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Why Asian-American Studies?

The call for an Asian-American Studies program and support for interested students and faculty has increased in volume at Northwestern, Harvard and our very own Duke. Today we argue that this is a no-brainer for our administration and academic leadership. The meaning and relevance of such a move to our community is undeniable, deserving the University’s full support. At the very least, the University should look to avoid The Daily Northwestern's announcement headline which reads, "After 20 years in the making."

As early as 2002, the Asian Students Association called for the creation of a major for Asian-American Studies. Some combination of a lack of momentum and several key activists graduating from Duke led to the fizzling out of this effort, but the Duke we see today is far different. A full 28 percent of the Class of 2019 identified as Pacific Islander, Asian-American or Asian in coming to study at Duke. At present, Asian-American professors and courses are lacking or inappropriately filed under Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. So much has changed at Duke and nationally in the last fourteen years and even in the last three years since the inexcusable Asia Prime party. Perhaps the timing is finally right.

A new program of study would help Duke’s many Asian-American students develop their own racial identity and give interested students an opportunity to learn what they currently have to glean from Asian Studies courses. While not every field of academic study or research necessarily deserves a department or program of study, the relevance of this area to students is clear and has time and time again been brought up. A lack of current student interest may not be indicative of actually low interest levels but a dearth of opportunities for students and incentives for professors who need to teach in extant areas. Political commentary aside about what this would mean for Asian-American activists, this move has legitimate academic appeal.

Yet even as some agree there is a need for understanding what it means to be Asian and of Asian descent, they fail to understand why listing such courses under an Asian Studies major is reductive, playing into the very assumptions activists are seeking to debunk. Further, Duke already has entire programs dedicated to comparatively smaller student populations and areas of research. Cultural exploration is not a competition, but fair treatment and recognition that Asian-Americans and other hyphenated Americans have distinct experiences from their original ethnicities is essential to understanding the issue at hand.

This is not to say there are not obstacles to establishing this program as a major, minor or certificate. Hiring new faculty is an expensive and complex process. We also cannot fault Duke for wanting to first focus on making existent programs as excellent as possible, but schools like Harvard have used the mean time to create an Asian American Studies Working Group that creates other opportunities for interested students and faculty.

We recommend a certificate for Asian-American Studies to acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of the area across the humanities and the need for research through capstone projects. A working group to explore possibilities for the University is an essential first step, but the work of such a group must not fade over time as that of the 2002’s group did.

Can we tell if this will really have beneficial results for students? Ethnic studies programs at universities no doubt have a positive correlation with minority student achievement as well as the direct benefits of a more colorful academic background. All signs at Duke suggest that our more than 1400 Asian or Asian-American students would respond well.


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