Students establish importance of ethnic studies in curriculum

This year the College has seen the efforts of several students to galvanize the formation of an Asian American studies concentration. Recently, 472 students signed a petition in support of this initiative and College Council (CC) voted in favor of the proposed concentration on Feb. 15. Over the last half century, ethnic and minority studies have manifested as increasingly visible academic disciplines, paralleling the rise in the diversity of the College’s population. Often, student interest and demand played an integral role in catalyzing the development of such programs, as they likely will with the administration’s and faculty’s consideration of Asian American studies as a possible concentration at the College.


Africana studies


The College’s Africana studies program was established in the the early 1970s in response to a student occupation of Hopkins Hall. This occurred during a time when other predominantly white colleges and universities were founding black studies programs in response to student demand, said D.L. Smith, professor of English.

“Students protested the paucity or absence of black faculty, black students and courses dealing with African American history, culture and social experience,” Smith continued. “[As] a quintessential liberal arts discipline, Africana studies is concerned with understanding the histories and cultures of the various peoples throughout the African diaspora, their relationships to each other and to the larger world.”

Smith said that the change in the program’s name from Afro-American studies to Africana studies reflects what has come to be the “preferred title” within the past decade, as well as the “shifting demographics and increasingly global perspective of recent years.”

He noted that the Africana studies curriculum and extracurricular programming reflect the interests of both faculty and students.

Like other cultural or identity studies at the College, Smith believes that Africana studies is interdisciplinary in how it “endeavors to educate all students regarding how ideas about race, gender and ethnicity have influenced our collective past and the world we now inhabit.”


Latino/a studies


Founded in 2004, the Latino/a studies program was a project that several faculty took up, but that “really started with efforts by students,” said Roger Kittleson, professor of history and chair of the Latino/a studies program.

“Student organizing at that time was very strong, very vigorous and thoughtful, but also, they were willing to do some pretty dramatic things,” including executing a hunger strike, Kittleson said.

At the outset of the program’s inception, several students compiled an oral history of Latinos at the College as an independent study project. They “basically interviewed every Latino who had been at the College as an employee or student,” Kittleson said, explaining that their project served not only as an academic experience for the students involved but also as a “real piece of oral history” that marked the student demand for the program.

Rigo Ruiz-Bonilla ’12, co-chair of Vista, said that the group works very closely with the Latino/a studies program to host public discussions and presentations on Latino history and culture.

“I [find] Latina/o Studies very relevant as part of a liberal arts education,” Ruiz-Bonilla said. “The Latino community will be getting a lot of attention in the coming decades … as [the Latino] population continues to grow in the United States.”

Kittleson said that Latino/a studies faculty meet with Vista on a regular basis “to make sure we’re on the same page in terms of events but also to talk about curricular issues and what is of interest to them that we need to do more of. There have been a lot of ongoing, good, productive conversations. Concentrators have some say in the concentration and what it can be,” which is one of the benefits of a small program “that originally came out of student interest,” he said.

Although the program, like many other departments, has struggled economically since 2008, this year Latino/a studies was able to bring on a new faculty member in Jacqueline Hidalgo, a professor of religion who taught at the College as a Bolin Fellow in 2010 and is now in her second year here.

“At this time we have enough faculty to offer not only the basic, essential courses that students need to do the concentration but also a rich variety,” Kittleson said. “We do hope to expand down the road, but at this point we just need to think about how best to do that both in terms of building our own curriculum but also fitting in productively with the rest of the College.”

Kittleson said that the faculty involved with Latino/a studies would like to see it eventually reach more into the social and natural sciences, especially public health.

“Public health is something that is of interest to the faculty and to the College in general, and there’s just terrific [academic] work being done on public health in Latino populations, so it just seems like a natural way to bring that in,” he said.

“I think of [Latino/a studies] as kind of a model of what liberal arts could be, because it is inherently multi-disciplinary, beginning with the intro course, which is always team-taught by two people who have different disciplinary trainings,” Kittleson said.


Jewish studies


Jewish studies at the College predated the existence of the concentration. Two former faculty members, Nancy Levene, professor of religion, and Matthew Kraus, professor of classics, had already been teaching courses that focused on Jewish studies when the pair proposed the concentration.

In 2004, the same year in which Latino/a studies was established, the faculty approved the Jewish studies concentration and brought on Alexandra Garbarini, current Jewish studies program chair and associate professor of history, to teach modern European history and “regularly teach cross-listed courses,” including courses in Jewish studies, she said.

She explained that all courses that fall under the Jewish studies curriculum are cross-listed with other departments, including history and religion, and are often cross-cultural in focus. For example, the College offers courses on the role of blacks, Jews and women in the French Revolution, on Israeli-Palestinian narratives and on modern politics in the Middle East.

Garbarini noted that the faculty who teach courses in Jewish studies do not hold positions specifically within the concentration but instead are all affiliated with other departments.

“No one in Jewish studies is beholden to Jewish studies,” she said.

Garbarini explained that the field of Jewish studies, with a history that emerges primarily out of Europe and not the United States, dates back to the 19th century and is not solely considered an ethnic study, though it is sometimes placed under that larger umbrella at the College and within the larger American academic world.

