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Ethnic Studies programs face obstacles

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On Oct. 9, the Swarthmore Indigenous Students’ Association highlighted in their demands to the college that the school does not have an Indigenous Studies program and offers few courses in indigenous studies in general. The creation and backing of ethnic studies programs has lagged behind other departments for many years, due to structural and institutional obstacles.

Students have called for a Black Studies major since at least the 1970s, as reported in the Feb. 29,1972 issue of The Phoenix. At that time, the Student Council endorsed a Black Studies major, as proposed by the Swarthmore African-American Students’ Association (SASS), and supported SASS’ proposal to revive an Ad Hoc Committee on Black Studies to discuss the idea further. Answering faculty questions about the proposal, a member of SASS said that “Swarthmore is coming late to the black studies field.”

Another Phoenix article — this one from November 20th, 2003 — said that many students in a debate about the issue “felt that there should be a major in black or Africana studies, but opinion differed on whether or not a separate department for black/Africana studies should be created, and, if so, what the major should focus on.”

Members SASS and head of the Black Studies program Nina Johnson were not able to be reached for comment.

Black Studies is still not a major and is a interdisciplinary program rather than a department, offering honors and course minors. Latino and Latin American Studies (LALS), and Asian Studies programs are interdisciplinary programs, not departments. As detailed on the college’s website, the Black Studies program offers honors and course minors, the LALS program offers honors and course minors along with a special major, and the Asian Studies Program offers honors and course majors and minors.

Some of the college’s peer institutions have majors or departments in these or related fields, but others have only minors or concentrations. For example, while Amherst has departments and majors in Black Studies, Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Latinx and Latin American Studies, Williams has concentrations in Africana Studies and Latino Studies and a department in Asian Studies.

Provost Tom Stephenson outlined the process for creating and expanding interdisciplinary programs. He said that programs originate from faculty proposals based on the need for more curriculum in these areas. The authorization to offer a minor comes with the establishment of the program, and programs must apply to offer regular majors. Criteria to expand or establish a program include a “compelling argument” from faculty and adequate staffing to run the program.

Karen Avila ‘20, a board member of ENLACE, the college’s Latinx student group, believes that professor retention is critical for the survival of ethnic studies programs. She called Milton Machuca-Galvez, a visiting professor in Latino and Latin American Studies, “the backbone of the Latino Studies department,” and said that other students in ENLACE agreed with her.

“I still don’t understand why his position is not secured within the Latino Studies department,” Avila said. “That’s a very significant defect in sustaining the LALS department. If you can’t even keep a professor who clearly is so fundamental to the program, you’re not interested in making the program something institutionalized, because you’re not listening to students’ feedback in the first place.”

ENLACE students would also be interested in expanding the LALS program more generally, according to Avila, but she said they couldn’t do it on their own.

“I feel like we’re all on board if there was something that the institution would offer us a chance to partake in,” she said. “We can’t forefront a project; we need some support.”

Professor Edwin Mayorga, an Education professor affiliated with LALS, is offering some of that support. He has started talking with students and faculty about expanding ethnic studies and organizing the programs in a more sustainable way.

Addressing why ethnic studies programs have not become traditional departments, Stephenson said it’s largely because of “institutional culture.”

“We have chosen to look at [ethnic studies] as best taught in the context of the traditional disciplines,” Stephenson said. “I think that’s been the approach of the current faculty that we’ve had who are staffing the Black Studies interdisciplinary program; that’s not to say it won’t evolve in the future.”

As an example of how the programs could change, he cited the way the Film and Media Studies has evolved from an interdisciplinary program to a department that offers a regular major.

But Mayorga questioned the stability of interdisciplinary programs.

“The suggestion of interdisciplinary focus seems premature as a rationalization” for not having more stable programs or departments, said Mayorga. He said that the LALS program was “very fragile” and that the various ethnic studies programs often relied on visiting professors, or, in the case of indigenous studies, student-run courses. He called for more conversation across constituencies and then translating that conversation into action.

