Earlier this semester, Swarthmore Asian Organization announced that the college will be offering the student-run course “Introduction to Asian American Studies” in the education studies department. The course will cover topics such as the history of Asian American immigration, present-day intermarriage, and the existence of the model minority stereotype.
According to Friends Historical Library archives and S.A.O.’s personal archives, this is not the first time S.A.O. has advocated to the administration for an Asian American Studies program.
Yi Wei ’21, political chair of S.A.O., says that the administration has met S.A.O.’s past demands for an Asian American studies program with questions about interest in the program as well as ideas about promoting the integration of Asian American culture or history into pre-existing courses.
“The administration has consistently told us to integrate Asian American history into classes that already exist or that there was not enough interest for the major,” Wei said.
In order to gauge interest for the course and the program, SAO held a panel in November on “Asian American Curriculum” that featured professors from both UPenn and Haverford. According to Wei, nearly 80 people attended, exhibiting to the administration that there was interest and demand for the course.
“The panel was to show to administration that interest does exist,” Wei said. “We know that there’s interest, and we’ve created this course because the administration has been unable to do that for us.”
Wei also attributes the existence of the course to the efforts made faculty members in support of the implementation of Asian American studies courses.
“We had enough faculty backing to get the course off the ground. We weren’t sure whether this would be an independent project, and it evolved into a student-run course,” Wei said. “I know that a lot of faculty in the education studies department have been very supportive of these initiatives for Asian American studies.”
In order to have a student-run course, a faculty adviser for the course is required. Roseann Liu, a professor in the education studies department, serves as the faculty adviser Asian American studies course.
“I was surprised because there were such strong efforts made by students over so many years, which students thankfully have chronicled and archived,” Liu wrote in an e-mail to The Phoenix. “When I initially sat down to talk with students about this, there was a real sense of exhaustion from all their efforts.”
At Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, there has also been pressure from faculty to set up an Asian American studies department. The Tri-College Mellon Grant, which is awarded to faculty for projects related to research, teaching, program initiatives, and curriculum at Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore, was given to three professors interested in further developing the Asian American studies program.
“It’s important to note that there are efforts underway across the Tri-Co that gives me reason to hope [for a future Asian American Studies major]. On the faculty end, Shu-wen Wang from Haverford, Heejung Park from Bryn Mawr, and Bakirathi Mani from Swarthmore were awarded Tri-Co Mellon funding this past year,” Liu wrote in the e-mail. “Among other things, they used that funding to cull together Asian American course offerings from across the Tri-Co and met with students to hear their needs.”
Courses with a specific focus on Asian American Studies in the Tri-Co include “Asian American Psychology” at Bryn Mawr and Haverford and “South Asians in America,” “Asian American Literature,” “In/Visible: Asian American Cultural Critique,” and “Taiko and the Asian American Experience” at Swarthmore.
The initial conception of the class began last semester with members of the S.A.O. However, students took concrete steps this semester in order to establish the class.
According to S.A.O. Co-President Alex Jin ’19, S.A.O. is divided into point teams that are each assigned a specific project or task. S.A.O. established a point team for the creation of an Asian American studies course.
“The way S.A.O. works is we have point teams for different tasks,” Jin said. “We have a S.A.O. board with eight to ten people. On each project we’ll have someone from the board in charge of each specific project, and I chose to adopt the Asian American Studies point team.”
Liu contacted students on the point team after discovering that students were interested in creating a course.
“I actually reached out to students because I heard they were trying to get an Asian American studies program going and thought that a student-run course would be a great way to build on the momentum generated by SAO and other Pan-Asian student groups throughout the Tri-Co,” Liu wrote.
Liu notes that a course or program for students is important because it allows them to address issues not acknowledged in other courses.
“In courses that I teach, especially the first-year seminars, I notice a disproportionately high number of students of Asian descent,” Liu said in the email. “These students often lack the language and frameworks to talk about their experiences because of how race in America functions within a black-white binary.”
While Liu dealt with the administrative side of approving the course, the students on the point team worked on devising a syllabus for the course.
“Professor Liu helped in doing a lot of the administrative work and was really helpful to have on our side during the process,” Jin said. “All of us on the point team were crafting the syllabus and arranging readings and discussing … Everyone on the point team had different interests, so we each had our own themes and then arranged the syllabus based on thematic order.”
While Swarthmore does offer an interdisciplinary Asian Studies program, an Asian American Studies program places emphasis on the history and role of Asians in America.
The published course description states that “the course will examine the study of Asian America through the themes of education, immigration, food, class relations, gender and sexuality, intersectionality, cultural psychology, media, popular culture, and community activism.” The course will be credit/no credit and will be held on Tuesdays, from 1:15 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
“We have about nine or 10 people enrolled right now. What we’ve done is have a mandatory 10-minute break where we allow people who are interested in the course can come for half of it,” Jin said. “You wouldn’t get credit for it, but it’s just an opportunity for people to be a part of the conversation.”
While gaining institutional recognition and support is important for Asian American studies, Liu views the establishment of an Asian American studies program as a way to institute both an understanding of oppression and a way to seek liberation for people of color.
“I think establishing an Asian American studies program and getting institutional support would be a huge victory for all the students and faculty that have fought hard over these years,” Liu said in the email. “But the goal of those who started ethnic studies in the 1960s was not just institutional recognition; ethnic studies was a vehicle for the ultimate goal of liberating oppressed people and we should think of our work in a similar vein.”
Both Black Studies and Latin American and Latino studies remain interdisciplinary majors. According to a 1972 issue of The Phoenix, the student council endorsed a Black Studies major after a proposal for the program by the Swarthmore African American Association, while another issue from 2003 detailed many students’ interest in implementing a major.
Liu believes that the obstacles facing S.A.O. exist for all groups attempting to establish ethnic studies programs.
“Ethnic studies, more generally, is historically underfunded and is often regarded as a niche field in academia,” Liu wrote. “If we see ethnic studies as a way of understanding how people have been classified and organized as part of empire-building processes, then it does what many other disciplines do, which is to illuminate something about society and the human condition.”
While the future of an Asian American studies major or program remains uncertain at Swarthmore, this course may become a catalyst for the creation of more courses about Asian American studies.