“Jewish studies [is a] microcosm of the liberal arts,” Garbarini said. “It is a place in which you see people from a variety of fields coming together, first of all to share their ideas and perspectives on the Jewish tradition and its meaning in the present day, as well as its meaning in the past. But also, what I think you find in Jewish studies is that there are a lot of students who end up taking a course that is cross-listed with Jewish studies because of the overlap between that subject and other issues,” including everything from politics in the Middle East, to continental philosophy to modernist novels informed by an understanding of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish literary tradition.


Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies


The Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), currently a major at the College, is neither a concentration nor is it classified as a racial or ethnic study. However, it has a long history with issues including identity and equality, which marks a similarity with many of the cultural studies programs at the College.

“At first it was an interdisciplinary site for bringing to light the almost entirely unrecognized contributions of women to many academic, cultural and political disciplines and fields,” said Katie Kent ’88, professor of English and WGSS chair. “It then expanded to consider the construction of individuals as ‘men’ and ‘women,’ ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and the ways that gender norms and forms of expression differ across cultures, classes, races and ethnicities and the ways in which gender influences other systems of power and knowledge.”

Professor of English Lynda Bundtzen served as chair of what was formerly known as the women’s studies department at a time when all-male colleges were just beginning to admit women.

At the College, women were hired to teach “on what had been virtually an all-male faculty,” said Bundtzen, who was the first woman hired in the English department.

“We tried to educate our faculty in what was going on elsewhere … with the hope that it would have a transformative effect on our curriculum,” Bundtzen said. “Even after that, many men on the faculty were skeptical of women’s studies, but a small group of women, most of them untenured and wondering if this would endanger their chances with the men in their respective departments, soldiered on and tried to imagine a concentration of courses borrowed from several disciplines that would persuade the faculty as a whole of women’s studies as an interdisciplinary program.”

Kent added that the sexuality component was added to the major’s name in the spring of 2011, and explained that the study of sexuality has “recently become more central to the program … in order to offer courses that focus more fully on the history, politics and cultures of sexualities broadly construed.”

This winter, WGSS made its first full-time hire in transnational sexualities and queer theory.

“One idea underpinning almost all of our teaching and scholarship is the notion that one cannot study gender [or] sexuality without considering the impact of other ‘axes of identification,’ such as race, ethnicity, class, nationality, ability and more,” Kent said. “Thus, we greatly benefit from the contributions of many of the other programs and departments on campus.”


Cross-curricular connections


Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity Carmen Whalen spoke to the interdisciplinary nature and the loosely shared origins of these programs.

“There’s a saying that history is told by the victors,” Whalen said. “What [these programs have] done is tried to … include the perspectives and experiences of groups of people who had been either ignored [or] misrepresented.”

Whalen noted that “it was no accident” that the push to remedy such misrepresentation at the College and in academia at large followed the political and social movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s. “Those were mass movements that were all about inclusion in society, full citizenship rights and challenging racism and stereotypes in all areas of U.S. life,” she said. “The attempts to make higher education more inclusive in terms of students, staff, faculty and the curriculum were part of those movements.”

Whalen said that programs such as Africana studies and Latino/a studies work in close collaboration with American studies, but that these programs also examine issues including transnationalism, diaspora, geopolitics and other countries’ intersections with the United States.

“These fields have fostered new scholarship on the global economy, transnationalism [and] comparative racial and ethnic studies,” Whalen said. “What happens when you compare Latino studies with Asian American studies? What you find, for example, is if you study migrations, people come from countries where the U.S. has had a presence, whether political, military, economic. Those interventions really shape the migrations of people who come to the United States.”

Whalen also noted that a cross-cultural examination allows for examination of ways in which the United States has “racialized” certain ethnic groups. “We learn about how the United States constructs race,” she said.

Whalen said that while some courses have a specific focus, “they give you the tools to think and study comparatively.” She cited as an example the fact that Latino/a studies courses are cross-listed with eight other academic programs and departments, including American studies, art, comparative literature, environmental studies, history, religion, romance languages and WGSS.


Considering Asian American studies


Students’ petition for an Asian American studies concentration has thus far been defined by grassroots involvement and organization as well as an ongoing dialogue with the faculty through discussions and events open to the campus.

“The students petitioning for the establishment of an Asian American studies program have clearly learned from the work that previous generations of students put into the creation of Latina/o studies and other multidisciplinary programs on campus,” Kittleson said. “They have approached their fellow students and members of the faculty and administration in a very open, thoughtful manner – building support for the program in much the same way that earlier students did for Latino/a studies.”

Kittleson added that these student organizers have made it clear that they believe the proposed Asian American studies concentration should be separate from the already-existing Asian studies department.

“Based on what I’ve seen from these students and what I’ve heard from my colleagues on campus, I would expect us to have an Asian American studies program, though the timelines for these processes are never as fast as students might hope,” Kittleson added.

“There is a correlation between when students come [to the College] and those students [not seeing] themselves reflected in the curriculum at all,” Whalen said. “They want to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. They want to know something of their history, and in many cases that means for different groups, their migration histories and experiences in the United States.”

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