Continuing the movement: A push for expanding the Asian American studies department

February 17, 2016 by Wendy Suiyi Tang

Edmund Burke’s famous quote about history and remembrance – “Those who don’t remember history are destined to repeat it” – has been uttered so often it has become cliché. But despite the fact that this precaution is widely known, it is only selectively applied. We, as a society, have certainly tried hard to remember some history, but whose history? More importantly, whose history are we not learning? The history we choose to remember holds profound implications for the reconstruction of that memory. Rather than a static element, the story of the past is dynamic, in constant dialogue with the present and the future. Those prone to selective memory are not just destined to repeat the mistakes of the past, but are doomed to live in the unwavering shadow of injustice.

Though the struggle for an Asian American studies department at the College traces back some 20 years. Today, its presence in the course catalogue is small; only a few classes are listed, if any. With the recent departure of two Assistant Professors of English, Vincent Schleitwiler and Ji-Young Um, Asian American studies scholars at the College number a meager three. The impending departures of both Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Comparative Literature Vivian Huang and James Phinney Baxter III Professor of History and Public Affairs Scott Wong next semester will leave that number at one: Associate Professor of American Studies and Faculty Affiliate in English Dorothy Wang. (Huang’s residency is only for two years; Wong will be going on sabbatical.) This will mean that unless other faculty are hired, there may not be a single Asian American studies course offered next semester.

The Record Editorial Board wrote in 2012 that it was “concerned that the scope of Asian American studies might be too narrow to merit an entire concentration” (“Working within our means: Evaluating the College’s curricular priorities,” Feb. 29, 2012). This is an assumption as unfortunate as it is misdirected and simply fallacious. Asian American studies is multidisciplinary; a small sampling of subjects in the field include Asian American history, sexuality and gender studies, visual arts and literature, each with its own distinct epistemology and pedagogy. Paired with the sheer scope of Asia, and the multitudinous ethnicities incorporated within it, Asian American studies is hardly a field to scoff at.

Reflecting on the student strikers at San Francisco State, scholar Daryl Maeda writes that education is a means of self-determination. As an Asian American student at the College and a board member of the College’s Asian American Students in Action (AASiA), I have vested interest in the creation of an Asian American studies department, or at least an increase in the resources dedicated to its current embryonic stage. But this is an issue that is much bigger than me or any Asian American student. At its core, Asian American studies offers a multidisciplinary lens steeped in the history of a crucial group of Americans, and it is a study for all students, Asian American and otherwise.

But enough about the legitimacy of an Asian American studies program. Discourse validating its necessity are plenty, and we should be beyond the ignorant denial of its academic incorporation. The question now is about the implementation of our goals. A few weeks back, I spoke at the open forum with the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Student Experience on the necessity of expanding the current Asian American studies curriculum to little avail. Trustees voiced public sympathy to the cause, but professed, in private discussions with students, that they had little power to institute curricular changes. My discussions with administrators and faculty members in the monthly Diversity and Equity Forums have similarly yielded little direction: This group, too, felt limited in its ability to enact a change. Gradualism and a strategic approach to department heads was the surest way to go, they told me. The possibility of one or two new hires in the next five to 10 years was the best we could hope for.

But we can’t afford to wait five to 10 years, not with rapidly diminishing curricular offerings and the concerning consistency at which faculty members are departing. These things threaten the very existence of Asian American studies at the College. If trustees, faculty and administrators do not have the power, then who does?

We are at a historic juncture in the struggle for Asian American studies. The capital campaign and expected retirement of some two-thirds of the current faculty in the next decade provide us with an excellent opportunity to expand the nascent Asian American studies program. Now is the time for us, as students and scholars dedicated to the academic holism that the liberal arts model is predicated upon, to push forth our desire for the expansion of an Asian American studies curriculum. There are a number of things we can individually do: Ask our Divisions I and II department chairs about opening faculty lines and the possibility of filling those positions with Asian Americanist scholars, scope out course offerings on Asian American studies and give them a try, attend AASiA discussions and events to learn about the nuances of Asian American identity politics and, above all, remain engaged and aware. As AASiA moves forward with its push for the recognition and expansion of an Asian American studies program here at the College, the support and solidarity of fellow students are needed more than ever.

The College prides itself on a history of academic excellence, on a unique model of education distinguished by its firm dedication to progressivism and intellectual exploration. If this is truly the case – if these same values are as important today as they were at the moment of the College’s founding – then, unless amendments are made to the current curricular offerings, notably in the immediate fortification of an Asian American studies program, we will fall severely short of the ideal to which we so proudly claim to be heirs.

Wendy Suiyi Tang ’19 is from Millbrae, Calif. She lives in Mills-Dennett.

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