Changing Courses

Photographs by Vivek Suri.

Editors’ note: This article refers to thirteen professors who withdrew from Yale’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program on March 29. Since the publication of this article, Yale administrators have conceded to the professors’ demand for hiring power and created five faculty positions within ER&M. The professors returned to the program on May 2. 

In early December, around sixty students sprawled out on the stairs and couches on the first floor of the Asian American Cultural Center for a Yale College Council (YCC) town hall intended to gauge student interest in an Asian American Studies program. On the wall in front of the couches hung a painting of Yung Wing, class of 1854, the first Chinese student to graduate from Yale, or any American university. Katherine Hu, a YCC senator, led the project and organized the town hall alongside American Studies professors Mary Lui and Gary Okihiro. During the gathering, students broke into small groups with these professors to express their particular interests in Asian American Studies, such as South Asian or Vietnamese literature; many were often inspired to participate by their family histories. The crowd of mostly Asian American students voiced excitement at the possibility of exploring South Asian literature or an introductory course in Asian American Studies—classes not yet offered at Yale. In mid-January, following the town hall, the YCC published an infographic, listing six new courses this spring under “Asian diaspora/migration courses” and “Asian American courses”—and three under “Ethnic Studies courses.”

Yet five months have passed since the town hall, and the conversation around Asian American Studies has radically changed. In early March, students formed a Coalition for Ethnic Studies to advocate for the University to provide the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) program with resources comparable to those of other departments. On Friday, March 29, thirteen senior faculty members withdrew from the ER&M program in protest of the major’s lack of departmental status and hiring power, as well as the denial of tenure to ER&M and American Studies professor Albert Laguna. ER&M now has no tenured professors, and no one with official leadership status. Many students have supported the thirteen faculty members’ decision, though, denouncing the University’s devaluing of their continued labor.

In support of the ER&M professors, the Coalition for Ethnic Studies held a pop-up photo campaign, inviting students to Cross Campus to take pictures with brief statements describing their defense of ER&M. Over the next few days, students showed their solidarity with the ER&M faculty, sharing and resharing photos on social media. More than a thousand students signed a letter that circulated on social media in support of ER&M. Despite outpouring of student support for the program, President Peter Salovey has not conceded to the professors’ requests.

This advocacy for ER&M is not divorced from discussions surrounding Asian American Studies courses. Many Asian American Studies courses found their institutional home in ER&M, and now with the program in flux, advocating for Asian American Studies has become part of a larger movement to defend and support Ethnic Studies at Yale. In many students’ and professors’ views, Asian American Studies should not be siphoned off from the broader field of Ethnic Studies, given that the strength of ER&M lies in its intersectional and interdisciplinary approach.

In light of the ER&M program’s uncertainty, talk of a standalone Asian American Studies program has all but died out; the focus has shifted to a broader intersectional movement in support of Ethnic Studies. As the conversation widens, new questions about the best way to institutionalize Asian American Studies have emerged: What are the costs and benefits of creating a discrete Asian American Studies department? How can Ethnic Studies give voice to Asian American Studies without subsuming the distinct identities encompassed by the term “Asian American”?

***

In the spring of 1970, amid a flurry of political activism around the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Bobby Seale and Black Panthers trial, the first course in Asian American Studies was offered at Yale. It was a residential college seminar in Timothy Dwight College, taught by Professor Chitoshi Yanaga, who was the first Japanese American tenured faculty member at Yale. The seminar, called “The Asian American Experience,” explored questions of Asian American identity formation and was the first Asian American-centered course to be offered by any Ivy League college.

The Asian American Students Association (AASA), which formed one semester earlier in the fall of 1969, worked to develop the course. Don Nakanishi, who founded the AASA, recalled that nearly one-third of all Asian American undergraduates at Yale enrolled in the seminar. In addition to helping create the course, the AASA formed an Asian American Studies Task Force (AASTF) to advocate for greater diversity in Yale’s curriculum.

“While recognizing that Yale has made efforts to expand its course offerings related to East Asia, and specifically China and Japan, the AASTF asserts that similar attention needs to be given specifically to Asian American Studies,” the AASTF website states. Still, while the AASTF made efforts to increase course offerings in the following decades, faculty with extensive knowledge in the field were difficult to retain.

