Not so narrow after all

Two weeks ago the Record Editorial Board presented its perspective on the campaign for an Asian American studies program (“Working within our means,” Feb 29). While the argument was framed as an evaluation of curricular priorities in the context of the College’s financial resources, several statements were made regarding the validity of Asian American studies as an academic field and specifically as a concentration at the College. These statements illuminate several deep-rooted – and misinformed – perceptions of Asian American studies.

The Record Editorial Board argues that the College should not develop a new major simply because students are passionate about that field of study, nor should it create a concentration program merely “to address every type of diversity.” This assertion underscores the assessment that Asian American studies is a separatist field of study that is only valuable insomuch as it “addresses diversity,” a claim often made to repudiate the validity of Asian American studies. It is assumed that only Asian American students will enroll in these courses, and that the concentration will encompass a narrow range of academic inquiry. But the value of an Asian American studies concentration is found not merely in its commitment to reflecting the diversity of both the U.S. population and the College community.

The study of Asian American history and experiences is integral to a holistic, comprehensive understanding of the American experience. While those critical of the campaign for Asian American studies at the College have asserted that this endeavor is antithetical to the liberal arts model of education, the addition of an Asian American studies concentration is in fact an ideal expression of the liberal arts ethos at the College. The arts and humanities curriculum at Williams boasts highly specialized courses that aim to impart a greater understanding of the human condition. An English class on a single author’s literary output does not merely familiarize us with that body of work – it provides a window into a time,  place and culture, thus allowing us to better understand both our contemporary world and the author’s context. Similarly, a course on one year of American history serves as a platform to discuss the broader social movements circulating around the globe. Asian American studies does not take away from our broader understanding of the American experience, but rather adds a richness and complexity that is often missed, as the history of Asian Americans is continually marginalized.

More rhetorically, why aren’t the experiences of Asian Americans considered integral to the constructions of American history, culture and identity? Why is a class on British literature deemed worthy of intellectual merit but a course on Asian American poetry isn’t?

The Record Editorial Board also brought up the concern that Asian American studies “might be too narrow” to merit an entire concentration. This is a criticism often levied against Asian American studies, and this statement ignores the reality that there are already two professors who teach courses in Asian American studies and who belong to two very different departments. One of them is Dorothy Wang, professor of American studies and faculty affiliate in English; the other is Scott Wong, professor of history. The fact that two existing tenured professors teach Asian American studies courses in two different departments demonstrates the degree to which the field covers a diverse range of academic disciplines. The concentration cannot reasonably be considered a narrow academic field in the face of such interdisciplinary appeal. Asian American studies has a place within a multitude of departments at the College, including but not limited to sociology, American studies, history, English, art history, legal studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

U.S. politics have been prone to disregard the presence of Asian Americans in the national dialogue and it is time that we, as a college, rectify that injustice. Asserting that Asian American studies is narrow in scope implies that the field and other ethnic studies are not part of the American experience. The concentrations in Africana and Latina/o studies have demonstrated the validity of ethnic studies at the College, and Asian American studies is an equally vital and legitimate field.

We are aware of the College’s financial restraints and how they affect the availability of educational resources. This awareness is evident in the proposal for two staggered hires that would fill curricular holes in a diverse range of departments. Ultimately, budget constraints should not excuse the College from ensuring that the academic needs of both Asian American and non-Asian American students are met.

In short, arguing that Asian American studies does not merit an entire concentration is effectively a dismissal of the legitimacy of this valuable discipline. The field started in the 1960s in the midst of the civil rights movement and has become essential to the ways in which we understand American narratives and the ever-changing nature of the population’s ethnic makeup. Since then, the field has expanded to many institutions of higher education – including, but not limited to, UC Berkeley, Northwestern, Yale and Cornell. Although Williams is a liberal arts school and smaller than these other institutions, if we are supposedly the number one institution in the nation, why do we not have the curriculum to prove it?


Kate Flanagan ’14 is from New Bern, N.C. She lives in Brooks. Allen Lum ’12 is a history major from New York, N.Y. He lives in Lehman.

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