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Lip Service to Ethnic Studies

Why a Junior Faculty Post in Asian-American Literature Just Isn't Enough

By Gonzalo C. Martinez

The recent decision by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to create a junior faculty post in the English Department for Asian-American literature seems to fulfill a need for diversity in faculty and curriculum which until now has been ignored. The only problem is that this position will displace one of the visiting professorships allotted to the Committee on Ethnic Studies--one of the few instruments backed by the Administration which brings to Harvard a diverse group of scholars interested in race and ethnicity within an American context.

As a student of History and Literature I have often contemplated the influences and currents which flow through American literature and how these forces affect the content of the literature that is produced. Similarly, I wonder about those traditions left out or until now ignored which have also had a significant contribution to the symbolic construction of the United States. Although I applaud and support the beginnings of a diversification within the English department, I cannot help but be concerned at the possible exclusion of Latino literature from the curriculum.

Many of the famous and renowned professors of Chicano/Latino literature who have come to Harvard in the past few years have come through the visiting professorships set up by FAS in conjunction with the Harvard Foundation. Maria Herrera-Sobek, a visiting professor last year through the folklore and mythology Department, is not only a distinguished scholar in the field of Chicana writers but is also the head of the Department for Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Hector Calderon, of the University of California at Los Angeles, also an eminent scholar specializing in Chicano narrative, it teaching two courses in the English Department this semester, Juan Flores, an expert in Puerto Rican identity from City University of New York, will be teaching in Romance Languages and Literatures next semester.

From personal experience, and from what I have heard from other students, I believe that visiting Latino faculty are a very important resource in a university with few American Latino professors. As a senior History and Literature concentrator in the midst of writing a thesis about Chicano autobiography, I have found myself waiting outside Professor Calderon's office to seek his advice or to ask where I could find more information about particular aspects of my topic. Although my department has provided me with an extremely knowledgeable tutor who is happy to work with my ideas, he cannot always provide complete answers to questions regarding so-called "ethnic" autobiography. As I look to the classes of students behind me, I am saddened by the prospect of their not having a similar resource when the time comes to write their theses.

Harvard does not demonstrate a strong commitment to ethnic studies or to diversifying its faculty. The new position in English is not even a tenured one, but instead a junior faculty position. Whoever fills the position one year may be gone the next. The position seems intended more to mollify the growing cry for diversity. However, token concessions will simply not do.

Some have argued that there are insufficient minority scholars in academia. This argument seems more a self-defense than an accurate appraisal of the field. If my experience is any measure, the candidates are there; it is the University that is not hiring. The visiting scholars I have met have been articulate and erudite, and, most important, they care about their students.

I also fear the growing tendency to "ghettoize" ethnic studies, relegating it to obscurity. This position fails to recognize that ethnic studies are American studies and ethnic literature, American literature. By perusing the Courses of Instruction, one can see one salient example of the treatment of ethnic studies as nobody's child: the current structure of ethnic studies at Harvard has no structure. A list of sundry courses taken from the Core and from various departments is somehow supposed to make up for the magnetization of the study of race and ethnicity as it relates to modern America.

The redefinition of the American literary canon is talking place within our midst by the big names in our University. It is concerning that the process of re-imagining the definition of "American" is not informed by the very voices it hopes to include. Perhaps by having a more diverse faculty locally this redefinition would be more inclusive.

Only an administration with a weak commitment to ethnic studies would accommodate one student group by ignoring another, thereby attempting to pit students against each other. Afro-American studies at Harvard is very strong; with this new junior faculty position I hope to see the beginnings of an equally strong Asian-American program. But where are Latinos left? Have we no place? We are supposed to be the largest minority group within the United States come the 21st century, yet our presence has been all but ignored by the Harvard administration.

Gonzalo C. Martinez '98 is the president of Harvard-Radcliffe Raza.

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