Going to Bat For Ethnic Studies
Enough Time Has Elapsed Without Action
Last weekend, hundreds of students participated in Cultural Rhythms, the Harvard Foundation's annual extravaganza of riveting performances and mouth-watering food. The event itself was full of positive vibes, but as singer Valerie Jackson pointed out, it highlighted the hypocrisy of an administration that boasts of its cultural diversity but quashes student initiatives concerning race and ethnic studies (RES).
Although it was heartening to see hundreds of performers and audience members wearing green armbands in support of race and ethnic studies, the fact that the same thing happened last year only serves to indicate that the RES movement has made scant progress at Harvard.
Race and ethnic studies as we know it today owes its birth to activist students. Violent campus protests at San Francisco State led to the first ethnic studies program in 1968, and similar departments sprang up at universities up and down the West Coast soon afterward. Although the RES movement has lagged behind on the East Coast, it has made some substantial gains. Along with African American studies, Cornell offers majors in Asian American and Latino studies; Yale offers a major in ethnicity, race and migration; and UMass Boston features a Hispanic studies department and an Asian American institute.
How does Harvard compare? The Course of Instruction lists 79 "Courses Related to Ethnic Studies." But more than 40 percent of those courses are not being offered this year, and some of the remaining selections can hardly be counted as related to ethnic studies. I doubt you'll find much critical race theory or ethnic case studies in Historical Study A-34: "Medicine and Society in America." And although I appreciate the existence of courses such as Sociology 135: "The Caribbean Experience in America," I wonder why there are no similar courses for, for example, the Puerto Rican or South Asian experiences in America as well.
The dearth of quality and continuity among faculty members is another deterrent to student interest in RES. A number of students have complained to me that courses related to ethnic studies are poorly taught and that the professors lack expertise in ethnic studies. Some are taught by visiting professors, meaning that the courses will never be offered again and they will not produce thesis advisers. Many others are taught by junior faculty, who may also leave before one's senior year, thanks to Harvard's friendly tenure system.
But why should students complain about the inadequacy of race and ethnic studies when we have the premier Afro-American studies and East Asian studies departments in the nation?
The Afro-American studies department tends to disregard theories which are relevant to other racial and ethnic groups in America, including immigration theory, colonialism, post-colonialism and transnational identity formation.
In East Asian studies, you're limited to China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam; the concentration omits the rest of Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, as well as the entire Asian subcontinent. Asian Americans have a vibrant and long-standing history, cultural heritage and literature distinct from that of East Asia. Once you've done your homework, there's no getting around the fact that East Asian studies and Asian American studies are two entirely different disciplines.
The problems I've outlined above point us toward the need for an RES department at Harvard that includes (but is not necessarily limited to) programs in Asian American, Latino and Native American studies. Contrary to cherished opinion, race and ethnic studies is not a hodgepodge of theories studying a too-vast canvas of peoples. It is a legitimate field of scholarship dedicated to the understanding of race and ethnicity as cultural, historical, social and political concepts which have fundamentally shaped human collectivities since ancient times. The fact that it is interdisciplinary makes it no less legitimate than social studies, women's studies or environmental science and public policy.
If race and ethnicity are to be treated seriously at Harvard, we cannot rely on existing departments. The record shows that with limited budgets, low personal commitments and lack of support from the administration, department heads will not prioritize ethnic studies. An RES department with its own faculty and physical space would provide the expertise and continuity students deserve, as well as create the community among faculty and students vital to academic exchange and learning. Moreover, it will be committed to the study of traditionally marginalized groups of people who might not otherwise receive scholarly attention.
Opponents of race and ethnic studies charge that it is "too political," and that it serves to divide the student community and the nation at large. In response to these accusations, I ask: Is the study of political science, known here as government, "too political"? Are women's studies and Afro-American studies any more political than race and ethnic studies? Politics has always influenced academia, and as an agent of constructive change, it should continue to do so.
I don't delude myself that an RES department will be established anytime soon. If we are to learn anything from the Columbia University protests in April 1996, it is that the confrontational activism of the late 1960s is no longer effective. Rather, the development of RES will be a prolonged and often frustrating process of negotiation with the Faculty and administration. For the next few years, changes in Faculty hiring and the curriculum will be incremental and problematic at best. Students will have to demonstrate solidarity and consistent strong support for race and ethnic studies as a constant reminder to the administration that we are neither apathetic nor satisfied with the status quo. But if we're up to the challenge, we stand to improve the quality of academic scholarship at this university.
Nancy G Lin '99 is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. She is a coordinator of the Ethnic Studies Action Committee.