Missing part of the narrative: At the College, American studies is not complete without Asian American studies

April 20, 2016 by Alexander Huang

Ethnic studies have had a troubled history at the College. The Africana studies concentration was formed in the 1980s only through sit-in protests in Hopkins Hall; Latino studies was formed in 2003, years after two hunger strikes.

The push for an Asian American studies concentration, started around 25 years ago, has attempted to follow suit. But it has thus far failed to establish a substantial program; on the contrary, it has begun to deteriorate. Today, we are left with just two tenured professors qualified to teach Asian American studies on this campus, neither of whom are obligated to. (Rather, they teach it because they want to and find it important.) One of the two, James Phinney Baxter III Professor of History and Public Affairs Scott Wong, is going on sabbatical next year, meaning that we will see a semester next year where no Asian American studies classes will be offered. The link to “Asian American studies” has already been removed from the course catalog for 2016-2017 academic year. As it stands now, Asian American studies at the College is teetering close to extinction.

So why are people okay with this? This question is perhaps unfounded and unfair, since previous initiatives and enrollment numbers in the few classes offered for Asian American studies have proven that a significant portion of the student body is consistently supportive of these classes. But I have asked this question, and in response I have received the following justifications: Logistically, it’s too difficult; Asian American studies is too narrow to warrant a program; we already have “Asian studies”; if you really wanted to learn it, take a contract major; there are programs abroad and extracurricular groups you can join, etc.

The string that ties all of these responses together is: No one’s stopping you from learning about it yourself, just not in a classroom, okay? Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot to say about that. But I want to talk beyond equity because I believe that many people are missing a crucial point in discussions about Asian American studies.

More than an issue of identity politics, Asian American studies is needed on this campus because without it, American studies is not complete. For that matter, any study on the United States in general, including topics found in departments like psychology and sociology, is not complete, so in this article let’s bundle that into the term “American studies” too. Last week, at a discussion on Executive Order 9066 and its consequences on the Japanese American and Chinese American experience, I asked Professor Wong why someone should take Asian American studies. His response was simple: People should take Asian American studies because it is American studies. Asian Americans have lived here for centuries and are thus a part of the narrative. Regardless of how you identify, if you’re interested in understanding America, you should take Asian American studies to get the full picture. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving the College with a very partial understanding of what the United States actually is. This same logic can be applied to any department: It would not be right to have no classes available on social psychology, for example, because without social psychology, the psychology major is not complete.

To me, the point of academia is to acquire comprehensive knowledge. I am concerned, then, about the possibility that an American studies major at the College may go on to become the next big politician, historian, professor or lawyer not knowing who Vincent Chin is or why half of the U.S. government’s formal apologies have been directed to groups of AAPI ancestry, to no fault of their own but rather because there simply are no courses to teach them about it. Is that really what the College’s education is – compared to peer institutions, skewed and limited? Is that really the disservice the College should give to us and our posterity? Evidently not: The College, in its mission statement, aims to “extend a curriculum that offers wide opportunities … and reflects the complexity and diversity of the world” in order to “provide the finest possible liberal arts education.” While exhaustive on many fronts (and for that I am grateful), the College still fails to uphold this academic commitment in American studies. Asian American or not, Asian American studies enthusiast or not, a situation like this should be unacceptable in the Purple Valley.

In light of the Teach It Forward campaign and high estimates of tenured professors retiring in the next five to six years, I believe we have come at a crossroads in the College’s curricular history. As inevitable discussions of faculty allocation, curricular gaps and hiring line proposals emerge in the near future, we must show the College that the issue of Asian American studies can no longer be a discussion behind closed doors. Beyond providing as many as 18 to 20 percent of our community with the fundamental opportunity to study their own history, culture, identity and race, Asian American studies is necessary for a more wholesome American studies – and, by extension, a more wholesome academic curriculum. We all come to this campus under the belief that the College is a leader in higher education, and we should hold it accountable to this standard. If egalitarianism isn’t enough of a reason to demand more out of our curriculum, let our desire for a comprehensive education suffice.

Alex Huang ’17 is a psychology and political science double major from Shanghai, China. He lives in Prospect.

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