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SAO Hosts Asian American Curriculum Panel

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On Nov. 29, the Swarthmore Asian Organization hosted an Asian American Curriculum Panel. The panel lasted almost an hour and a half, spanning a wide range of topics, including the lack of institutional support for Asian American Studies programs, the need for and the meaning of Asian American studies, and the various identities encompassed by Asian American studies.

The panelists included professors David Eng, Fariha Khan, and Josephine Park from the University of Pennsylvania and professor Kalyan Nadiminti from Haverford College. Co-president of SAO, Josephine Hung ’19, and former co-president of SAO, Sonya Chen ’18,  moderated the panel. Both Hung and Chen were impressed by the turnout, estimating that around 80 people attended the event.

Hung and Chen framed the event as part of the long history of student and faculty advocacy for Asian American studies, and Ethnic studies more generally, at Swarthmore and at other colleges.

“The struggle at Swat, the push for Asian American studies as well as other ethnic studies, has been happening for at least two decades, and even today there are many groups working on this,” Hung said. “We’ve definitely faced a lot of pushback… Some things that we’ve heard are, ‘You don’t have enough people to show the interest,’ ‘There are not enough professors to teach it,’ ‘Why don’t you go to another campus to learn some of these courses?’”

According to Hung and Chen, professor Lei Bryant’s Taiko and the Asian American Experience course is the only Asian American studies course offered in the Tri-College this spring. Professor Bakirathi Mani, who is on leave this semester and regularly teaches courses on Asian American literature, has been the only faculty member working in Asian American Studies at the college for the past couple of years.

The panelists presented various definitions of Asian American studies.

Kahn, the director of Asian American studies at Penn, portrayed it as a “part of the larger story” that is often neglected in American history but “should be embedded and part of the larger discourse” rather than a separate area of study.

Nadiminti, a history professor, brings an interdisciplinary lens to Asian American studies, combining law, sociology, literature, and history to examine postcolonialism, American empire, and the impacts of global events on Asian American culture and identity.

“Asian American studies is a discipline that’s very much about change, and it’s about an evolution of Asian America from being one kind of entity to a multiplicity of Asian Americans,” he said.

Park, an English professor, said that Asian American identity and Asian American studies originally formed in reaction to a shared history of anti-Asian racism that united the disparate groups of Asian immigrants to the U.S.

The panelists also emphasized the necessity of Asian American studies as a discipline at institutions of higher education.

Park described how she organized her Introduction to Asian American Literature course at Penn into three sections: exclusion, relating to the 19th century attempts to exclude Asian immigrants from the U.S.; colonial incorporation, and how, as a result of exclusion, immigrants came through the Philippines, then an American colony; and denationalization, focusing on Japanese internment during World War II.

“At this moment of immigrant exclusion, colonial incorporation, and wartime dehumanization, this is the moment that we’re living in right now, and it’s hard to overstate the significance of Asian American studies for comprehending the history of that crisis and our present moment of rampant, shocking nativism: these are all patterns that we’ve seen, and Asian American studies provides a critical and really necessary, presently really understudied set of theoretical and political imperatives,” Park said.

Eng, also an English professor, noted the vital contribution of Asian American studies to Ethnic studies in our multicultural society. He said that Asian Americans are often not seen as racialized and that Asian American identity in our society is predicated on color blindness because the model minority myth depends on Asians not seeing themselves or being seen as racialized subjects. But for Eng, Asian American identity brings necessary complications to America’s paradigm of race as black/white and victim/perpetrator.

“When you throw in Asian Americans, suddenly that whole dynamic of victim and perpetrator disappears. When you talk about Asians and affirmative action, are Asians victims or perpetrators in that dynamic?” Eng said. “What I find really interesting globally for instance, to move this to a much larger frame, is our entire regime of human rights and reparation, it was reinvented in the postwar period. It was reinvented because of two signature events, which were the Holocaust and the atomic bombing of Japan … As far as the question of the Holocaust is concerned, the historiography is complete: Jews were victims and Nazis were perpetrators. There’s zero historical consensus on who’s a victim and who’s a perpetrator in the aftermath of the atomic bombing in Asia and the Cold War.”

Despite the longevity of Penn’s Asian American studies program, which began in 1996, the professors emphasized its fragility and argued that the level of representation of Asian Americans was unfair.

“Yes, we’ve been there for 20 years. But it’s a struggle to stay alive every year,” Kahn said. “And how did it come about? It wasn’t the benevolence of Penn’s administration saying, ‘Hey, you guys really deserve this!’ No, it was student protest.”

Eng agreed with Khan.

“The creation of Asian American studies programs has always been from the bottom up, and if you guys want to do this, you will, and I feel that you do,” said Eng.

