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Faculty question viability of Asian American studies major at Duke

Students requested the creation of the major last semester

<p>The request for the creation of an Asian American studies major was made by students at the second Fall community forum Nov. 20.&nbsp;</p>

The request for the creation of an Asian American studies major was made by students at the second Fall community forum Nov. 20. 

Student activists continue to advocate for the creation of an Asian American studies major at Duke, although faculty are uncertain whether there is enough student interest to merit the addition. 

The Duke Asian American Alliance, Duke Asian Student Association and Diya, Duke's South Asian Student Association, presented the administration with a list of demands at the second community forum Nov. 20. The demands included the creation of an Asian American Studies major, which was first requested after the controversial Asian-themed party hosted by the fraternity Kappa Sigma in 2013. 

Sophomore Christine Lee, vice president of political affairs for Duke's Asian Students Association, noted that classes about Asian American culture already exist, but are difficult for students to take because they must fulfill requirements in the existing Trinity curriculum. 

“Students want to take these classes; we just don’t have the institutional framework and support,” Lee wrote in an email.

Lee noted that students have been meeting with administrators about the feasibility of adding the major. 

Leo Ching, associate professor of Asian and African languages and literature, wrote in an email that he does not believe there is enough student interest to merit the creation of a full Asian American studies major. However, he noted that he believes that a certificate or some viable alternative is needed.

“Students have good intentions and are very adept at mobilizing,” Ching wrote. “We might want to begin with something more modest to ensure sustainability.”

Ching also noted that this problem could be remedied by requesting that courses focused on the United States emphasize the importance of contributions made by Asians and Asian Americans.

Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, said that the administration’s reticence to add the Asian American studies major is not out of disregard for student concerns, but rather a practical consideration based on their observation of student interest.

Baker noted that neither the East Asian nor the South Asian Studies certificates have been particularly popular. He also pointed out that there have not been many Asian American Studies proposals within Program II, which students can use to create a personalized area of study. 

He cited global health and neuroscience as examples of new majors that were created in response to the large volume of students pursuing related Program II pathways.

“I think it’s vital to have a suite of courses that allow students to understand subject position, heritage, history and the racial politics of being Asian or articulating an Asian heritage,” Baker said. “We’re trying to work on courses students can take and faculty that can teach this within the other extant disciplines.”

The Harvard Crimson reported Jan. 27 that students at Harvard University are similarly advocating for increased Asian American studies course offerings. A similar report was written in Dartmouth’s student newspaper in February 2015. 

Among Ivy League institutions, Asian American studies is available as an undergraduate major and concentration at Columbia University, a minor at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania and as a concentration within the ethnic studies or American studies majors at Brown University.

Many other institutions across the country—including the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern University and Stanford University—offer Asian American studies majors.

In an email to The Chronicle, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, associate professor of Asian American studies at Northwestern University, wrote about the student efforts that led to the creation of an Asian American studies program there.

“In 1995, students waged a hunger strike and that really brought the issue of not having curricular representation to the fore,” Sharma wrote.

Following student-led efforts, an Asian American studies program was created at Northwestern in 1999. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes, a proposal to create a major in Asian American studies was passed this month. 

The major, which will be offered beginning in Fall 2016, will be comprised of core courses including Asian American Literature, Introduction to Asian American History and Introduction to Asian American Studies along with a number of electives such as Asian and Black Historical Relations in the U.S and courses on the mixed race experience. Sharma explained that Asian American studies majors are important not only for allowing Asian Americans to learn about their history, but also for educating other students about the experiences of the marginalized group.

“On the one hand, just as people still think that Asian Americans are recent immigrants and not multi-generational Americans, people also don’t know the different between Asian studies and Asian American studies,” Sharma wrote.

Ching echoed Sharma’s sentiment and expressed optimism about the movement on Duke’s campus, writing that the experience of Asian Americans differs from the experience of Asians in Asia as a result of American imperialism and implicit white supremacy.

“This is a welcome trajectory, considering the brief history of Asian studies at Duke in comparison to our peer institutions,” Ching wrote. “The protests and requests are expressions of deep-seated frustration about Duke’s cultures of racism and inattentiveness to issues of diversity and inclusion, and this is not just an Asian or Asian American issue.”


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