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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.

In Case You Missed it: Ta-Nehisi Coates came to UPenn

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On Nov. 1, the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium hosted writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and hundreds of audience members who, at one point or another, have found themselves lost in his work. Myself and many other Swarthmore community members were included in this bunch, making the trek to Penn to catch Coates on this stop of his tour for his forthcoming non-fiction book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.” As the first half of the title suggests, Coates chronicles the Obama years. As the second half of the title may suggest (depending on your sociopolitical identity), Coates also chronicles the rise of Trump.


For the past 10 years, Coates has been at The Atlantic as a national correspondent, stirring conversations on race and identity with pieces like “The Case for Reparations,” in addition to his internationally acclaimed book “Between the World and Me” and his Marvel comic series “Black Panther.” His work landed him a MacArthur Fellowship in 2015, more commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant.” The award, in conjunction with constant acclaim, makes Coates feel “…uncomfortable” But not in an edgy, I-don’t-need-your-praise-way, exactly.


“It obscures the pain […] [that is] the experience of writing,” he explained to the audience.


Coates doesn’t believe that his work is the product of mere intelligence, as the Genius Grant might connote. Instead, his writing comes from a place of deep emotional pain and aims to pay homage to the greats of Black literature, which he refers to as a “long line of dreambreakers” — challengers of the notion of the American Dream. Like many writers, he acknowledges the cliché that writing really is about rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting until something “okay” becomes something publishable. His new project began as a “Best Of” series of his Atlantic pieces, but he soon realized that that didn’t excite or inspire him. “We Were Eight Years in Power” was born of his need to create and challenge the White supremacist dreams marketed to voters in this past election and current presidential administration.  


The day before the lecture, Coates was circulating the Twittersphere with a message directed at White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies Camille Charles, who sat down with Coates for the 40-minute conversation at the University of Pennsylvania, pressed him to expand on what led to this impassioned 32-tweet thread.


“There are some wars in history… that are kind of hard to understand,” Coates began, referencing the killing of the Archduke of “where or whatever”. “It’s not hard to figure out what the Civil War was about,” he laughed. “It’s very clear.”


In case you missed it, John Kelly — who, to reiterate, occupies one of the highest offices in the land — publicly commented that the Civil War was the result of the “lack of an ability to compromise.” He also called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man.” Coates didn’t hesitate to call out Kelly’s creationist theorizing on the Internet (with screenshots of historical documents referencing the fight over slavery as the cause), nor did he hold back his thoughts at this lecture.


Coates deplored the fact that those who occupy the highest positions of power in America, are unable to identify the cause of the most significant internal war in America’s history.

“When you are in power, you can ‘re-write’ history,” Coates says, adding — more than once — to laughs and snaps from the audience, “Trump is professionally stupid.”


“I’m going to talk to you like the world talks to me,” the author says about why “professionally stupid” is his go-to phrase on the president, as well as other phrases like “White people are crazy.”


“You cannot convince me that someone who was Black and that politically unqualified would even make it as governor,” he continues. “If Donald Trump was Black, he wouldn’t have made it off the block.”


Charles moved on to ask him a question about the Obamas, but that didn’t mean that the conversation on White supremacy stopped. In fact, it was amplified.


“White supremacy has been in denial of bourgeois values,” Coates explained. To him, the Obamas as a family fit the mold of those values. Their education, their social mobility, their family structure etc.


“They have a dog named Bo!” he lamented humorously. “This could be a TV show!”


Though a vocal critic of President Obama’s policies, the respect that Coates has for Obama as a person (and in turn, the respect Obama has for Coates) is evident. However, Coates pokes fun at the “picture-perfect” lives of the Obamas to do one thing: expose the rank hypocrisy of conservatives who blame “Black culture” for racial hierarchy.


“[They] hate you. Not because of your standards, but because of who you are. There’s nothing you can do about it. They hate you,” Coates says to us, as if Obama were in the audience too. He also referenced a study that found White people view Bo, the dog, as a “less nice dog” when they find out he is the Obama family dog. I Googled it. It’s a real study.


