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Ethnic Studies Committee Revived

By Manning Ding and Alex M. Mcleese, Crimson Staff Writerss

After a dormant period, the Standing Committee on Ethnic Studies is meeting again, boasting increased faculty participation, a book of courses, and a pair of visiting professors, while looking ahead to the creation of a General Education portal course and even a secondary field.

Until this past spring, the Standing Committee had not met for at least two years, said current committee chair and Professor of English and African and African American Studies Werner Sollors.

In the past few decades, faculty bodies coordinating ethnic studies have shifted from ad hoc to standing committees. In multiple instances, students have organized to demand more academic options. The last big student push was in 2002, when a coalition failed to win approval for a certificate in ethnic studies.

The committee’s current revival has come in response to interest from the Undergraduate Council and the Ethnic Studies Coalition, an unofficial student group that formed last spring to advocate for the subject’s revitalization. Various faculty members, over 20 of whom now sit on the committee, also supported the effort.

The Standing Committee’s input contributed to the hiring of two visiting faculty—Hua H. Hsu in English and Denise Khor in history—who are teaching courses related to ethnic studies this year. Sollors said he hopes to work within financial constraints to recruit more visiting faculty in future years.

Sollors and his colleagues want to focus on teaching ethnicity, migration, indigeneity, and human rights, he said, adding that the many strands of ethnic studies are best taught in an interdisciplinary setting.

“In African and African American Studies, people from many different disciplines cross the boundary between social sciences and humanities, and that is really ideal for an ethnic studies unit as well,” he said.

The committee is hoping to win approval for a secondary field in ethnic studies and a related citation in human rights.

But before the committee can offer a secondary field, it must create an introductory course. English Professor Joanne van der Woude has submitted a proposal for such a course that would serve as a portal into the ethnic studies field and could be included in the General Education curriculum.

Van der Woude said that because Harvard lacks programs on Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, she plans to focus on the stories of those groups in American history. Her syllabus includes Phillis Wheatley, Junot Diaz, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She said that she hopes the course will be approved in time for the next academic year, and that a secondary field in ethnic studies will follow soon.

The secondary field would match the General Education curriculum’s emphasis on civic engagement, van der Woude said. “Ethnic studies is intimately connected with that because it takes up the writings of those who have been frequently displaced and dispossessed,” she said.

Sollors said that the secondary field proposal is being developed, and that he could not say when it might be submitted. Van der Woude said that professors are currently discussing how best to advise students and integrate human rights into an ethnic studies field.

Undergraduate Council President Andrea R. Flores ’10, whose campaign platform last fall included a promise to push for ethnic studies, said that she hopes to finalize the details of the secondary field before her term concludes at the end of this semester. She said that the issue of ethnic studies became important to her because social science concentrations like history were not focused on racial diversity, leaving to the wayside subjects like Chicano history and Asian American history.

Ethnic Studies Coalition co-director Athena L.M. Lao ’12 said she hopes the secondary field will be in place by the time she graduates in 2012.

“There are a lot of universities with really good ethnic studies programs,” she said. “I have trouble seeing Harvard as being the best university in the world when it’s lagging in something like ethnic studies.”

Besides offering new academic options, the students and faculty involved in the ethnic studies push are planning to organize a conference to be held this spring that they hope will appeal to a broad audience beyond the committee, Lao said.

—Staff writer Manning Ding can be reached at ding3@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Alex M. McLeese can be reached amcleese@fas.harvard.edu.

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