This story is the second in a series of articles on the Asian Studies program and the history of Asian student activists working towards more inclusive API courses.
Change is coming to American University’s Asian Studies program, housed under the Critical Race, Gender & Culture Studies department — soon to be called the “Asia, Pacific, and Diaspora Studies (APDS).” After years of students calling and leading efforts for the program to be more inclusive, the change of the program’s title and course prefix will go into effect in the fall 2021 semester.
In Eagle Service, “Asia, Pacific, and Diaspora Studies” is now listed as an academic program. The current Asian Studies courses are still listed as “ASIA” courses, but students who want to look ahead at future APDS classes can look at those, Department Chair and professor Eileen Findlay said.
According to Findlay, across the CRGC, a variety of different programs are interested in indigenousness and down the line, she hopes they develop a certificate in indigenous studies. Professor Hye Young Shin, the director of the program, said that the program is beginning to move toward more diasporic programs and forums under the CRGC department over the past year: how Asian cultures have spread throughout the world, including Asian American and Pacific Islander identities. Shin and Findlay spent this past semester restructuring the program.
“It’s a more humanistic approach,” Shin said. “It’s not just global Asia; we want to educate students to be more critical and get together for social justice, hear voices from all minority groups and understand hierarchies and relationships.”
Shin said that as AU transitions back to in-person learning, she hopes the program can connect with the Asian community in D.C. more. According to Associate Professor of Literature and CRGC Lily Wong, there are plans to connect with the local community for AAPI Heritage Month in May.
Wong echoes Shin’s wishes for a diasporic Asian Studies program. She said she’s seen a huge difference in the classroom in the past few years as students from newly-expanded Asian student organizations come into the classroom already having the language to engage in discussions about the Asian experience. She said that faculty is already looking into curricular redevelopment, hiring individuals to teach new classes, and thinking along the framework of APDS rather than Asian Studies.
“We’re really trying to envision an interdisciplinary or model that kind of converges with the anti-racist and critical race and ethnicity work, stemming from Asian American studies transpacific studies compared to racial studies and critical refugee studies and diaspora studies,” Wong said. “In that sense, we’re really expanding our course curriculum to critical analysis of power and histories and legacies of colonialism, imperialism and militarization in the Asia Pacific, and then also how it connects with the other programs in CRGC — the gender, sexuality issues of class and issues of diaspora beyond Asian diaspora, but also Pacific Islander diasporas.”
One big change the program has seen is various new hires and plans for more specific thematic courses beyond broad introductory courses. Findlay highlighted a new adjunct professorial lecturer of history at AU, Nguyet Nguyen, a Vietnamese historian who has done research on Vietnamese radical students in the United States and France during the Vietnam War. The program is planning to have Nguyen teach a course on women and migration within and beyond Southeast Asia, starting in spring 2022.
“We tell every professor we hire ‘Look, the purpose of these courses are not to just give bland information to students,’” Findlay said. “And we don’t need more comparative politics classes because we already have that in SIS. This program needs to be something really different, and in our classes, we always need to examine and critique the history of colonialism and its legacies in Asia.”
Another new professor, Elaine Cho, teaches another section of Asian American Literature. In the past, Wong and Richard Sha — who established the course — were the only professors to teach that course. All three now teach it on varying semesters.
As the courses gain record-number enrollments, Wong said they could justify hiring more staff to teach the course; giving students stability and the comfort of knowing it’ll be offered continuously. She said it’s taken seven to eight years to get to a place where the program could commit to offering the course every semester, which became standard just last year.
“I think there’s enough students that are equipped with the conversation and the language to continue the conversation, and we’re able to have more space to have more advanced level classes,” Wong said. “Hopefully that will open up possibilities to hire more people to expand the curriculum so it’s beyond just the purview of my expertise. And we’re really hoping that that could happen.”
Junior Clarissa Cheung’s main hope is that the restructured APDS program will be sustainable and well-resourced, with an increased amount of API critically aligned faculty. Wong is looking into more post-doctoral professors to hire on a permanent track for the program. She hopes that it will benefit the program by allowing them to do research at AU, teach courses and share knowledge with the students and build the APDS program.