“Everything that people claim is wrong with Black people has nothing to do with Black people. It has to do with taking from them,” Coates explained with the laugh that only comes along with a deep frustration with ignorance. If aliens came to earth and saw our history, he said, the truth about how we got to where we are today would be evident.


Charles brought the conversation back to his new book, which he is grateful to have had the opportunity to write. However, as much pride as he has in his work, Coates is still somewhat melancholy about it.


“The period before a piece comes out is when it belongs to you. Then it becomes property of the public,” Coates explained. With his rise in “fame”, another term that makes him uncomfortable, Coates detailed how he has had to adjust greatly throughout his career.


“[Fame] kills something inside you. That openness and curiosity and willingness to engage,” he laughed as he remembered logging onto Facebook and being baffled to see friends criticize him, as if they weren’t friends and he was a distant celebrity.


His position as a writer is constantly changing, but what stays consistent is his need to offer the truth about America’s history of White supremacy and continuous profiting off the backs of Black bodies.


“Why do White people like what I write?” Coates rephrased a question Charles asked him from her neat pile of notecards. “People think they want absolution. ‘Why won’t he give me hope?’ But then they keep reading. Because deep down, they don’t want to be lied to. They want the truth.”


The lecture ended with time for four audience questions. For all of the questions, askers basically did that long-winded thing where they try to share their life stories and don’t really ask a question. One of the people (after telling her life story) asked which chapter she should assign her students to read of his new book. Another asked if Coates is critical of Obama at all in the book.


“I would suggest you read my book,” Coates responded coyly.

Universities, hospitals remake West Philadelphia

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Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, located right across the Schuylkill River from Center City, is still in heavy use by Amtrak and SEPTA, but it feels a little bit like an out-of-place relic. The station’s heavy pillars, boxy limestone exterior, grand atrium, and multiple levels of tracks indicate clearly to everyone who passes through that the building is  a monument: to an industrial city, to railroad travel, and, most importantly, to the company that for decades shaped much of the city and built the station: the Pennsylvania Railroad. But that company went bankrupt forty years ago, and much of the area around the station is today a sea of surface parking lots, rail yards, maintenance buildings and low-lying, vaguely dingy office buildings.

Over the coming years, that will likely change in a big way, and not just because Center City is once again bustling. Drexel University has acquired 12 acres of underdeveloped land around the station and plans to turn them into an “Innovation Neighborhood” full of densely built residential high rises with ample on-street dining and retail, academic buildings and high-end offices. Drexel is also working with Amtrak to find a developer interested in capping and building over the rail yards north of the station.

This is just the latest example of a major and well-documented trend: universities and hospitals taking taking the lead in shaping the city. (The same trend can be seen in Chicago, Baltimore and elsewhere.) West Philadelphia, which 30th Street sits right at the edge of, has long played host to Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania and its hospital, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and certainly those institutions have shaped it for better and worse as it has grown over the years. But never in recent memory have they undertaken so much development so quickly, or so much development unrelated to their core institutional functions, as in the last fifteen or so years. These institutions want to remake a whole area of the city.

Drexel’s “Innovation Neighborhood” will likely never look quite as exciting or perfect as it does in the renderings featured in the university’s master plan, but there’s no reason to think most if not all of the proposed development won’t go ahead. This isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s part of a carefully planned and long-running initiative by the university to increase enrollment and raise its profile — in a lot of ways, to become more like Penn.

Drexel’s current campus looks nothing like it did twenty years ago. There are tall new academic buildings, and tall new dorms, new and expanded athletic facilities, and sizable new outdoor gathering spaces. Some buildings are still under construction, including a 24-story residential tower, the university’s tallest yet. Drexel wants to leverage its city location by urbanizing its somewhat drab campus, and it is explicit about that in its 200-page campus master plan: “We’re in Philadelphia, a hotbed of thought… that’s why I came,” an unattributed blown-up quote declares, just before the planners suggest, quite unrealistically, that vibrant intersections and streets with lots of outdoor seating can “become Drexel’s signature version of the campus quadrangle.”

