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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.

Bryn Mawr, Haverford have already tried social justice requirement

in Around Campus/News by

As the debate about introducing a social justice requirement at the college continues, a comparison of the course offerings within the Tri-College consortium reveals that Byrn Mawr and Haverford offer more social justice related courses and programs than Swarthmore does. In addition, the current debate at Swarthmore echoes discussions from the late 2000s at Byrn Mawr and Haverford as Haverford ended its social justice requirement and Byrn Mawr introduced one.

Each college in the tri-co emphasizes social justice in their admissions materials and curriculums, reflecting the schools’ common Quaker heritage of social concern. Byrn Mawr women go on to become “positive, powerful agents of change in communities all over the world,” according to their college website. Our website says that Swarthmore gives students “the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good. ”From 1990 to 2008 Haverford had a social justice graduation requirement. All the schools in the tri-co offer a Peace And Conflict Studies program. Despite these similarities, many more social justice courses and programs are offered at Byrn Mawr and Haverford than at Swarthmore.

Differences in course offerings within certain departments show the disparity in social justice course offerings. While Swarthmore’s Philosophy department only offers about one ethics class a year, Byrn Mawr’s offers several a semester, including a general ethics class, which Swarthmore does not offer, and classes like Science and Morality in Modernity, Global Ethical Issues, and Environmental Ethics. Bryn Mawr offered 20 Gender and Sexuality courses this semester, while Swarthmore offered 14, excluding seminars only open to a small number of students. This difference is despite the fact that the three schools have about an equal number of students pursuing a minor or concentration in that field. Byrn Marw and Haverford offered 20 Black Studies classes, while Swarthmore offered 17.

Beyond course offerings Byrn Mawr has several social justice related programs that Swarthmore does not. Byrn Mawr offers an International Studies program with a “global social justice” track. The track has a stated purpose of allowing “students to explore issues of social and political change in the context of economic and political transition in the globalized world. In addition, Byrn Mawr requires students to take a class that fulfills a “cross cultural analysis” requirement, which is meant to “encourage the student’s engagement with communities and cultures removed from her own.”

Though opportunities to take courses related to social justice appear to be greater at Bryn Mawr and Haverford than at Swarthmore, some bi-co students still feel discontent with these course offerings.

Isabella Nugent, BMC ’18, says she feels Byrn Marw’s degree requirements actually do not emphasize social justice enough.

“I really wouldn’t consider the Cross-Cultural Requirement a social justice requirement at all. It seems like a stretch as many classes (such as anthropology and archaeology) compare cultures but do not focus on social justice issues.”

Nugen also feels there should be more classes related to social justice.

“As an international studies major with a global social justice track, I believe that courses focused specifically on social movements are relatively limited at Bryn Mawr. I have taken the majority of my social justice courses for my concentration through Haverford’s Peace, Justice, and Human Rights department.”

Although students and faculty have recently organized to talk about instituting a social justice requirement because of dissatisfaction with the course offerings, some students at Swarthmore feel that such a requirement would be unworkable and unnecessary.

“There are a lot of courses in humanities and social sciences that deal with social justice and I would be fine with the college organizing an interdisciplinary social justice program to bring them all together, but to force students to take these classes against their will just seems un-swarthmore,” said Evan Shoaf ’18.

Shoaf felt such a requirement would change little about the student body.

“I’m against it because I think the effect will be minimal at best. Swarthmore forces you to be in contact with social justice constantly (orientation, all campus events, etc) – we don’t need to force people to take certain classes to hammer in details.”

Other members of the campus community felt that introducing a social justice requirement could be easily implemented and that it would be very beneficial to the college.

“Last February, some of the students organizing for the Social Justice requirement invited me to a meeting with students, faculty, and staff. It was heartwarming to see the Intercultural Center full with students from all walks of life, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed their commitment to such an addition to our curriculum. As an alum and faculty member, I agree with them that this would be a wise move for the College,” said Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan ’06.

Atshan cited similar changes nationally, specifically Georgetown University’s recent decision to add a social justice requirement, as further reason he believed Swarthmore should also introduce such a requirement. He felt a social justice requirement would enhance Swarthmore’s existing curriculum.

“We have the capacity here at Swarthmore to build upon existing resources so that students could fulfill the Social Justice requirement as a distributional one, where they select from already developed courses. I think that it is essential for Swatties to take one course before graduation that exposes them to social justices issues (taking power and inequality into account) from a rigorous analytical and academic vantage point,” said Atshan ’06.

Student and faculty opinion about introducing a social justice requirement reflect debate that occurred in the bi-co in the late 2000s. In 2008, Haverford eliminated its social justice requirement. During the same period, Byrn Mawr was considering introducing one, but instead in 2010 introduced its cross-cultural analysis requirement.

Some at Haverford felt the requirement insufficiently addressed the issue of social justice while at the same time imposing an onerous requirement on students.

