Task Force seeks to widen Asian-American courses

Asian-American students make up the largest minority on campus. But many feel their culture is a bit underrepresented in the Blue Book.

So this academic year, students have made efforts to bolster the Asian-American Studies Task Force, to push for an increase in courses addressing Asian-American issues and to encourage an increase in the number of Asian-American faculty.

By all accounts, the number of courses offered this year dealing significantly with Asian-American studies can be counted on one hand, although counts provided by faculty and students differed. Angela Lee ’11, the Task Force’s co-coordinator, said only one course — English professor Hsuan Hsu’s “Asian-American Literature” — can appropriately be called a course on Asian-American culture. In addition, two courses offered in the East Asian Languages and Literatures department touch on Asian-American literature, said East Asian Languages and Literatures professor Jing Tsu.

Lee said the Task Force, which will have its first meeting next week, will advocate to increase the number of Asian-American faculty. Lee and Shejuti Sarwar ’10 are leading the Task Force with the support of the Asian American Students Association.

Several faculty members acknowledged that more needs to be done to incorporate Asian-American studies into the Yale curriculum. Faculty members have worked with students on the issue, but there are no current systematic faculty initiatives to bolster the field, Tsu and Hsu said.

“Yale certainly has a long way to go,” said professor Stephen Pitti, director of the Ethnicity, Race and Migration major. “There’s considerable work to be done in broadening the course offerings to make them representative of fields that really do matter.”

Pitti lauded students for their efforts and said student support for wider offerings is “absolutely critical” to expansion of Asian-American studies at Yale. Although Asian-American studies is not an official concentration, some ER&M majors have focused in Asian-American studies in the past.

“Students are demanding something that they ought to be demanding,” Pitti said.

From a student perspective, Yale’s large Asian-American population and liberal arts tradition mandate more diverse course offerings related to the Asian-American experience than are currently available, said Quingan Zhou ’10, who coordinates efforts to expand course offerings through the Asian-American Cultural Center. The effort can begin in earnest with the recruitment of more Asian-American faculty, she said.

“The goals are about getting more professors who are more proficient at teaching Asian-American studies-related courses,” Zhou said. “More qualified professors who are … willing to stay for a longer period of time at Yale create continuing, ongoing interest in Asian-American studies courses.”

Asian-Americans currently make up 14.9 percent of non-international undergraduates this academic year, making them the largest minority group on campus, according to figures compiled by the Yale Office of Institutional Research.

Efforts to expand course offerings have been ongoing since at least 2006, Hsu said. In that year, students from the Asian-American Cultural Center approached him and requested he teach a course on Asian-American literature.

Despite the substantial Asian-American population on campus, Hsu said a “critical mass” of interested students might be necessary before a significant number of courses can be offered.

Zhou and the Task Force leaders said other disciplines such as sociology, women’s and gender studies, psychology and film studies should also offer their own slate of Asian-American-related courses.

“One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is that people have this misconception that Asian-American studies is just Asian-American history and Asian-American literature, but it’s so much more than that,” Lee said.

Pitti said he expects to see this type of expansion in short order. Next year, additional Asian-American related courses will be offered in the film studies and history departments.

In addition, the East Asian Languages and Literatures department will begin considering a course next fall relating to Asian-American literature and Chinese literature in translation, Tsu said.

Progress is also being made on the hiring front. Two Asian-American professors were hired this year, Pitti said: American studies visiting professor Lisa Lowe and film studies and American studies lecturer Denise Khor. And Pitti said he expects additional hirings in the coming year.

Meanwhile students have come up with their own ways to compensate. By the end of the academic year, students say they expect the Asian-American Studies Task Force to host five separate faculty events, bringing both Yale and outside professors to speak on important Asian-American issues.Task Force members said they also hope to stoke interest among the general student body through these activities.

“If there is demand, there will be supply,” said Shejuti Sarwar ’10, another co-coordinator of the Task Force. “We want to inspire students to be more enthusiastic about having the need for such courses.”

Asian-American students interviewed expressed support for the Task Force’s efforts on the whole, noting the increasing relevance of Asian-American issues.

Rui Bao ’11, a student in the infamously interdisciplinary program Directed Studies, said she would like to see an interdisciplinary approach taken to Asian American studies.

“In Directed Studies, you realize how interconnected things are [in Western civilization],” she said. “It could be interesting to see how that interconnectedness plays out in a different cultural perspective.”

Still, not all students were convinced that there is a need for additional Asian-American studies courses — especially if the resources are spread too thin.

“Such programs exist for other minorities such as African-American Studies, so it seems fair to have one for Asian-American students, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary,” said Chang Mou Lim ’11.

Lee noted that the Task Force has also been working with members of La Casa who have been pushing for a similar expansion in programs.

Pitti said the ER&M major will simultaneously look into expanding Latin-American course offerings.

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