In the spring of 1985, Wesleyan, as well as several other colleges and universities including Stanford, Harvard, and Smith, participated in the “National Network of Asian and Pacific Women Project” with the support of the U.S. Department of Education. On Wesleyan’s campus, the project led to a student-taught course titled “Asian American Women: Exploring the Model Minority Myth.”
A year later, Suk Kim ’89, Carl Hum ’89, and Won Sin ’87 began promoting an additional student forum called “History and Present Conditions of Asian Americans” for the following fall of 1987. By 1995, Asian American students had submitted a full proposal for a formal Asian American Studies program at the University, which was never brought to fruition.
Now, over 20 years later, Wesleyan’s Asian American Student Collective (AASC) is again calling for Asian American Studies to be included in the University curriculum. Specifically, they are requesting a dedicated line within American Studies and a course cluster to be listed on WesMaps. The proposed line would mean a secured position for a faculty member committed to teaching Asian American Studies within the American Studies major and department. The cluster would group together courses that touch on relevant Asian American material, making them part of a cohesive field of study and more readily visible and accessible to students and faculty.
Sarah Chen Small ’18, an AASC board member, spoke to the importance of this effort to expand the American Studies curriculum and the motivations behind it.
“I think now more than ever, with this election, the rhetoric that’s been going on, and all the hate speech on campus, that it’s really important for us to integrate [Asian American Studies] into American Studies, so that students…are exposed to the fact that Asian Americans are a part of American history and [shouldn’t be] understood solely in their relation to Asia, the continent itself,” Small said.
Wesleyan currently houses a College of East Asian Studies (CEAS), but Small explained why Asian American Studies is completely different and how the assumption that the CEAS should be enough for Asian American Students on campus perpetuates stereotypes about the community as a whole.
“For us, there’s a desire to be understood as Americans,” Small said. “It’s very common in American culture to confuse Asian Nationals with Asian Americans, and [to] conflate those identities. But Asian Americans have been living in the United States for centuries, much like many other minority groups.”
Likewise, on their official proposal, AASC states: “As many students at Wesleyan and scholars throughout the country have attested, there is severe emotional and psychological trauma to being written out of American history and perceived as a perpetual foreigner in one’s own country.”
AASC sees the request for a course cluster as being much less controversial than the call for a dedicated line. Their hope is that the cluster could be in place on WesMaps as early as this January, when students return to campus for the spring semester. The implementation of a line, which would involve the hiring of a senior faculty member, they understand to be a much longer process.
At the same time, their current proposal has over 30 years of student demand and activism behind it. Small pointed out that many of the efforts made by AASC in the last few years mirror, rather than build on, those made by students in the 1980s who initially sought support for Asian American Studies.
“It’s really about creating institutional memory of the fact that Asian American students have felt and been underrepresented in our academics, pretty much as long as there have been Asian American students at Wesleyan,” Small said. “It’s so cyclical and tiring to do the same work over and over again. To know that future students could potentially have to fight for the same things again is incredibly frustrating.”
In spring 2015, Alton Wang ’16 and Jennie He ’16 created and taught a student forum entitled “History, Gender and Sexuality through the Lens of Asian American Voices.” The 15-person course was filled within the first week, with three students auditing and a waiting list of 30 names.
Small pointed out the bittersweet nature of the forum’s success.
“It was really fantastic,” she said. “But the fact that students had to take it upon themselves to teach themselves their own history, I think speaks to the lack of inclusiveness in the curriculum right now. So, we’re hoping that students won’t have to take on that burden in the future.”
He, who is now an Assistant Dean of Admissions at Wesleyan, stated her support of AASC’s current proposal.
“Asian Americans are a piece of America,” he wrote in an email to The Argus. “To not have Asian American Studies is to splice out a major part of America’s history and people.”
After realizing the level of enthusiasm surrounding the student forum, Wang, as one of the facilitators, worked closely with American Studies faculty to hire Professor Long Bui. AASC acknowledges that Bui has been a crucial resource and ally to students of color, first generation, low-income, and queer students, but there is anxiety around the fact that he is currently only a junior faculty member. This is why a line is so important to AASC, because, as Small notes, it couldn’t be taken away so easily.