Forty-five years later, there was a second surge in the movement for greater curricular diversity. By the 2014- 15 academic year, only one Asian American Studies course was offered at Yale, and only one Asian American Studies professor, Mary Lui, had tenure. In October of 2014, Yale’s four Asian American Studies scholars—Lui, newly hired English professor Sunny Xiang, lecturer and novelist Susan Choi, and ER&M professor Quan Tran— held a meet-and-greet that addressed the University’s failure to establish an Asian American Studies program, or even to follow through on a promise it made in 1987 to offer two courses in Asian American Studies per year. This was occurring alongside broader faculty diversity concerns—that year, multiple professors in African American Studies and ER&M left Yale. As students and faculty organized for the departmentalization of ER&M, the AASTF started a photo campaign to advocate for a wider array of Asian American Studies courses. The campaign featured Asian American undergraduate students standing on Cross Campus against a brick wall, holding signs displaying course names missing from Yale’s Blue Book: “Yale will not teach me contemporary narratives on the Philippines and the United States,” one read. “Yale will not teach me Asian American medical systems,” stated another. The photo campaign spurred the hiring of more Asian Americanist scholars such as Professors Daniel HoSang and Lisa Lowe and enabled a larger set of courses in Asian American Studies. That year, too, Yale announced a new initiative, providing $50 million over the next five years to support the recruitment and development of an “excellent and diverse faculty.”

What are the costs and benefits of creating a discrete Asian American Studies department? How can Ethnic Studies give voice to Asian American Studies without subsuming the distinct identities encompassed by the term “Asian American”?

Soon thereafter, Yale began to prioritize the hiring of Asian American faculty and created the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration (RITM). Located at 35 Broadway, the center supports the field of Ethnic Studies at Yale and became the home for the study of Asian American migration and diaspora. As the RITM and the ER&M program took over the work of hiring and retaining faculty devoted to Asian American Studies, the AASTF discontinued.

Yet despite this ostensible progress, students remained dissatisfied. Stefani Kuo, who graudated Yale in 2017, had arrived at Yale hoping to double major in English and Theater Studies. After two years as an English major, however, she had taken Yale’s only class on Asian American literature and was frustrated about “just how little” Asian American writing she had been exposed to. “There just wasn’t a range of Asian American writing or literature classes I could take, especially in the English major.” Kuo did not have a single professor who was an Asian woman. “Even the classes that were of interest to me were not taught by people who looked like me,” she said.

Kuo eventually dropped the English major and focused solely on theater. Her first play, “Architecture of Rain,” included an all Asian American student cast. “The play was from a personal perspective. I wasn’t just making something up,” Kuo said. In the play, Kuo reflected, she could delve into her Asian American identity and experiences that felt visceral to her but that she couldn’t articulate in her classes.

***

In fall 2018, Katherine Hu took Professor Mary Lui’s class on Asian American History, which inspired her to advocate, as a YCC representative, for more course offerings in Asian American Studies. “[The course] made me realize that there’s a lot of Asian American history that’s been erased, and so many Asian American students feel like they’re not part of the conversation, or they don’t have a voice in politics,” Hu said. Hu is pushing for a curriculum that emphasizes an intersectional look at issues that span across a range of minority groups. For this reason, she thinks “that creating a separate program would be antithetical to the philosophy of learning.” Hu said that classes don’t necessarily need to have “Asian American” in the title to be considered part of the Asian American Studies curriculum.

In high school, Hu didn’t often think about her Asian American identity, she told me. She grew up in Texas, in a town with a large Asian population, where being “too Asian” was seen as a negative characteristic. At Yale— where 19.3 percent of the undergraduates identify as Asian American—she at first wanted to break away from an “Asian American bubble,” so she didn’t engage with the AACC. When she saw Lui’s “Asian American History” in the Blue Book for the fall 2018 semester, she realized a piece of her education was missing. Her high school history teachers, Hu said, “never talked about Asian American history,” except as “a kind of footnote.” She felt that Lui’s class gave her an opportunity for the first time to learn about her own history and the history of Asian Americans more generally.

Hu praised large introductory courses like Lui’s, which taught her new techniques for thinking about identity and intersectionality. Through her YCC project, she hopes that students will find their own spaces in Asian American studies courses. “I’m trying to create a space for people who want to know their own history that has been taken from them,” she explained. Hu plans to work alongside Professor Gary Okihiro to start a student working group that would put together and publicize classes that consider Asian American identity, Asian diaspora, and Ethnic Studies. Next year, professors Lisa Lowe and Daniel HoSang will offer larger foundational lecture courses for those who want to learn more about Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies but might not know where to begin.

