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Asian American Studies Still Waiting for an Entrance

By Vidya B. Viswanathan and Maeve T. Wang, Contributing Writerss

In 1987, Mark H. Kuo ’90 helped collect hundreds of student signatures to petition the University to hire an Asian American studies professor.

Twenty years later, it’s déjà vu.

The University still has no permanent professor in Asian American studies, and the Asian American Association (AAA) is starting yet another campaign to bring the field to Harvard.

Despite years of flourishing at other universities, Asian American studies is still struggling to gain traction in Cambridge. The former chair of Harvard’s history department says that a general slowdown in social science and humanities growth in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is partly to blame, and that advocates of Asian American studies have yet to make a compelling argument for why it should be emphasized. But others say that Harvard simply isn’t giving the study of Asian American history and culture the recognition it deserves.


At west coast universities, where the historic influence of Asian American communities is stronger, Asian American studies has been an established field since the early 1970s.

But over the last two decades, the field has moved east to find a home at Ivy League institutions. At Cornell, whose Asian American studies program was founded in 1978, students can take a course called “The Asian American Urban Experience.” The University of Pennsylvania offers “Asian-Americans in the Media.” Both schools have minors in Asian American studies and offer more than a dozen courses in the field every year.

Meanwhile, Harvard’s course guide lists only four Asian American Studies courses offered at FAS this year—all taught by the same visiting professor, Eric Tang.

“Harvard prides itself on its diversity, but there’s a huge gap in the discussion on Asian American studies,” says Yuting P. Chiang ’10, co-chair of the Asian American Association (AAA) education-politics committee.

Student advocacy for Asian American studies has waxed and waned within the AAA as new leaders joined the campaign and then grew frustrated by their lack of success, said Phoebe Zen ’08, the other co-chair of the committee.

Student activists say the continuing failure of their campaigns is a result of Harvard’s academically conservative culture.

“In the eyes of Harvard, the oldest institution in the country, Asian American studies hasn’t proven itself the way other fields have,” said Sophia Lai ’04, a former AAA president who wrote her senior thesis on the institutionalization of Asian American studies. “It didn’t stem from the faculty or academics—it came from student protest—so it wasn’t seen as being as legitimate.”

Eric Tang, the visiting professor in Asian American studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the field must have clear administrative support in order to thrive.

“I would say that the program is overdue,” Tang said. “You look at some of the other Ivies and they’re on their 10-year anniversary.”


What’s standing in the way of Asian American studies now, according to former History Department chair Andrew D. Gordon ’74, is more a simple lack of space than lack of support.

“The reality is that at the moment, the growth is slow in social studies and humanities,” Gordon said. “The administration isn’t in the mood at the moment, or in the recent past, to dramatically expand the faculty in this area.”

And despite sporadic student activism, professors said, undergraduate advocates have failed to provide the steady pressure needed for change.

“I don’t think that the student push has been that sustained or has offered a clear vision of why this is important,” said Gordon, who specializes in modern Japan.

Without an existing program in Asian American studies, student advocates are trapped in a “vicious cycle,” said professor Wilt L. Idema, head tutor of the East Asian languages and literatures department.

“If the courses are not there, students cannot take them,” Idema said. “Students cannot show how much interest there is. If there is no proof of student interest, there is no reason for the administration to provide the classes.”


Still, after decades of waiting, the tide may be turning for Asian American studies at Harvard.

The history department came close to hiring a permanent Asian American studies expert last year for a joint full professorship in history and ethnic studies, according to history professor Walter Johnson.

“We all agreed that finding someone who could teach in the area of Asian American studies should be a priority,” Johnson said.

But the prospective candidate, Mae M. Ngai, accepted a position at Columbia University instead, he said. Ngai did not respond to requests for comment.

“Ethnic studies has a bigger presence on the campus at Columbia—that may have influenced her decision,” Johnson added.

Unless the University commits significant resources to developing Asian American studies, he said, it may be difficult for Harvard to compete with other universities’ more established programs.

“I think that for Asian American studies or any other sort of initiative to thrive—to be able to attract the most talented faculty and students—there has to be a commitment to building a critical mass in the field,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail.

Hiring one professor, he added, is not enough.


In their quest to bring Asian American studies to Harvard, AAA’s current advocates are setting smaller goals. Their predecessors in the organization fought for a full concentration, but ended up with nothing, said Zen, the AAA’s education politics co-chair.

They are now pushing for more modest results, although their ultimate goal is still the creation of Asian American studies as an independent program for undergraduates.

The AAA is working with the East Asian studies program to create an Asian American studies track within the department’s secondary field.

East Asian studies is supporting this effort, according to Idema, the concentration’s director of studies.

“What we can do is offer classes that deal with the Asian American experience from an East Asian perspective,” he said.

While operating within East Asian studies is not ideal, Zen said, it’s a beginning.

“Basically,” she said, “we’re starting from scratch all over again.”

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