This week, the outgoing College Council (CC) voted 18 to 0 with two abstentions in favor of a resolution supporting the establishment of an Asian American studies concentration at the College.
This resolution came about as a result of an ongoing discussion. For the past several months, there have been posters and a petition circulating campus calling for the establishment of an Asian American studies concentration. Campaigners have also started a Facebook group and a website to explain their case and post updates on their efforts.
While similar efforts have been made on and off for almost two decades, the current campaign stemmed from conversations between Assistant Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang and Professor of History Scott Wong with several students this past fall. With the support of various faculty and members of the administration, supportive students have been pursuing the matter through formal channels in addition to appealing to their peers directly.
Although the 2011-12 CC passed the resolution as one of its final acts, CC as well as the Minority Coalition have not been actively involved in jumpstarting the concentration, instead waiting for a request for support from student advocates.
Dorothy Wang pointed to the established nature of the discipline, as the unique identity of Asian Americans as a group and related topics are the focus of a number of academic journals. The lack of consistent courses available here at the College concerning Asian American studies is cited as another reason to create a formal concentration. After par- ticipating in conversations about the national drive for Asian American studies, Melinda Wang ’14 said she felt the academic situation at the College reflected a need for the new concentration. “I had been confident that I could create a con- tract major with the available courses scattered throughout the curriculum, but I realized that it was nearly impossible,” she said.
Several students noted that only two non-visiting professors offered courses concerning Asian American studies, with availability subject to their sab- baticals. As one of these professors, Scott Wong offered a class titled “Topics in Asian American History” last fall.
From an academic perspective, campaigners have said that the con- centration would contribute to the curriculum in multiple ways. “The discipline of Asian American studies is an established field … vitally inseparable from American history and culture,” DorothyWang said.
Advocates for the concentration have stressed that Asian American studies is neither Asian studies nor American studies, both of which qualify as area studies rather than ethnic studies, such as Latino/a studies and Africana studies.
Lily Wong ’12 pointed out the range of intellectual skills one could acquire by studying an interdisciplinary topic and argued the subject offers a unique perspective on broader topics. “The field extends beyond the American context and includes studies of transnationalism and Asian diasporas elsewhere,” she said.
Supporters have disputed the no- tion that Asian American studies and other ethnic studies concentrations exist solely for students of that minority. “The concentration is directed [toward] all members of the Williams populace,” Allen Lum ’12 said. “To tackle prejudices and stereotypes that still run rampant across US society, everyone is encouraged to take these classes. We would be just as happy to support [other such concentrations] on campus.”
A number of groups at the College have recently raised issues surrounding diversity on campus. Several of the students involved in petitioning for this concentration cited ignorance about major acts of discrimination against Asian Americans in national history and about Asian American contributions to society as imperatives for the creation of the concentration. Others placed the issue within the context of other diversity questions at the College, noting that Asian Americans are the largest minority population on campus.
A lack of resources is one impediment to the establishment of an Asian American concentration. The concentration represents a long-term financial commitment for the College at a time when the ongoing economic crisis has substantially lowered the College’s endowment. “The number of new faculty that you require for a given program really depends on how that program would draw on existing expertise at the College and then what additional curricular pieces need to be covered,” Dean Bolton said. “While I know that there’s interest around it and I have talked to students about it, I am not directly involved in moving it forward at the moment because the next steps need to come through Committee on Educational Policy [CEP], which oversees all proposals for new concentrations and majors at the College. Generally, bringing a proposal for a new major or concentration to the CEP involves faculty who are interested in helping it come together and working out what curricular shape the concentration or major or cluster of courses should have to begin with, with guidance from students regarding their interests. The number of additional faculty required to mount a sustainable new major or concentration also depends on what individual de-partments in related fields do with their hiring.”
Scott Wong expressed hope that the interdisciplinary element might provide a way forward for efforts at the College because the new hires would add to faculty resources in multiple disciplines. For Dorothy Wang, economic concerns only make formal support for a concentration only more pressing, as such a commitment would allow for the solicitation of specific donations from interested alumni. Others involved also acknowledged financial concerns and emphasized their willingness to work with the administration on the issue.
CC’s resolution called for the hiring of an Asian American studies specialist and the creation of a concentration. However, it did not specify a timeline for those actions. The document also called for the facilitation of dialogue on this issue between students and administrators.
The lack of a timeline was a result of debates within CC. Several members had argued that a timeline suggested that those in- volved understood the complexity of hiring practices at the College and represented a demand to prioritize the position ahead of openings in other departments that have been waiting to hire new faculty. “Although I disagree with the decision to remove the timeline, because the CC resolution is by no means binding and the inclusion of dates would’ve emphasized urgency, I’m glad the 2011-12 CC could pass this as the beginning of continued support for the campaign,” said Zach.
Evans ’12, outgoing all-campus representative for community and diversity. As the petition continues to circulate, recently-elected CC co-president Krista Pickett ’13 indicated that CC is open to continued cooperation on the is- sue: “We are more than willing to listen and to vote.”
The students working to advance the proposal for an Asian American studies program are currently looking towards next steps. “Essentially once we can turn heads with signatures from faculty [and students] alike, hopefully we can convince the administration, faculty and CEP to consider making Asian American studies a priority in the sense that we are willing to work with them to find a way to stabilize Asian American studies in the Williams curriculum given the current paucity of resources,” Melinda Wang said.
“After we gather all the signatures for the petition, we plan on meeting with President Falk and proving to him that there is substantial student interest for him to declare Asian American studies a priority among curricular inter- ests,” Lum said. “We have amassed a lot of outside and alumni support for [Asian American] studies and they have indicated that they would like to donate money. We need the President’s permission. Without it, we are at a standstill.”
We want to let the president know that he needs to work with us to get AA studies institutionalized.”