***

Mary Lui was the first full-time Asian Americanist scholar at Yale when she joined the faculty in 2000. Lui, who is one of the thirteen professors who withdrew from ER&M, sits with her arms crossed in her office in Timothy Dwight College. With passion in her voice, she stops me every now and then to clarify what I’ve asked. Before she arrived at Yale, only one Asian Americanist had ever worked at the University, on a part-time basis. The year 2000, Lui said, seemed like a wonderful moment for Asian American scholarship at Yale: new Asian American faculty members were being hired and more classes in Asian American studies were being offered.

In January, following the YCC town hall last December, Lui told me that Asian American studies at Yale had again grown significantly after student protests in 2015 that called for more curricular diversity. She noticed an increase in courses related to Asian American Studies, alongside a growing number of tenured Asian American professors. These developments, Lui said, made it seem less necessary to create a formalized Asian American Studies program.

In recent months, with ER&M in flux and a growing worry that an Asian American Studies program would be insular and too narrow in scope, faculty members and students have been resistant to the idea of a distinct Asian American Studies program. “There’s this tension with the desire of institution-building,” Professor Sunny Xiang told me. “How do you build spaces that are institutionally secure while also critiquing the terms of that? While building Asian American studies, ‘more is better’ can’t be the horizon of our politics—[it has to be a greater] desire for knowledge.”

Dean Joliana Yee of the Asian American Cultural Center echoed Xiang’s sentiments, explaining that students must continue to think about the ways in which the Asian American experience is intertwined with other marginalized experiences. “What’s the point of telling history if we are not advancing all marginalized communities?”

Others have expressed qualms with the term ‘Asian American.’ Professor Gary Okihiro, who was instrumental in creating Asian American Studies at Cornell and UCLA, among other universities, told me that “the term Asian American is in a way a misnomer; it erases the differences between many groups.” Okihiro is also one of the thirteen professors formerly affiliated with ER&M.

Echoing Okihiro, some students voiced that Asian American- specific course offerings at Yale should expand to cover the diversity of Asian American identities. “To have a class on Asian American history is to undeniably leave people out,” Sana Aslam ’20, an Anthropology major who has taken several Hindi courses and who enjoys studying South Asian diaspora, told me. “I’d love to see more classes on Pakistan-American identity, because that’s my background,” she said, adding, “I don’t think Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladeshi-American histories are really represented at all.”

Students, she said, need to “understand how Asian American history is occurring in direct relationship to other histories, Women’s and Gender Studies, African American history—so we see that it doesn’t come out of nowhere, it comes out of histories of exclusion.”

***

In response to the YCC’s efforts last fall to institutionalize Asian American Studies, students revived the AASTF and have since pushed for an intersectional approach to the program. Early this semester, members of the task force gathered together at the Asian American Cultural Center, where eleven students, including Rita Wang and Janis Jin, leaders of the task force, sat on the carpet and shared their hopes. First-years sat on the couches and on the floor and shared their initial experiences at Yale, their apprehensions about taking Asian American History as they hungered to learn more about their family history but did not know where to begin. “What do you want to see this group become?” Jin asked, and students responded that they wanted to be part of a reading group, where they could read Asian American literature and discuss the nuances of their identity that they did not feel comfortable sharing with their peers. The room felt open, a space where students, who ranged from first- years to seniors, could share their thoughts and hopes. In thinking about how to publicize classes in Asian American Studies at Yale, a student suggested that CourseTable, a popular student-run website that organizes course offerings at Yale, could have a listing of those courses. There was also talk of creating a survey course in Asian American studies, and starting a weekly reading group, where students could discuss pop culture references and academic articles about Asian American experiences.

“‘There’s this tension with the desire of institution-building,’ Professor Sunny Xiang told me. ‘How do you build spaces that are institutionally secure while also critiquing the terms of that?’”

Everyone involved in the AASTF has also been involved in the Coalition for Ethnic Studies, of which Jin has also been a leader. Asian American studies, she reiterated, does not siphon from ethnic studies but exists within it. Jin values the comparative framework that Ethnic Studies affords, as opposed to an Asian American Studies program focusing only on Asian American history and politics.

For Jin, the importance of Ethnic Studies has been on her mind since she was in high school. “I basically came to Yale for ER&M when I was a senior in high school,” Jin remembered. Jin went to a private high school in the “most conservative county in California,” in an area that was very homogeneous, as she described it, and mostly white and Asian. She said she felt as though she had to fight constantly with people about race and politics until she discovered Lisa Lowe’s book, Immigrant Acts. Jin wrote about the book in her college application essay. Now, she is taking a course taught by Lowe, who is one of the professors at Yale who recently withdrew from ER&M. Jin said she has learned from Professors Lowe and HoSang about the need for comparative, relational Ethnic Studies that does not focus just on one group, history, or set of struggles, but on how they interact. “It blew my mind,” Jin said, describing the effect Lowe’s book had on her when she was in high school. “Ethnic Studies scholarship became a way to name things I was experiencing—it was a body of knowledge that could articulate various things about how I saw the world.”