AASC has asked the University Provost Joyce Jacobsen for the Asian American Studies track and the course cluster, but currently no definite decision has been made. Jacobsen notes there is much competition for lines and clusters within the University, and that the path to establishing them is one with multiple supplementary facets.
“If a department requests a line, Academic Affairs (me, the three divisional deans, and the two associate provosts) considers the request along with all other requests that come to us each year from departments, where the review of requests occurs in the spring semester each year,” Jacobsen wrote in an email to The Argus. “We have a fixed number of tenure-track lines to allocate each year to departments…and we receive many more requests each year from departments (and programs and colleges) than there are available lines to allocate. We evaluate proposals relative to each other, based on how persuasive each proposal is about how the position would support the department’s curricular structure, along with reviewing data on enrollments, majors, and current faculty positions.”
However, Jacobsen also notes that course clusters are positive resources for students, and that Asian American Studies within the University is something she supports.
“I’m personally quite interested in Asian American Studies, and as Dean of Social Sciences…I was happy to support bringing the current visiting professor, Long Bui, who has been teaching Asian American Studies courses in the American Studies department this year and last year, to campus. I also support the creation of course clusters in general, as they are useful keys to assist students in navigating our curriculum,” Jacobsen wrote.
In conjunction with AASC, the University’s South Asian Student Collective, Shakti, is working to support the creation of an Asian American cluster.
“The push for Asian American studies is new this year for Shakti, though Shakti has been trying to expand the South Asia Studies certificate ever since I’ve been at Wesleyan,” Shakti President Nisha Grewal ’17 wrote in an email to The Argus. “I have not seen any specific changes in the American Studies department, but again, this idea only started this semester, so we will have to see how the administration responds to the proposal.”
AASC met with President Roth and Dean Farias last spring, and received some pushback. Small recalled that their first question had to do with the specificity of their request to hire within American Studies as opposed to a more general goal of hiring diverse faculty in every department. AASC’s response was that they are looking for a faculty member who is dedicated specifically to teaching Asian American history and issues, which has nothing to do with simply hiring more people of color.
Roth also expressed concern about the potential for Asian American Studies to take funding away from other fields. AASC makes it clear in their proposal that this is not their intention.
“We insist that funding for Asian American Studies is not taken from fields of study covering marginalized people, including but not limited to African American Studies, Queer Studies, Disability Studies, Feminist Gender Sexuality Studies, South Asian Studies,” the group’s proposal states.
They also assert that faculty in the American Studies department already specializing in marginalized studies must not be affected by their requests. At the same time, they note that minority groups should not be forced into a pattern of competing with each other for scarce resources.
Small noted AASC’s efforts to understand themselves and their communities within the broader academic and social world of Wesleyan and beyond.
“Recently, with the rising racial tensions, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about where Asian Americans fit into American racial dynamics and hierarchies, where we’re complicit and where we’re oppressed, and [how] to be better allies to other students of color on campus,” Small said.
At this stage, administration response is yet unclear. Jacobsen explains that one or more faculty members are necessary to administer the cluster in order for AASC’s plan, or any proposed cluster, to be actualized.
Currently, bringing Asian American Studies to Wesleyan is supported by: African Student Association, The Ankh, Caribbean Student’s Association, Female Economists At Wesleyan, First Class, Haitian Student Collective, Hong Kong Student Association, International House, Jewish Voices for Peace, MIX (Multi-ethnic Interracial Crosscultural), Outhouse, Quantitative Analysis Center Tutors, Quinnipiac University’s Asian Student Alliance, Scientific Computing & Information Center, SHOFCO – Wesleyan, Society for Underrepresented Students in STEM (SUSS), Students For Investors Responsibility, Students For Justice in Palestine, The Student Union, Wesleyan Outing Club, Wesleyan Praise Dance, WeStep, Wes Global Health, and Women of Color Collective.
“Of course we understand that there are finite resources,” Small said. “But the school talks a big game about being diverse and good to its students, and I think now more than ever it’s time to stop talking and actually do something, because we’ve heard a lot of talk and we know that’s not enough.”