The current remaking of the area directly around 30th Street goes back to the early 2000s, when Amtrak helped develop Cira Center, the striking 29-story office tower lodged between two rail yards next to the station that looks something like an angular block of crystal. That building was originally imagined as the first of four such towers around the station. Now, eight years after the first tower opened, the second is finally under construction. Unsurprisingly, the new tower, which will rise to 33 stories, will consist of upscale housing marketed at the wealthiest of Penn and Drexel students. (Amenities include a rooftop pool with fantastic views of the city.) Construction on the third tower, which may rise to 47 stories and become one of the tallest buildings in the city, could begin later this year.

The area has been further boosted by a number of other developments nearby — most interestingly, the new 24-acre Penn Park a couple of blocks south. That park was the cornerstone of the first phase of “Penn Connects,” Penn’s campus master plan since the mid-2000s. Like Drexel’s plan, Penn’s focuses on integrating the university into the city, drawing students to local neighborhoods and neighbors to (certain) public spaces at Penn. Already the most gentrified parts of West Philadelphia are those that directly abut the Penn campus, where the streets are lined with hip restaurants and stores and all the pedestrians look like they’re the sort of professional, clean-cut people who will work their way up the corporate ladder in no time and also do things that are “socially responsible.”

The University City District, an organization which helps maintain and improve the area and is funded in large part by Drexel and Penn, has been tracking all the development. In its 2013 report on the “state of University City,” released just a few weeks ago, it found that the area has seen $3.5 billion of development in the past few years. 2.6 million square feet of residential real estate has recently been completed or is under construction, and the district’s population is likely to increase 10 percent over the next three years. Average income has climbed 36 percent, inflation-adjusted, over the past twenty years. Rents are on the rise, and the median home value, inflation-adjusted, has tripled since 2000.

It is this last statistic that brings to mind the bad side of gentrification, or, as it’s sometimes mockingly called in West Philadelphia, “Penntrification”: the destruction of neighborhoods and the driving out of poorer longtime residents. The area may become safer and better maintained, but it may also become less affordable and less interesting. Some residents are fed up with the universities’ agenda. (A bumper sticker reading “This is West Philly. ‘University City’ is a marketing scheme” became popular a few years ago.)

There is validity to worries about the universities pushing out those they decide are not the sort of people they want around their campuses, especially since Penn has a history of doing just that. But it would be unfair to dismiss all the current development so quickly. Virtually none of it is replacing existing affordable housing or local businesses, and the home value increases it has been producing are nowhere near high enough to force out large numbers of longtime residents. And a lot of what the universities do really is good for locals — for example, helping keep the streets safe and clean, upgrading parks and other public spaces and helping local schools. Large-scale development is also just exciting for the city. Much of Philadelphia has been stagnant for too long; it’s good to think, for the first time in a long time, that a large part of the city will look radically different in ten years than it does now.

But it is also important to see the development for what it really is, which is self-interested expansion and promotion of the universities. Though they would near admit it, the universities are modern Philadelphia’s equivalent of huge companies like the Penn Railroad, and their development strategies accordingly bear close resemblance to one another: build up a brand, move up in the world, beat the competition. The proposed “Innovation Neighborhood” is to Drexel what 30th Street was to the railroad. (What’s really unfair, given the universities’ manifestly corporate behavior, is that they don’t pay taxes.)

Even the most seemingly community-oriented project of all, Penn Park, is hardly a true public space. Just across the river, the much less fancy Schuylkill River Park is packed every day with local residents eating, playing basketball, walking their dogs, and the like, while the perfectly manicured and much less used Penn Park seems to serve primarily Penn athletes and others affiliated with the university. Part of the problem is that there is no good way to walk between the neighborhoods across the river and the new park, a problem that was originally supposed to be solved by a bold pedestrian bridge across the river. But that bridge, the piece of the plan that really was for the public, hasn’t been built and now appears to have been quietly dropped from the campus master plan.

