A group of distinguished scholars discussed the future agenda of ethnic studies at a symposium Friday afternoon, calling for less theory and more practical, community-based research.
The symposium, "The Future of Ethnic Studies: New Agendas in Curriculum, Research and Theory," was organized by the Faculty Committee on Ethnic Studies (CES) and was attended by about 100 people.
Its primary goal was "to help generate faculty and student interest and facilitate dialogue in ethnic studies," according to Leo O. Lee, chair of the CES and professor of Chinese literature.
The conference came on the heels of a flurry of new ethnic-studies offerings at Ivy League schools, including new majors at Yale and Brown. Last month, the English department at Harvard created for the first time a permanent junior Faculty position in Asian-American literature.
The symposium was the first time that the Faculty CES, formed in 1993, had organized such a conference.
But student groups--notably the Ethnic Studies Action Committee and the Academic Affairs Committee of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations--have in recent years organized rallies, conferences and teachins on Asian-American, Latino and Native American studies.
Friday's symposium was meant to foster a free flow of ideas on approaches toward ethnic studies.
Mania Diawawa, chair of Africana studies at New York University (NYU), said he found black studies and African studies to be inadequate upon his arrival at NYU in 1992.
"I was unhappy with black studies, which was essentially history from slavery to present day," he said. "It was identity studies and African studies...basically gathered information for the State Department so they know how to 'help' Africa. I didn't fit into either category.
"All we have are theories of colonization," he added. "They don't teach you how to see Africa."
Instead, having recently been to Johannesburg, he discovered Africa in its rich culture.
"I began to look for Africa in its music, its art, in public places, market places," he said. "This is where Africa meets black America."
Benjamin Lee, co-director of the Center for Transcultural Studies in Chicago, agreed that existing theories in ethnic studies are deficient.
"I won't buy anything sold on the American theoretical market," he said.
Benjamin Lee stressed that much of ethnic studies was contemporary studies and not an established field.