Former professor of Political Science at Haverford Cristina Beltran, quoted in a story run by the Bi-College news in 2008, said “It never made any intellectual sense. It felt like a one-size-fits-all solution to a richer question. The people who were most unhappy with the requirement were the ones who taught the requirement.”

The Bi-Co news article continued to note that some at Haverford felt that the social justice requirement was vital to maintaining the school’s identity as an institution.

Dean of Multicultural Affairs Sunni Tolbert  was quoted as saying “Social justice is one of those things that reflects the values of the institution.” “The one way for us to send a message [about Haverford’s commitment to social justice] is to say, ‘There is an academic foundation to the learning about multiculturalism and diversity.’

Haverford student Isabel Clarke about a social justice requirement in a 2007 article for the Bi-Co news concluded that many students felt the requirement had lost its meaning.

“Concerns that the Social Justice Requirement is losing its focus and purpose are expressed by many students on campus who say they don’t mind having to fulfill the requirement, but also do not appreciate the class for the “social justice” aspect, rather as just another class needed to graduate,” she said.

As the college continues to debate whether to introduce a social justice requirement it seems important to consider if Swarthmore offers enough relevant courses and programs to support and sustain such a requirement.


Students, faculty discuss diversity in curriculum

in Around Campus/News by

Students, staff, and faculty gathered in the Intercultural Center on Monday to discuss ways to increase awareness of social justice issues on campus via a social justice class requirement. Although there was no universal agreement on what the requirement should look like, the conversation mostly centered around the idea of designating certain courses as social justice courses, similar to the writing course classification.

The discussion was organized by Bobby Zipp ’18, Andrés Cordero ’16, Killian McGinnis ’19, and Abby Saul ’19. Those in attendance included a wide range of faculty and administrators representing a number of fields, including political science and education. About 10 faculty and 30 students were in attendance. The students ranged from freshmen to upperclassmen with students in many different disciplines. It was an open discussion where everyone had the opportunity to state their opinion on the issue.

Cordero said that his goal is to get a group of students together to write a proposal that would gain support among students. Once a popular proposal is written he hopes to present it to the Council of Educational Policy (CEP) by next spring.

Many thought the most important first step would be to evaluate current courses and find ones that already help increase social awareness on different issues including sexism, racism, and global warming.

“Denoting certain classes that already exist as an SJ, social justice, or a GC, global citizenship. I think that would be a practical first step in approaching a more just solution,” said Taylor Morgan ’19.

Many students saw a course requirement as key to a holistic liberal arts education and the pursuit of Swarthmore’s mission.

“In the same way divisional requirements force you to have a holistic education, because we consider that as in your best interest even if you do not do so…. And I think it’s the same conception when it comes to social issues,” said Cordero. “Not only will it improve the quality of life within Swarthmore, but it will be in the best social interest of the future professionals that [graduate from Swarthmore] when they have to make decisions about the world and they have better knowledge and capacities to make sense of race, sexism, and definitely global warming.”

Other students thought making it a requirement would make the class less valuable to students.

“I don’t get enjoyment from getting classes that I know I have to take,” said Allison Alcena ’17. “So if I were to come in with a perspective that isn’t one of inclusion and acceptance, it would just be another course to take. I don’t know that I would be sitting in it really [learning] as much as just feeling I do not want to go to class this morning.”

Some discussed using freshman orientation as a place to discuss social justice issues as an alternative to a class requirement. Alcena thought that making orientation more focused on multicultural identity, like the Tri-College Summer Multicultural Institute would help alleviate this problem. This idea was echoed by former Vice-President Maurice Eldridge.

“I think some of this work ought to start right at the beginning. So it ought to be a part of orientation, how we actually orient new students. And I don’t think orientation should take just a week or two weeks, I think it should perhaps take a whole semester or maybe even a whole first year,” said Eldridge.

Using orientation for this goal would alleviate some concerns about the idea of adding another requirement.

Many students were worried about the ability to make a tangible change to college policy and the urgency of the project. Kat Galvis Rodriguez ’17 and Salman Safir ’16 both spoke of how many students in the past have tried to complete projects similar to this one and how short institutional memory can be. Galvis said she had seen many students try to add a diversity requirement before and fail.

“I don’t know the politics, I don’t know the timeline, but I think there is a sense of urgency.” said Galvis. “A lot of us know that a diversity requirement is something we want … if we could see a timeline of when something like that could happen, then we have goals that we could look for, and not ‘let’s talk about this more.’”

The consensus of the meeting was that the next step for students interested in creating a diversity should be to define the goals of the project. Faculty and staff emphasized the importance of clarifying the purpose of the project before deciding on any action.

“Look for allies in places where you don’t think there are allies….  look for the categories that don’t always rise to the top,” said Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Educational Studies Dr. Diane Anderson. “When you start to think about ableism and mental health on this campus those are also categories of difference and marginalization and silencing that make people not feel that they belong in this community so these are some places you can look.”

After the conversation ended, students signed up to be notified about future organizing events. Students plan on sending out a campus wide survey through SGO to better understand the student body’s position on the issue. They will then use the data to create a proposal to submit to the administration.

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