Examining the history of the Asian American Studies movement

The recent push for an Asian American Studies program at the College has been the latest incarnation of a student movement spanning at least 27 years of recorded history. Asian American Studies as a concept has been present on campus as far back as the 1990s and early 2000s, and student activism calling for an Asian American Studies program has seen a variety of manifestions over the past three decades.

In 2002, Suainia Maira, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, came to the College to speak as part of Asian American Awareness Month. Although this event denoted a clear recognition of and appreciation for Asian American Studies as an academic field, it  ultimately did little to establish an official program.

Instead, what followed was a series of short-lived campaigns with relatively small bases of support. “In the past … it was difficult to grow a bigger movement,” Professor of American Studies and Faculty Affiliate in English Dorothy Wang said. “These students were very passionate, but they had trouble getting a larger group of students interested.” Wang’s own hiring was the result of student activism, and in her 12 years as a professor at the College, she has seen at least three major organized movements.

Even outside of major organized movements, support for Asian American Studies at the College has been a constant presence. “It gets a little blurry in what is called a ‘movement’ and what is called a group of students trying to fight for Asian American Studies,” Wang said. “There certainly have been students over the years trying to fight for Asian American Studies, but only a few got more organized.” She emphasized that the major obstacles to forming a program were, and continue to be, misperceptions of Asian Americans and ignorance about Asian American history on the part of the campus community, including the administration, rather than a lack of efficacy on the part of organizing students.

One of the most recent movements came in 2012, when students organized a poster campaign and introduced a petition calling for an Asian American Studies concentration, complete with a Facebook group and a website. College Council voted 18-0, with two abstentions, in support of this movement, but student support was still divided. An editorial from the Record board argued against the creation of the concentration, claiming that limited financial resources should be allocated toward hiring new faculty in other fields (“Working within our means: Evaluating the College’s curricular priorities,” Feb. 29, 2012). Largely due to lack of student, faculty and administrative support, this campaign ultimately failed. In 2013-14, an Asian American Studies cluster was implemented in the course catalog, bringing together classes in American Studies, history and other departments pertaining to the field, but the move was purely symbolic; it did not result in new hiring or curricular organization, and the cluster was eventually removed in 2016-2017 when these courses stopped being offered.

With the start-and-stop nature of previous student-led initiatives in mind, the most recent push has placed a special focus on institutional memory and keeping records of discussions and promises to prevent stagnation. Suiyi Tang ’20, was instrumental in compiling an archive of records, including photos, articles and administrative documents, recounting the history of the movement. “One of the big issues facing student activism is the lack of institutional memory,” she said. “Especially with Asian American Studies, this fact comes into a very bleak light…  This push is particularly important because it rests on the haunches of this last remembered push.”

The movement’s current organizers have taken this lesson to heart and are using the long history of protests for Asian American Studies to highlight the urgent need for tangible and immediate action.

Existing programs in ethnic studies at the College came about through similar conflicts between students and the administration. Both Africana Studies and Latina/o Studies were the results of widespread and persistent student protests in the 1960s and 1990s, respectively.

The ultimate direction of Asian American Studies at the College will depend on decisions made regarding the hiring of new faculty. “The students are a huge catalyst,” Wang said. “They’re a huge force and a huge factor, but in the end, it’s going to come down to whether the administration wants to devote the money to hiring trained Asian Americanists.” Beyond just hiring professors of Asian American origin, the success of the movement rests on the administration’s willingness to hire new faculty who specialize in the academic field of Asian American Studies. By bringing attention to the movement’s long and laborious history, the current organizers hope to do just that.

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