He argued that with the high percentages of Asian American students at both Penn and Swarthmore, the percentage of faculty working in Asian American Studies was unrepresentative. According to Eng, approximately 1 percent of Swarthmore’s 187 professors are working in Asian American studies, while 17 percent of the student body are Asian American and 13 percent are international, many of whom are Asian.

“In any scheme of liberal democracy and representation, it’s scandalous,” he said.

Later, the panel moved to a discussion of the pushback from administration and students.

Khan noted how Penn’s administration doesn’t understand the distinction between Asian studies and Asian American studies and expressed her frustration when Asian American students don’t take Asian American studies courses.

Eng again touched on the lack of representation both among faculty and administration, saying that the the problem isn’t a lack of interest, but a lack of courses, and that it’s the administration’s responsibility to provide opportunities.

Nadiminti said that he was at first surprised by the small class sizes he had.

“But I realized that one of the amazing things that was happening is that the students who were in my class were very angry about how Asian American studies is treated, how there’s not enough courses, and we mobilized that anger,” Nadiminti said.

Audience questions focused largely on Asian American identity, with attendees asking about the intersection of Asian American identity with class, Hindu nationalism, queerness, the dangers of the model minority myth, mixed-race Asian American identity, and the divide between first and second generations of Asian Americans.

A Haverford College alum also asked the panelists how not to “burn out” when doing anti-racist work.

“I have this little Angry Asian doll,” said Eng. “And I think that any time you’re doing an  anti-racist or an anti-subordinate project, and I think the thing is that you have to know your own limits, because if you burn out, you’re not really of any use to yourself or of any use to others…In any kind of movement you need to know when to step in and when to step out and take a pause.”

“It’s particularly hard for women to say no,” Khan added. “And at certain times you have to just say ‘I cannot do that.’ And it’s hard when you’re on the fast track to a career and you want to achieve success and you’re already minoritized within this particular frame of being the Asian American woman that will be subservient and that will say yes and be quiet.”

Both Eng and Khan said to not apologize for your actions.

Hung and Chen expanded on the lack of representation after the panel, addressing more of the arguments people mde against having an Asian American Studies program. In response to the argument that interested students can take classes in Asian Studies, both Hung and Chen, like the panelists, emphasized the distinction between Asian American Studies and Asian Studies. In response to those who say that students can take classes at Tri-Co or Penn, Hung said that the burden shouldn’t be on Asian American students to travel far and pointed out that Tri-Co has few Asian American studies courses. To those who say they can take courses that focus on race more broadly, Hung said that many courses discussing race omitted Asian Americans from the curriculum.

Hung also said that the argument about low student interest was hypocritical, because many other courses at the college have low enrollment.

“With the numbers thing, there’s a lot of departments on classes where they actually don’t have that many students taking it as a major or in certain classes. For example classics can have a class with only four people but it still stands because people think that’s a traditional study that is needed there,” Hung said. “So why can’t the same be applied to Asian American Studies? Why do you have to use the same argument that there’s not enough people if that class can continue with only four people?”

Chen believes that the turnout proved student support for Asian American studies. The Scheuer Room where the panel was held was almost full.

“We didn’t really expect the turnout, which was really nice, because there was a lot of support from within the community as well as from other allies,” said Chen. “I feel like we have a lot of material from this event … because with the turnout and a lot of the conversations I feel like it proves the demand.”

Kieran Huang ’21, who considers himself a member of SAO but does not attend many SAO events, heard about the panel from a friend. He expected the low representation of Asian American faculty and courses at the college, but he was surprised at the degree. He also expressed cynicism about the administration’s attempts to address the issue.But he found the panel itself to be empowering.

“I think the panel did a great job of having a wide variety of voices within the Asian and Asian American community at Swarthmore. Something that surprised me is that they talked about multiraciality, class, and international identity. Being able to recognize all those different identities is so crucial,” Huang said. “There needs to be these spaces for all these different types of people who still fit under this Asian/Asian American experience but don’t fit under one course.”

William Gardner, the program coordinator for Asian studies, attended the panel and said he would work with Hung and Chen to continue the conversation as Asian American Studies evolves.

“Asian Studies will continue to include the study of Asian diasporas in its curriculum, and to support Asian American Studies at the college,” Gardner wrote in an email. “Nevertheless, the exact framework of the relationship between Asian Studies and Asian American Studies is open to further discussion as we, as a community, consider the demands for Ethnic Studies and the structure of our interdisciplinary programs.

Hung and Chen emphasized that they want to work in dialogue with those working to expand Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, and ethnic studies. The fight for Asian American studies is part of a larger struggle for representation in curriculum that seems like it will only intensify in the coming year.

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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