The shelves of English professor Sunny Xiang’s fourth-floor office in Linsly-Chittenden Hall are not yet full of books. She has not had the chance to buy a couch for her home, or to meet many of the members of the Asian American Studies Task Force who called on the University to hire specialists in her field.
But her hire has already become a subject of campus debate, with some speculating that it is merely an administrative attempt to placate vocal advocates for expanded Asian American Studies offerings.
Xiang, who came to Yale this semester after spending a year at Florida Atlantic University, arrives on campus at a time of renewed advocacy for an expanded Asian American Studies program. In the spring, the task force launched a photo campaign titled “No Lux No Veritas,” in which dozens of students were photographed holding up whiteboards with the names of Asian American Studies courses taught at other colleges but not at Yale.
Just last week, more than 100 students packed into History and American Studies professor Mary Lui’s course “Asian American History, 1800–present.” As a result, Lui, also the master of Timothy Dwight College, said enrollment is at an “all-time high” this year. On the first day of the lecture, room 207 in William L. Harkness Hall was so packed that students sat on the ground and in the doorway. The course has since moved to a larger lecture hall.
Lui’s class is the only Asian American Studies course offered this semester, despite numerous calls from students for more offerings in the field throughout the past year. In particular, discussion at a conference in the spring, organized by the task force and the Asian American Cultural Center and attended by over 100 students, called further attention to the issue.
Xiang is familiar with this type of student advocacy for ethnic studies, recalling in particular her undergraduate years at Northwestern University, during which a student group celebrated the 10th anniversary of the student hunger strike that brought Asian American Studies to Northwestern.
“The fact that students have been so passionate about wanting [Asian American Studies] is, to me, something that seems more crucial and more important than any other element,” Xiang said. “It’s actually very exciting to me.”
Both students and faculty said Xiang’s hire is an important step toward expanding course offerings in Asian American Studies. But many added that it does not go far enough.
Yoon Hee Chang ’18, the task force’s intercultural outreach co-coordinator, said Xiang’s hire is a “huge step in the right direction” but it is not the end of the story.
“I have my reservations about what administrative intentions might exist behind placating our requests that are the most short-term … especially during an academic year with dwindling course numbers and professors in the ethnic studies programs,” Chang said. “What happens when we ask for more than just faculty? … Where will [Asian American Studies] at Yale be, in the long-term?”
Alexander Zhang ’18, one of the task force’s co-chairs, noted that offering a course in Asian-American literature is “not anything radically different,” as the University has offered classes on the subject before. Zhang also expressed concerns about the limited accessibility of Xiang’s course, “Asian American Literature,” which will be offered as an English Department junior seminar in the spring.
Still, English Department Chair Langdon Hammer ’80 GRD ’89 noted that while the department has offered similar courses before, it has not employed a professor “squarely in the field” prior to Xiang’s hire. Xiang’s colleague in the department, professor Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82, also expressed excitement about the hire, adding that the department has been searching for an Asian-Americanist for a number of years.
“[Xiang] is exactly what we’ve been hoping for,” Dimock said.