But disingenuousness aside, the park is just a great work of architecture — a living transformation of space that pushes those who experience it to see the form and function of the city, neighborhood and park itself in new ways. The park, in being an achieved and stunning product of a city institution’s ambition, shows why the sort of development the universities are pursuing can be worth it. It is expansive and comfortable nestled between large industrial structures, intimate and yet not at all kitschy. Intelligent use of vertical space makes this park. Most of the land is used for Penn tennis courts and sports fields, but the park still feels properly pedestrian, in large part because the green areas and paths between the fields change grade constantly throughout the park, revealing new views of fields and new secluded areas. And the best part of the design, by the well known landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh, are the three long, dramatic pedestrian bridges that connect the low-lying park up to the Walnut Street bridge, cross the Amtrak tracks and cross under an old (but still used) elevated railroad structure. These light metal structures seem to dart around the old industrial ones, creating a subtle interplay between the city’s past and its present, subtly suggesting the university’s similarity to the railroad that once ruled this land and weaving together the different grades and levels of development in a way no other project in the area has managed.

As a new wave of development hits, it is worth hoping that the universities and hospitals do as well with it as Penn did with its park. Really excellent architecture has the potential to grapple openly with the transformation of West Philadelphia, and is a real asset for residents of the city, albeit in a limited way.

History Speaks

in Around Campus/Around Higher Education/News by

A symposium titled “Memory, Oral History, and Documentary Filmmaking in Latin America” will be co-hosted by Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania today and tomorrow. Organized by Swarthmore history professor Diego Armus and history professor and director of the Latin American Studies Program at Penn, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, the two-day event will feature Latin American scholars from as close as Pennsylvania and as far as Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The program will begin today at Swarthmore, where the documentary “La Palabra en el Bosque” will be screened and Jeff Gould, its producer, will hold a discussion. Tomorrow morning and afternoon, two events dealing with deportation and an Argentine working class community respectively will be held at Penn.

Armus, who is teaching a research seminar titled “Between Oral History and Memory,” paired up with Farnsworth-Alvear, who is teaching a graduate course on the subject, to create a symposium that could be used as teaching resources.

“Paper presenters are graduates working on their dissertations and scholars with a long trajectory in the field of Latin American oral history and memory,” Armus said. “ I used oral history when working on my previous books and I continue to do it in my current research on the history of smoking in Buenos Aires … My colleague Ann Farnsworth-Alvear at UPenn uses oral history in her work on modern Colombia.”

Gould has also practiced oral history for some time. Following his invitation to speak as a historian, he suggested showing and discussing his film, and therefore including documentary filmmaking into the symposium.

“There are not many academic historians who directly create, rather than advise, documentary films,” he said in an e-mail. “My experience hopefully provides a useful reference point for the workshop, particularly as regards film and the politics of memory.”

The film, which deals with human rights violations, social utopia and religiosity, is being screened at an appropriate time with the recent election of the Argentine Pope.

“Pope Francis is relevant to the film in particular because of his complex and contradictory relationship to Liberation Theology, on the one hand, and the human rights tragedy of Argentina during the late 1970s, on the other,” Gould said. “Certainly the politics of memory with relationship to the church and the military dictatorship is an important topic for the workshop.”

The screening will begin at 4 p.m. today in Science Center 101. Tomorrow at the University of Pennsylvania from 9:30–11:30 a.m., the film “The Beginning of My End” will be screened, followed by a talk about deportation in the United States. From 2–4 p.m., scholars will give a talk titled “Collecting and Preserving the Past in an Argentine Working Class Community: Luis Gurruciaga and the 1871 Museo de Berisso.” Both events at the Penn will be held in College Hall 208.

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