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.