“I do think that it is tremendous work because there just are so little resources going around and so little faculty that are able to do this work on top of other work that we’re expected to do as well,” Wong said. “Most of us are stretched across multiple departments — I’m jointly appointed, and so we have just compounded a commitment and so the excitement is that we’re all committed to building this community, but also the exhaustion comes with the fact that we’re all overstretched.”
According to Findlay, as of now, the department does not have the funding to hire a full-time faculty member focused solely on Asian Studies and they have put in a request for more funding to do so. She hopes this full-time faculty member can teach introductory and upper-level courses focused on Asian Studies. They are actively seeking out more part-time faculty as well.
“It’s going to be a long-term process, it’s going to take a long time to get the program to where we want it to be, but our goal is to implement all of the concerns that the students expressed,” Findlay said. “The work is not done and I want to encourage students interested in the ongoing health and dynamism of this program to continue those efforts. It’s in dialogue with our students that makes all of our programs better. I want students to be active in shaping their own education and be agents within it.”
Looking back: A history of the Asian Studies program
According to professor Jin Y. Park, the idea to begin an Asian Studies program sparked in 2011. At the time, she noticed there was only a certificate offered, not a major or minor. Asian Studies programs have existed at other American colleges for decades, and Park was dissatisfied that AU did not already have one. She went to the dean of undergraduate studies and began the process of building the program.
Park, history professor Justin Jacobs and an art history professor who later left AU officially founded and established the program from the ground up in 2013. It took two years of creating undergraduate studies proposals and developing curriculum for it to be approved, Park said. The program collected courses already at AU, from other departments, to create a major and minor in Asian Studies, including philosophy, art history, history, foreign languages and International Service. Many of the part-time faculty from other departments became jointly appointed during this time.
“We want to commend them for helping Dr. Park build [the program],” Findlay said. “We’re excited about the future direction of the program and it was really important that Dr. Park and all the part-time people she recruited created a base to build on.”
Park said that the first couple of years went well, with about 20 students enrolling in the major during those years. Many are students in the School of International Service with a regional focus in Asia who would double major. The early years of the program were mainly focused on philosophy, religion and SIS, which Park said makes the program different from many Asian Studies programs.
“When you start an Asian Studies department, the standard is that you have language courses, literature courses, history courses and so on and so forth,” Park said. “We’re different because we are in Washington, D.C. People are really interested in politics and international relations. That’s unique about students as a community and faculty as well.”
The program holds “Asia Nights” at the end of each academic year, for faculty, students and alumni to gather. Other events have included essay contests, lecture series with special guests and various pan-Asian gatherings.
Six years ago, the program fell under the umbrella collaborative of the Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies Collaborative (CRGC), first brought together by chair Theresa Runstedtler. Findlay was involved in the effort to form that collaborative, having been heavily involved in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.
She became the chair of the collaborative in fall 2019 and remained chair of the department when the CRGC collaborative transformed into a full department in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, including African American and African Diaspora Studies, American Studies, Arab World Studies, Asian Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
“More and more, as we emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s a lot Asian Studies can do in this context by offering more courses and challenging bias and stereotyping,” Park said. “I hope that it can be actively involved with the trend of decolonizing material in various disciplines. Philosophy has been dominated by Western male voices; we should learn from more Asian and women thinkers.”
The Asian Studies program has added various new courses over the years, as AU moved towards the Habits of Mind general education system, including ASIA-260 Asian American Experiences, ASIA-200 Modern East Asia and more.
In December 2020, after the first semester of CRGC operating as a full department, Park became the department head of the Philosophy and Religion department. In turn, Dr. Hye Young Shin stepped in as the new program chair.
Shin was previously the director of Korean languages and started out as an adjunct four years ago when there were only three students focusing on Korean. Now, Shin wants to connect Asian Studies with language courses more.
“I’m really ambitious; I want to identify who we have at AU, what their heritage is and what they want to learn and find the right instructors,” she said. “The message for the students is to feel cared [for]. The more we celebrate the diversity, the more the program will be welcome.”