In 1977, a group of 18 Yale undergraduates registered for an independent study. The five students leading the group compiled a syllabus and organized lesson plans, and the entire group met weekly in the Trumbull Seminar room for one of Yale’s first classes on Asian American Studies. The students were energized by their political moment. The Third World Movement of the Civil Rights era had begun to draw attention to the marginalization of ethnic minorities, and in 1969, the nation’s first Asian American Studies programs had been established at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. The students hoped their proactive efforts would spur a similar spirit of change at Yale.
Thirty-eight years later, Asian American Studies programs now exist at 52 universities in the country, including four Ivy League institutions — Cornell, Columbia, Brown and Penn — as well as our in-state neighbor, the University of Connecticut. The field has diversified as it has deepened; its influence extends to a wide array of disciplines including art, history, psychology, literature and sociology, among others. Despite the vast interdisciplinary growth of Asian American Studies, however, Yale still lags far behind its peers in its commitment to the field.
There is only one professor on the Yale faculty whose core research focuses on Asian American Studies. In most academic years, there is only one Asian American Studies course offered at Yale. For an institution that touts its richly diverse faculty, and that constantly tells us excellence arises from the consideration of a wide variety of viewpoints, this lack of representation in a key field is unconscionable.
Students are hungry for more Asian American Studies course offerings. At the first meeting of the only Asian American Studies class offered to undergraduates this year, there were twice as many students sitting on the floor as in seats.During shopping period last spring, students spilled into the hallways outside the lecture hall during Asian American History — the only course in the field that is regularly offered at Yale. The only Asian American Studies course being offered this semester, which is being taught by a graduate student, was renamed by the registrar from “U.S. Wars in Asia and the Pacific Islands and their Aftermath” to “Pacific Wars and Asian American Identity,” despite the fact that the course’s primary material pertains little to theoretical questions of ethnic identity. After shopping period the course was again renamed to “Asian American Studies: United States Wars in the Pacific.”
It is difficult to imagine the title of professor David Blight’s Civil War course or Jay Winter’s total war course being similarly stretched to include terms like “American Identity” or “European Identity” where they did not apply.
As in 1977, student interest in the field is not adequately supported by the administration. I believe this disconnect emerges from our broader community’s ignorance about the nature of Asian American Studies. I have spent the past several months meeting faculty members and administrators while helping organize today’s Asian American Studies Conference. When asked about the possibility for future hiring in the field, current professors have often conflated Asian-American studies with East Asian studies, or they have cited the work of professors who are ethnically Asian but whose scholarship does not at all pertain to Asian American Studies. Once a professor even said that, unlike the “true” ethnic studies fields of African American or Latino Studies, Asian American Studies should focus more on “the intersection with science.”
While I do not intend to demonize individual professors and administrators, I understand these misconceptions to be part of a larger academic system that casts ethnic studies as “less rigorous” or “too identity-based” in comparison to other fields. Too many students have been asked whether they are doing “me-search or research,” or whether they will have trouble “being impartial” when conducting scholarship whose subject matter relates to their own ethnic communities. It is dismissive and incorrect to assume that all scholars in this field are motivated by a desire to “soul search.” This misconception reinforces current rifts in academia, which cast some disciplines as more “objective” or “scholarly” than others. These pressures have been felt by many students, particularly students of color. Within the Asian American community — which is approximately 20 percent of all U.S. students in the College, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research — a number of students have formed the Asian American Studies Task Force. To call attention to the dearth of Asian American Studies courses at Yale, the AASTF has helped organize an academic conference that will be held today and tomorrow.
The Yale Asian American Studies Conference, which is happening today in the Loria Center, brings together Asian American Studies scholars from universities across the nation. I hope this conference marks the first step in a partnership between the University and its students to build on the legacy of those 18 students in 1977 and make Yale an intellectual home for the important work of Asian American Studies that has been shut from our gates for so long.
Aria Thaker is a senior in Davenport College and a member of the Asian American Studies Task Force. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Feb. 27
A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that a 1977 independent study represented Yale’s first course in Asian American Studies. In fact, an earlier course was offered in 1970.