Students push for Asian-American studies program

by Annie Ma | 2/23/15 7:03pm

A student group submitted a faculty cluster hiring proposal calling for the strengthening of existing ethnic studies programs and the reestablishment of a formal Asian-American studies program as a part of College President Phil Hanlon’s faculty cluster initiative. The proposal, submitted to vice provost for academic initiatives Denise Anthony on Feb. 16 by the Asian/American Students for Action, centers around the question of how histories of colonialism and imperialism affect minorities and groups of color today.

Six student members of Asian/American Students for Action, a Council on Student Organizations recognized group, wrote the proposal, titled “Race, Colonialism and Diaspora.” At the time of submission, the document had gathered over 60 signatures of support from students and alumni. It also included five faculty supporters and two co-sponsoring faculty, none of whom were directly involved in the drafting process.

A decision as to whether the proposal receives College funding and support will be made by late April.

Currently, there are interdisciplinary studies programs offered in African and African-American studies, Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies, Native American studies and women’s and gender studies classes. The proposal aims to strengthen ties between the existing programs while adding a formal Asian-American studies program.

Moulshri Mohan ’15, a member of Asian/American Students for Action, said that one of the organization’s motivations for creating a cluster proposal was to increase the presence of Asian-American studies at the College. Mohan emphasized that the proposal drew from many ethnic studies disciplines for a connected approach to studying these experiences.

Sera Kwon ’17, another member of Asian/American Students for Action, said that the proposal could be a way to expand institutional support for faculty in ethnic studies programs, which receive less supportbecause these programs lack departmental status. The proposal would also facilitate the connection between faculty and other scholars who share an interest in race, colonialism and diaspora. In order to achieve this, Kwon said, one necessary move is to bring in more Asian-American studies professors, adding that their perspectives are essential to the conversation.

The proposal also ties into Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative on fostering inclusivity and diversity, Justin Sha ’15 said. He said that this proposal was one of many ways to meet these goals beyond simply recruiting more students and faculty of color. By providing institutional support, Sha said, the College would promote “diversity and inclusivity in actuality for current students.”

Although courses in the field of Asian-American studies are offered at the College, there is no formally recognized program or department. In 2004, the Pan-Asian Council circulated a petition for the creation of an Asian-American studies program at Dartmouth, and the petition gathered over 1,200 signatures. The petition, however, did not result in the establishment of a major or minor program.

English professor Aimee Bahng said that low enrollment and subsequent cancellation are often cited as reasons for not offering more Asian-American studies courses at the College. While low enrollment or course cancellations are sometimes interpreted as low student interest, she said, low faculty retention in these fields can contribute to a cyclical problem.

“Students choose courses based on the reputation of the professor and of the course itself,” Bahng said. “If you have a new professor launching a new course, of course it’s going to be under-enrolled.”

Bahng pointed to her course this term, “Asian-American Literature and Culture,” as an example of a class that has had time to establish itself. The incorporation of Asian-American literature into the English department curriculum combined with her years of work experience at the College has led the class to have one of the highest enrollments in the department. Bahng also said that many Asian-American studies courses are born from student activism.

“I think the old argument that there is no student interest is clearly proven wrong,” Bahng said.

Shiella Cervantes, assistant dean and advisor to Pan-Asian students, pointed to the relationship between academic offerings and the broader student experience. Cervantes and Bahng also highlighted the distinct experience of being Asian in American society, which differentiates Asian-American studies from regional studies like Asian and Middle Eastern studies.

“Ethnic studies really serves to contextualize a lot of how many of our students experience culture and life and society, even their experience here,” Cervantes said. “It would be great to support every facet of student life through leadership and social programming. There’s definitely a space for that kind of expansion in academics.”

Across higher education institutions, Asian-American studies is generally a program rather than a department status. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Asian-American studies program consists of four core faculty members from other departments with one staff member, Penn associate director of Asian-American studies Fariha Khan said. The program only offers a minor, Khan said, which has eight declared students in the Class of 2015.

The interdisciplinary nature of Asian-American studies often brings in students who did not fully consider the field before, Khan said. She said that students will often take a cross-listed class to fulfill another requirement and continue to take other classes afterwards. This pattern helps the program to recruit more students.

The program at Penn was founded 17 years ago as a result of a push from students, Khan said.

“Students really want to have courses that talk about their experiences and heritage in the United States,” Khan said. “It’s important to really understand the complexity of the Asian-American experience. It’s critical in terms of intellectual growth to understand race and model minority politics when we talk about the American experience.”

Sera Kwon is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff.