We need to talk about Asian American Studies.
In 2013, Asian American Studies (AAS) was established as a minor under the American Studies department. Three years after its inception, AAS still has no budget, no administrative assistant, and no signs that AAS will have a permanent professor soon. The program has had two visiting professors who were only on one- to two-year contracts. Next year, a postdoctoral fellow will be joining AAS, but they too will leave after two years. Every year, the College accepts applications for tenure-track lines from various departments and programs. Every year, AAS submits an application—but its applications are denied, because they “lack student initiative.” This year, Wellesley Asian Alliance is advocating for AAS’s application to show the college there is undeniable support by the Wellesley student body for a tenure-track position in AAS.
Last month, we circulated a survey and petition concerning Asian American Studies and South Asia Studies. We received a total of 624 responses from all class years, alums, Davis Scholars, and one teaching assistant. Members of Wellesley Asian Alliance (WAA) and fellow concerned students have met with and will continue to meet with the Provost, Deans, and the ACAS (Advisory Committee on Academic Staffing) to advocate for AAS’s application for a tenure-track position. ACAS told us that final decisions are made near the end of the 2017 spring semester. We want to pressure them as they deliberate.
We urgently advocate for Wellesley to show its support to AAS, because we feel the program is stunted by the College’s continued lack of commitment to it. This semester, there was only one AAS course, AMST 151 Asian American Experience, though there was a large enrollment (forty-three students). Next semester, there are just two AAS courses being offered, AMST 222/PSYC 222 Asian American Psychology and AMST 212 Korean American Literature and Culture. How can Wellesley support a minor when there are so few classes available? We need a tenure-track professor who would guarantee four AAS courses per year.
Mentorship and community building are key to supporting students’ academic careers. However, the lack of permanent faculty hinders the growth of Wellesley’s Asian/Asian American community and AAS minors. In addition to having few courses in the future to choose from, in the 2017-2018 school year, Professor Yoon Lee and Professor Stephen Chen, who teach popular AAS courses, are both going on sabbatical. Without a permanent professor in the program, we lack courses to take as well as valuable academic and personal mentorship. While the postdoctoral fellow, who will be selected by the end of this school year, will start teaching next fall, they are another temporary professor. They do not solve AAS’s big challenges: lack of mentorship and continuity within the program. Wellesley deserves a permanent tenure-track Asian Americanist who can both teach AAS courses and provide support for Asian American students.
Learning about Asian American history and culture is critical to the health and well-being of Asian Americans on campus. People of color and immigrants who do not have the opportunity to learn about their own history struggle with identity formation. Research shows a link between poor identity formation and mental health problems, including depression and suicidal ideation. Asian American women aged 18 to 24 have the nation’s second highest suicide rate among women in this age group (National Center for Health Statistics, 2012). For us, this is not merely a statistic, but a reality that affects us personally. Wellesley has a responsibility to support academic, mental, and emotional well-being of its Asian American students, and must offer them the opportunity to learn about their own history and culture through courses. We must remember that more than 20% of Wellesley students identify as Asian American—and this number does not include international students. We cannot stay under-resourced any longer. Hiring a tenure-track Asian Americanist is a concrete step that Wellesley can take to support its Asian/Asian American population.
In addition to having a limited number of AAS courses, courses currently available do not reflect the full diversity of the Asian American communities, often neglecting South and Southeast Asian narratives. When we asked for students to suggest Asian American courses offered at other colleges that they would like to take, we received over thirty suggestions, ranging from Asian Americans in Politics to South Asian and Southeast Asian Diaspora. There is clear student demand for diverse AAS courses that already exist at other institutions. Hiring a tenure-track Asian Americanist would be the first step and would demonstrate Wellesley’s commitment to building a stronger program.
Wellesley College is a traditionally women’s college with a unique commitment to empowering and advancing the education of marginalized groups. The College’s mission requires that it take tangible action to demonstrate a commitment to Asian/Asian American students and Asian American Studies. Moreover, we are at a critical juncture in American history, as our current racist and xenophobic President-elect will likely hold office for the next four years. Critical ethnic studies are opportunities for us to examine race, ethnicity, and power. As an institution, Wellesley has a duty to develop its ethnic studies programs to nurture its students to become change agents who can respond effectively to our sociopolitical issues.
WAA and concerned Wellesley students earnestly seek a permanent tenured Asian Americanist on campus who can ensure more AAS classes are offered throughout the year at Wellesley and provide mentorship and continuity for AAS and students minoring in the program. In addition, AAS can be a great source of pride for Wellesley College. We echo President Paula Johnson’s recent open letter in the New York Times, in which she writes that Wellesley “embrace[s] difference and work[s] to assure that all Wellesley students have an equal opportunity to flourish. [Wellesley] stands for equity and justice, for the pursuit of knowledge that is based in fact, and for civil discourse that is inclusive while challenging in its rigor.” This is the Wellesley we know and stand for. This Wellesley will support the stability and growth of its Asian American Studies.
Wellesley, the fight for ethnic studies has always relied on student initiative and action. We thank you for your support and urge you to continue this conversation.
Wellesley Asian Alliance and Concerned Wellesley College students
Results from Our Petition
Do you support having more Asian-American Studies classes on campus? (624 responses)
Out of all 624 students who answered, all respondents supported having more Asian American Studies classes, and 45% of the respondents (281 students) did not identify as Asian American.
Have you taken any Asian-American Studies classes thus far? (624 responses)
83.5% of respondents (522 students) have taken or want to take Asian American Studies classes.
We need the administration to address and validate the demands from this large percentage of the Wellesley community. AAS is vital on Wellesley College’s mission of the liberal arts and intersectionality. Current students have expressed so in the following quotations:
“‘No history, no self. Know history, know self.’”–Class of ’18
“People need the opportunity to find their identities.”–Class of ’20
“We want to be part of a generation of change.”–Class of ’19
“It’s a shame to see that society’s Asian and Asian-American invisibility is perpetuated at Wellesley college. Invisibility is not a superpower.”–Class of ’19
“As a graduating senior, I was disheartened to find no South Asian Studies classes to take my last semester of college. It made me feel a little more invisible on campus as a South Asian student.”–Class of ’17
“As a Vietnamese American, I feel that it is so important that we become more inclusive about South East Asian communities in our discussions pertaining to the ‘Asian American’ experience. The model minority myth that leaves the South East Asian population in the United States largely ignored is despicable.” –Class of ’20
“With this election, we have seen why Ethnic Studies and AAS is more and more critical.”–Class of ’19
“I spent all four years of my time at Wellesley fighting for Asian American Studies. But Wellesley didn’t give me that knowledge, I had to take it. Wellesley should be supporting students as they grow in their identities and their voices, not knocking them down.”–Class of ’08
“As an alum who advocated strongly for Asian American Studies, it is ridiculous to hear that this is the state it is in now. We need it now more than ever in the wake of this new President-elect.”–Class of ’16