As members of the American Studies Department – a field committed to issues of social justice, equity, and belonging – we deeply appreciate open dialogue with students, and view their contributions as critical to the ongoing development of our courses and programming. It was therefore with surprise and dismay that we read the November 17, 2016 Argus article, entitled, “Thirty Years in the Making, Asian American Studies Still Not an Academic Program,” which questions the place of Asian American Studies at Wesleyan and its relationship to American Studies.
First and foremost, we wish to emphasize that the American Studies department fully supports Asian American Studies as an important field in the academy more broadly and on Wesleyan’s campus more specifically. We understand Asian American Studies as a foundational component of American Studies’ intellectual and political commitments – a view that is reflected in our faculty, our curriculum, and our programming.
By contrast, The Argus article reported that the Asian American Student Collective (AASC) is “calling for Asian American Studies to be included in the University curriculum,” and thus “requesting a dedicated line within American Studies and a course cluster.” The implication is that Asian American Studies has not been included in the American Studies curriculum. In point of fact, Wesleyan’s American Studies department has been the preeminent location for Asian American Studies on campus. Most notably, the department collaborated with the Freeman Asian/Asian American Initiative to bring postdoctoral fellows and distinguished visiting professors of Asian American history to campus from 2002-2007, and in 2009, the department hired Professor Amy Tang, whose teaching and research focuses on Asian American literature, culture, and theory. Tang, who holds a joint appointment with the English department, was promoted with tenure in 2016. In 2011, the American Studies Department also actively supported the English department’s hire of Professor Marguerite Nguyen, whose teaching and research focuses on Asian American literature, refugee contexts, and literary history, and in 2012 the department welcomed Professor Indira Karamcheti to American Studies from English, where she taught since 1990. In American Studies, she continues to offer courses in postcolonial literatures, including Caribbean and South Asian diasporas.
Thus, while the article quotes AASC board member Sarah Chen Small’s comment 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,” we would like to emphasize that Asian American Studies is already “integrated” into the American Studies curriculum, both through specific courses offered each semester in the field, and through its incorporation in myriad other classes that treat issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality. Moreover, our courses continually identify the ways in which Asian Americans, as well as other minoritized groups, are critical components of US history. While there may be students on campus who do not understand the significant role that issues of racial formation and immigration have played in US history, they are certainly not American Studies majors!
Indeed, the American Studies Department’s support of Asian American Studies is part of its long-standing commitment to critical race studies and ethnic studies. The study of racial and ethnic formations in the Americas had been a central component of our curriculum since the program began in the late 1960s; in the 1990s, the department placed these national concerns within a comparative and global framework by adopting a hemispheric frame and notably by introducing our foundational course, “Colonialism and Its Consequences,” which focuses on the interactions of indigenous, European, and African peoples throughout the Americas from the colonial period to the present. In 2000, the department appointed Professor J. Kehaulani Kauanui to a joint position with Anthropology; she has grounded the curriculum in comparative ethnic studies by offering courses on U.S. racial formations, critical race studies, and indigenous studies. As noted above, in 2012, Professor Karamcheti, already a core faculty member, became fully appointed in American Studies and in 2013 the department welcomed Professor Laura Grappo who specializes in Queer Studies and Latinx Studies.
Today, American Studies hosts a thriving concentration in Race and Ethnicity, offers essential courses in Asian American and Latinx Studies, hosts the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Native American Studies, and lends faculty support to the Center for the Americas’ new Caribbean Studies minor. Indeed, although the article suggests that the AASC originated the idea of a course cluster in Asian American Studies, it was in fact American Studies faculty who suggested this to the AASC as one way to publicize our current offerings in the field and to further institutionalize Asian American Studies on campus.
The department also wishes to clarify that the November 17 article erroneously reports that Alton Wang ’16 “worked closely with American Studies faculty to hire Professor Long Bui.” In 2014, in response to strong student demand for courses in Asian American history, the American Studies department applied to the administration for, and secured, a position for a Visiting Assistant Professor specializing in Asian American history and/or cultural studies. Professor Bui was hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor for the 2015-16 school year, and his contract was renewed for 2016-17. He was hired (as is customary) through a departmental search led by three American Studies faculty members; Wang was not involved in the search.
In the years to come, the American Studies Department looks forward to continuing to engage with the critical intellectual and political commitments of our students. We hope that future dialogue on issues surrounding the curriculum and faculty representation will be forged with greater clarity and accuracy.