Students and faculty reflect on the status of Asian American studies at Yale
In interviews with the News, three Asian American students and three faculty members all expressed a desire for more University support for Asian American studies, particularly in hiring more faculty members whose work deal with the subject area.
Courtesy of the Asian American Cultural Center
In 2018, Asian American students and faculty at Yale led a town hall to discuss the prospect of an Asian American Studies program at the University. In the three years since, no such program has arisen.
In interviews with the News, three Asian American students and three faculty members all expressed a desire for more University support for Asian American studies, particularly in hiring more faculty members whose work deal with the subject area. Unlike in 2018, when the News last reported on the lack of such a program, none of those interviewed by the News advocated for a separate program or department for the field. Instead, several lauded the existing strength of the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program as a major avenue for potential progress, with some calling for Yale to grant greater institutional support and faculty hiring to the ER&M program instead of creating a separate Asian American studies program.
“So does it make sense for Yale to create an Asian American studies program at this moment in time? I would say probably not,” Mary Lui, professor of American Studies and history, told the News.
For Lui, the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program is “the glue that’s holding us all together,” as it allows for faculty who teach on Asian American issues to be able to have a more connected approach to their work, engaging with other professors who teach Latinx history, Indigenous studies and other topics offered in the program.
An Asian American studies program is not necessary to create more courses in the area, Lui said — additional courses, along with more hires, are both actions that she would support. Lui advocates for strengthening the ER&M program, through which Asian American courses can be taught.
“While [a program] might seem great in terms of permanence, really what you need are tenure faculty willing to teach these,” Lui added. “A commitment to the field is not necessary through a program cause sometimes a program can be quite draining on the faculty and, in the end, not really accomplish the things that work for everybody.”
Yale is not alone in struggling to establish Asian American studies course offerings. The University of Pennsylvania’s minor in Asian American studies has also been called into question as several faculty dedicated to Asian American studies left for other institutions, including the program’s former director, Grace Kao, who is now chair of the Sociology Department of Professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale. Until 2010, Columbia University had both a minor and major in Asian American studies led by Professor Gary Okihiro, who also now teaches at Yale — Okihiro declined to comment, as he does not currently teach an Asian American studies course. Meanwhile, Harvard does not have either an Asian American studies or ethnic studies program.
However, while Yale does not offer a formalized program for Asian American studies, many of Yale’s peer institutions do maintain formalized programs. For example, Princeton offers a certificate in Asian American studies, while Cornell offers a minor in the field.
According to Kao, the place of Asian American studies at Yale, whether within or outside the ER&M program, is “certainly up for discussion.” Like Lui, Kao emphasized that Asian American studies can be furthered through the “strong infrastructure” of the ER&M program, describing her colleagues in ER&M as “supportive” of students’ interests. She encouraged students seeking additional coursework or even a certificate program to speak with ER&M leadership and faculty.
“If students are unable to study what they would like under the current system, they should definitely talk to the faculty,” Kao wrote in an email to the News. “We have a responsibility to them.”
Though the number of explicit Asian American studies courses has remained constant since 2018, Yale has no shortage of faculty members who are trained in the subject, according to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler. She told the News that “we have such a wide range of faculty who work on Asian American topics,” adding that “they are spread throughout our academic programs.”
Gendler specifically cited East Asian Languages and Literature, American Studies, sociology, ER&M, psychology and anthropology as some of the programs and departments where faculty “think profoundly about the Asian American experience.” Kao, for example, is one of the most-cited sociologists on the Asian American experience in the English-speaking world, Gendler said.
Adrian Kyle Venzon ’23, who has taken ER&M courses but not those specific to Asian Americans, said he would support a more formalized program. Still, he pointed out that many Yalies find other avenues, such as teach-in events at the Asian American Cultural Center and independent research projects, to explore specialized topics of interest. These non-classroom methods need support as well, Venzon said.
“As Asian Americans whose history is oftentimes completely erased or incredibly misrepresented, having a program here at Yale could perhaps do the work to dispel that,” Venzon said. “But that interest and knowledge also exists elsewhere on campus in a really powerful way. Only paying attention to that and not looking at the work being done on the ground by students discounts that work.”
Kathy Min ’21 is one such student. Min chose to explore Asian American history through her senior thesis. She described feeling supported by various faculty members including Lui, whose course “Asian American History, 1800 to the Present” inspired Min’s work in oral histories for her thesis project. In total, Min has taken three Asian American studies classes at Yale but remains “ambivalent” on whether Asian American studies should be established as a distinct program. The strength of ethnic studies more broadly is important to consider, Min said.
“The bigger question to me is that there should be more institutional support for ER&M, which I feel like has been so contested,” Min told the News. “There’s a lot of value in thinking about Asian American histories in conjunction with other histories of people of color, and maybe not trying to center my own identity in every space.”
Still, students like ER&M major Resty Fufunan ’24, still remain committed to fighting for greater support for Asian American studies. Fufunan said that he doesn’t see a “clear pathway” for students like himself to pursue Asian American studies, calling it a “glaring omission” compared to peer institutions. He noted that while ER&M majors can choose to concentrate in a specialized area, including Asian American studies, course offerings are not regular, with some only being taught every two or three years. Asian American studies is now all the more important in order to understand the context behind the rise of anti-Asian violence in the past year, Fufunan added.
“The fight for Asian American studies is part of a larger fight for ethnic studies on campuses,” Fufunan said. “What we need is more institutional support to hire more faculty. I do hope the fight for Asian American studies will continue to be student-led, rooted in student activism and the ongoing fight to be recognized as a people.”
Kao wrote in an email to the News that she would be “happy to welcome other faculty hires who work on Asian Americans and/or the Asian diaspora more broadly.” She added that she would specifically enjoy Asian American hires with training in quantitative methods and the social sciences.
Daniel HoSang, associate professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration and American Studies, told the News that there is currently a “critical mass” of faculty who offer courses in the area of Asian American Studies at Yale. But, like Lui, he felt as though there is no need for a consolidated degree program. In fact, he said that the lack of a program “actually might play into the strength of who Yale has in terms of faculty.”
HoSang added that teaching Asian American studies without making it its own standalone field allows for “comparative ethnic studies,” or looking at the Asian American experience in the context of other racialized groups.
“I think that’s kind of both a strength at Yale, and in many ways, the direction of the discipline in general,” he said.
Even so, HoSang does think there’s room for the discipline to grow, especially in terms of more faculty hiring in areas outside of ER&M and American Studies, which is where the majority of faculty who focus on Asian American studies are housed.
The ER&M program was founded in 1997.