English Department Begins Search

New professor to support relatively new Ethnic Studies program

The English department on Tuesday voted unanimously to begin the search for a tenure-track professor of contemporary American literature who specializes in Asian-American studies.

According to English Department Chair W. James Simpson, the University administration authorized his department to hire a new professor on June 30 after receiving a restricted donation. The gift included a provision that part of it “be used to support those whose scholarship is related to Ethnic Studies,” with the hope that “the first recipient’s research and teaching will include the field of Asian-American studies.”

Simpson said the English department plans to interview candidates this January at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. He added the appointment would be made shortly thereafter, and the new professor would assume the position in July 2011.

Simpson said the administration could have assigned the new tenure-track position to any number of departments. But the position will fit especially well in the English department, he said.

“If you want the experience of what it’s like to traverse cultures, then literature is the place that’s going to be the richest locus for getting deeper in that question,” Simpson said.

He also noted that the Asian-American community is one of the largest minority groups on campus and that, with the new appointment, the department might receive “an audience of people who may not have found ready footholds in the English department.”

Simpson added he does not envision a department that is divided up into “ethnically categorized subcompartments.”

“What we want instead is to address an important demographic phenomenon on this campus and in this country—we want to address it, but we don’t want to restrict it to people who come from that background,” he said.

Athena M. Lao ’12, a co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, said there is “clearly a student need” for such an alternative area of study.

This year, the English department is offering only one course related to Asian-American literature, down from two last year, according to Simpson.

Lao added she does not believe the sheer size of Harvard’s Asian-American community alone justifies the creation of the new professorship.

“We do have a large population here, which maybe makes the voices louder than they would be at another place,” she said. “But any community, if they’re vehement about their culture, has something considerable to add to what the College is offering.”

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

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