Student activists highlighting the need for an Asian American Studies program at Yale may now have even more cause for advocacy: students have flocked to the three courses on Asian American Studies being offered this semester.
Campus demand for the expansion of Yale’s Asian American Studies offerings has been increasing in recent months, with several prominent events last semester such as a photo campaign and a conference held by the student-led Asian American Studies Task Force. Last fall, student interest in Timothy Dwight College Master and American Studies and history professor Mary Lui’s “Asian American History” lecture was so high that the class had to be moved to a larger room. It was the only Asian American Studies class offered last semester. Now, some of that interest may be sated by the courses being offered this semester: English professor Sunny Xiang, who was hired last fall, is teaching a junior English seminar on Asian-American literature, a class that was last offered in 2007. Additionally, newly hired lecturer Quan Tran GRD ’15 is teaching “Asian Diasporas Since 1800.” While her second course, “Introduction to Critical Refugee Studies,” is not directly about Asian American Studies, it has many strong ties to the field, she said.
“I think [these classes are] definitely very important, because as I went to different teach-ins and student gatherings last semester, there was a real desire on the part of many students to understand the history and social status and economic struggles of Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S.,” said Lui, who is Yale’s first and only tenured professor who specializes in Asian American Studies. “This is not a field just for Asian-Americans to engage in. This is really about understanding the current complexities of America as a nation.”
All three of the Asian American Studies classes were oversubscribed on the first day they met. Tran said that in the first week, 27 students shopped “Asian Diasporas” and 50 went to “Critical Refugee Studies.” Similarly, members of the Yale community crammed into “Asian American Literature,” which met in a small classroom in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. All three seminars are capped at 18 students.
Alex Zhang ’18, co-chair of the Asian American Studies Task Force, said the demand for the classes makes the need for more Asian American Studies classes obvious.
“I walked in [on the first day of “Asian American Literature”] and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to get into the class, no matter how desperately I want to,’” he said. “That was very disappointing.” Zhang eventually did secure a spot in the class.
Xiang said she has been impressed by the high level of student engagement with the field. She said the seminar’s discussions are her favorite part of teaching the class, mostly due to her students’ evident desire to learn. To be in a position to talk about Asian-American books is very fortunate, she said, especially when students are so passionate about the subject. She said she hopes to teach another course on Asian American Studies during the next academic year.
Zhang emphasized, though, that Yale must continue to hire tenure-track faculty who specialize in Asian American Studies.
“I think it’s a shame we don’t have the permanent instructors needed to satisfy the massive demand for Asian American Studies,” Zhang said. “Part of building Asian American Studies at Yale, or essential to building that curriculum at Yale, is having full-time faculty who can advise students, help them with their senior thesis, write them recommendation letters and create a community around Asian American Studies.”
Tran said that Yale, with all its resources and emphasis on diversity, needs to bring in more faculty who have expertise in the subject.
While Lui said the field of Asian American Studies is important not just for Asian-American students, the classes currently may still attract a specific subset of students. Tran said the majority of students in her “Asian Diasporas” class are of Asian descent, being either international or Asian-American. But she emphasized that conversations about Asian American Studies are “interdisciplinary” and attract diverse viewpoints, noting that two-thirds of students in her “Introduction to Critical Refugee Studies” class are not Asian-American.
Xiang expressed similar sentiments, explaining that the growing interest in Asian American Studies is part of a larger trend.
“It seems students are interested in issues of race, gender, culture and literature,” she said.
Lui said she is excited about the growing interest in the field. And as the campus moves further away from last semester’s heightened conversations about racial justice and inclusion, she hopes the trend will continue.
“I just hope the interest continues, because it’s intellectually satisfying and meaningful — socially and politically — for students as a whole as they understand their place at Yale and beyond,” she said.
In 1970, “The Asian American Experience” was the first class in the field of Asian American Studies to be offered at Yale and in the Ivy League.