Liddle, who was one of his lecturers at Ohio University, was very influential. They remained close. In his tribute to Jim, Bill Liddle said: ‘I am so grateful for his long friendship that goes all the way back to his days as a student at Ohio University, when he and I grappled together with trying to understand the [Indonesia] New Order’.

The traces of Liddle’s academic influence can also be seen in Jim’s further academic journey. Supervised by Professor Herbert Feith at Monash, Jim’s PhD dissertation was titled ‘State Formation in New Order Indonesia: The Powerhouse State in Jepara’, Monash University (1986). It was then published in a book titled Developing Jepara: State and Society in New Order Indonesia . To a certain extent it seemed also to be inspired by Bill Liddle. Similar to Bill’s approach, Jim moved from adopting a state-level analyses in his MA to this focus on studying at local level.

Since that time, Jim devotedly focused his academic projects on understanding the local. All his further publications with the exception of ‘Indonesia: Living with Uncertainty’ (1999) and ‘Learning from the East Java Mudflow: Disaster Politics in Indonesia’ (in collaboration with Anton Lucas and Priyambudi Sulistiyanto, 2008), were based on micro studies particularly of Jepara district.

A close study of the local level academically is not less impressive or instructive than nationally-based studies. Indeed, a local study can be used to provide relevant insights to explain wider phenomenon, including the national-based one. Borrowing Clifford Geertz’s (1973) words: ‘It captures the great world in the little’, then explaining further:

The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don't study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods); they study in villages. You can study different things in different places, …. [y]ou can best study in confined localities. But that doesn't make the place what it is you are studying.

Jim’s affection for studying the local shows that in scholarly terms he was also indebted to Professor Clifford Geertz. He personally convinced me that using the anthropological approach in local studies is academically worthwhile. As social anthropology is closely associated with ethnography methodology, it is not surprising that his analysis was heavily marked by a detailed explanation and a strong narrative. This reminds me of an interesting fact about Jim’s dissertation. A thick dissertation bound with a green cover, it would be moved from one postgraduate student’s room to another as one of the references for them to learn such explanatory methods. In this regard, it might also be possible that he was familiar with Geertz through his academic interactions with Bill Liddle. In fact, although his PhD study at Yale University was officially supervised by Robert Dahl, Liddle academically was also close to Harry J. Benda - a historian and Indonesianist - as well as Clifford Geertz. During his PhD candidacy, Liddle had a chance to be Clifford Geertz’s assistant when the latter was a lecturer at Chicago University.

Still in search of what academic thinking or traditions influenced Jim, it is the Cornell style of writing that is especially significant. One of the main characteristics of Indonesianists coming from Cornell’s Southeast Asian Centre such as George McTurnan Kahin, Herbert Feith, Daniel S. Lev, Benedict R’OG Anderson, Harold Crouch and Takashi Shiraishi; is that their analyses and explanations begin without propositions, but rather are equipped with detailed or strong historical narratives. The propositions or arguments they assembled relied on the empirical facts they found. In the domain of social theory such kinds of explanations reflect what Hans Zetterberg referred to as concatenated theory.

To a large extent my experience at Flinders Asia Centre was in line with such academic tradition. In this regard Jim Schiller was one of its main proponents. One reason for this, among others, is the likely influence of his PhD supervisor Professor Herbert Feith.

I have two academic experiences with Jim that attest to this style. The first occurred when I submitted a draft of the theoretical chapter of my PhD dissertation to Jim. When I met with him for supervision and asked whether he had finished reading my draft chapter, his response surprised me: ‘Not yet, it will be boring!’ At first, I was a little offended by his answer; but I curiously asked him again: ‘Why? Does it not meet with your benchmark? He replied: ‘No! I am not interested in reading your chapter draft because I can understand it through other books’. For me, this kind of explanation was completely unsatisfying: Why did Jim seem uninterested in my theoretical chapter? Yet, the mystery began to unfold when I submitted my draft of chapter three. In it, I compared two social settings of my research sites by using ethnography methods, enriched by sociological and historical narrative with almost no references. His response surprised me, as it was drastically different from the previous one. He indeed enthusiastically commented on it: ‘This kind of writing is what I have been waiting for!’

The second experience emerged when Jim and Anton Lucas (my main and co-supervisors of my PhD dissertation) and I engaged in a small discussion, during which I raised a question: ‘At Flinders University, there are two institutions which provide political studies, the Faculty and Flinders Asia Centre. So, what are their differences? As far as I know, at the Faculty the usage of theories is explicit, in a sense that a theoretical framework is needed for any explanation and, thus, its methodology tends to be deductive! So, what is the position of theory in any explanation in Area Studies like the Flinders Asia Centre?' After some discussion Jim and Anton agreed to one point: ‘At this Centre, theory is not insignificant, but its usage is not rigid and should not necessarily become a theoretical framework for any explanation, because based on your empirical findings in the field, you can build your own theory!’ I then understood that for Jim and perhaps other Indonesianists at the Flinders Asia Centre, simply ‘quoting’ a theory in order to explain something was not satisfactory. His methodology, to be inductive, was largely identical with the Cornell University’s academic tradition.

The sum of all my years of academic dialogue with Jim brings me to my highest compliment of him, as I see it. I am reminded of Soekarno’s world view. Soekarno was scholarly indebted to H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto for Islam, Ernest Renan for nationalism, and Karl Marx for his Marxian point of view. There have been traces of at least three figures who were influential on Jim’s academic view: R. William Liddle for his devotion to local study, Clifford Geertz for adopting ethnography and anthropological approaches, and Herbert Feith for his detailed and strong historical narratives. Subsequently and sincerely, Jim’s academic view, directly or indirectly, has also contributed to shape my personal academic outlook. Thanks Jim for your inspirational scholarly life. Rest in Peace Jim!

Himawan Bayu Patriadi (hbpatriadi@unej.ac.id) is from the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Humanities (C-RiSSH), University of Jember.

Inside Indonesia 134: Oct-Dec 2018

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