In contrast, Professor Christopher Fraga, program coordinator for LALS, said that one of the LALS program’s “greatest strengths is that it is robustly interdisciplinary,” and also pointed out the transnational perspective of the program.

“In the past three to five years, there’s been a pretty concerted effort, I think, to broaden the scope of the courses that we’re offering to include not only Latin America as a geopolitical region but also Latina/Latino/Latinx experiences in the U.S. as well,” said Fraga. He particularly mentioned Professor Désirée Díaz’s focus on Latinx studies as responding to “a felt need” of both students and faculty.

Still, Fraga acknowledged the program’s instability.

“I think it’s fair to see the program as being in a moment of transition or transformation right now,” he said, largely because the faculty associated with it were predominantly junior faculty, although many of them are on tenure track.

Although the proposals to expand interdisciplinary programs have to come from faculty, Fraga pointed out the value of student voices in influencing the expansion of LALS.

“Student interest has been very powerful in our case, and I would also just take a moment to say that student interest in other kinds of ethnic studies programs is also going to be a really important thing for our institution; I’m thinking of, for example, Asian-American Studies,” Fraga said.

That student interest is definitely present from members of ENLACE, the college’s Latinx group and the Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO).

“What we want to do is kind of different from Asian Studies, what we want to do is Asian-American Studies,” said co-president of SAO Josie Hung.

She highlighted the dearth of Asian-American studies courses, which have been largely supported by Bakirathi Mani, a Professor of English who teaches an Asian American Literature course. According to Hung, members of SAO have talked to Professor Mani about possible barriers to expanding the courses on Asian-American studies.

“What admin like to see is numbers. That’s super hard because sometimes [Mani’s] classes would be really popular, sometimes they wouldn’t have that many people, and you have to show people that there’s interest,” said Hung. “But we’ve also talked about how there’s this cycle that’s going on: if you don’t have any courses that are offered about your identity, sometimes you don’t know you need it, or you don’t know there’s these issues that exist, or you might have other interests and it’s nice to not always have to address only your identity.”

She called for faculty members teaching courses that discuss race and ethnicity to go beyond the black/white binary and to work in other ways to support Asian-American studies.

“I think the push has to come from faculty members, because I think they’re the ones that suggest inviting or hiring other faculty members,” said Hung.

William Gardner, the program coordinator for Asian Studies, also highlighted Professor Mani’s role.

[Professor Mani] is clearly an important faculty member and has been responsible to a large extent for holding up the Asian-American part of the curriculum at Swarthmore, together with different visiting faculty over the years, but I think it’s still something where we’d like to see more permanent faculty,” said Gardner.

He also mentioned Professor Lei Ouyang Bryant and her new course on Taiko and the Asian American Experience as an important addition to the program. But Hung said there was pushback to having Bryant’s Taiko and the Asian American Experience course under Asian Studies. Regardless, Gardner emphasized the program’s support of Asian-American studies and work on the Asian diaspora.

“My sense from the faculty [in Asian Studies] is that we’re open to see how Asian American Studies and ethnic studies at the college evolve,” said Gardner, “We think it’s a really important part of what Swarthmore should be teaching, and what students should be learning.”

Similarly to Asian Studies’ attempt to include Asian-American Studies, LALS faculty members have tried to include indigenous studies, according to Fraga.

“I think particularly Professor Machuca and myself as the two anthropologists contributing to the program have tried to ensure that indigenous perspectives and indigenous history in the region are featuring in our courses,” said Fraga. “If there were dedicated positions for people doing indigenous studies, absolutely LALS would be the kind of program to write letters of support, to include courses as being cross-listed, assuming that they’re relevant. In principle I think that there’s a great opportunity for allyship there, and a great opportunity for collaboration. I’m not aware of any specific opportunities that are currently on the table, but I wouldn’t preclude that from being the case in the future.”

Fraga emphasized the limitations of these opportunities, saying that “there’s not a blank check to just bring in all of the different kinds of scholars that everyone in the college would like to have present.”

Members of SISA also could not be reached for comment.

Despite efforts from students and faculty to expand and stabilize ethnic studies programs, changes are likely to take a long time and a great deal of work.

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