***

“I want to offer a different kind of Asian American studies,” said Professor Sunny Xiang as we spoke in her office. “I want [my] course to be outward-facing, in that [students are] taking Asian American literature as a way of engaging with race relations, U.S.-Asia relations.”

Earlier that day, I had witnessed this philosophy in action. During the hour and fifteen minute-long class period of “Asian American Literature” on Wednesday afternoon in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, fourteen students of mostly Asian American background sat around a small circular table and discussed Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, a novel centered around Chinese-American girlhood. “The novel starts out,” Professor Xiang said quietly but steadily, “with the quote: You must not tell anyone.” Her voice was not domineering. Her thickly-rimmed glasses rested on the bridge of her nose, and her voice and eyes exuded warmth. She positioned herself as one of the students around the seminar table, not as someone with the most important voice in the classroom. She told her students to call her Sunny, rather than Professor Xiang.

“My goal for today is to have everyone say something,” she said to the class. “It doesn’t have to be to me, it could be to a friend.”

When the class gathered back together, Professor Xiang had a student read aloud the quote, “She will add nothing if not for necessity, the riverbend of her life.” Minh Vu, an English major, raised his hand and offered that silence in the novel is necessary. From the silence, he expanded, we could learn more about the character’s family history and her relationship to her mother. Xiang wrote the words “necessity and extravagance” on the board in chalk. Fragments of Greek were harshly written on the other side of the board.

Later that afternoon in her office in William L. Harkness Hall, Professor Xiang said, “We’re reading a book about silence, so we want to respect silence in the classroom.” When students are not immediately speaking, said Xiang, that does not mean they are not involved.

I meet with Vu that Friday at Blue State on Wall Street. At first we stand at the table by the door of Blue State, unable to find a seat. It’s a Friday morning, and the rain has not stopped. Vu is unassuming and cheerful, offering a laugh every now and then, circling with his finger the buttons on his shirt. When one of the tables clears, Vu and I sit down. Vu reflects on how different the Asian American Literature seminar is from his Directed Studies courses or other English seminars. “This class is majority people of color,” he says. “It’s a community of scholars of color.” The experience of feeling different in a classroom where the majority of students do not share your background, Vu expresses, can be isolating and delegitimizing. Ethnic Studies seminars offer a way out of this isolation for some students, in texts that corroborate and reflect their experiences.

In the next few years, Vu wants to attend a graduate program in Asian American Studies and become a professor in Asian American Studies or Ethnicity and Migration Studies. His experience as an English major at Yale, in which he initially took courses that did not address the Asian American experience, made him more curious about Asian American literature. His first year, Vu was part of the Directed Studies humanities program. “I think the Yale English department has a tendency to focus on a formalist method, like close reading,” he said. “Sometimes close reading pushes you in.” In contrast, during his sophomore year, he took Asian American History with Professor Lui. The class, he said, was pivotal for him because it drew in aspects of his personal life with historiography, with assignments like an oral history project.

“Ethnic studies scholarship became a way to name things I was experiencing — it was a body of knowledge that could articulate various things about how I saw the world.”

Growing up, Vu often felt as though he couldn’t identify with the protagonists in the literature he read, which centered predominantly on white characters. In Vu’s family, he said, “there was not much honesty or open dialogue about our history as refugees, and I had a lack of access to my history.” Vu attended a largely white public high school with mostly white teachers and peers, which compounded into an experience of exclusion for Vu that extended into his Directed Studies seminars in his first year. This semester, in Xiang’s class, Vu read The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy, a Vietnamese-American author. Vu, whose parents are refugees from the Vietnam War, was drawn to this text because Thuy explains the refugee experience through the personal lens of a singular family, rather than in dry and abstract academic terms. Literature taught in Ethnic Studies seminars has helped him to articulate how systems of racial hierarchy operate in everyday life, which academic language often struggles to capture. “I’m interested in the everyday practice of power, and how power is enacted upon minoritized bodies,” he said.

At Blue State, Vu finishes his coffee. Before we leave, he turns to me and tells me again that in Xiang’s class, he really feels listened to. He thinks this is a common experience among his peers in the class, due to Xiang’s warm presence and the discussions about literature that expresses Asian American experiences.

“I think it’s really important to be heard,” he says, “and that’s how I feel in that class.”

Meghana Mysore is a junior in Davenport College.

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