Students and Faculty Advocate Asian American Studies

UPDATED: January 27, 2016, at 11:15 a.m.

A crowd of about 100 students packed into a Sever classroom to attend the first lecture of English 181A: “Asian American Literature”—one of the College's few courses in the field—indicating a rising popularity in the subject.

The increased interest comes after a semester of advocacy by students and faculty concerned with the College’s lack of Asian American studies offerings. Last October, the College formed an Asian American Studies Working Group, aimed at creating more opportunities for students and faculty interested in the field.

In addition, a group of undergraduates is pushing for more curricular offerings in Asian and Pacific Americans Studies. The group held a town hall in December to appeal to the Harvard administration to create a formal academic program in the area.

According to associate professor of English Ju Yon Kim, students have increasingly shown interest in her Asian American literature course over the past few years. When Kim first taught it in 2011, only seven students enrolled, she said.


Jenny Choi ’16, a member of the group pushing for more Asian American course offerings, said she was excited to see interest in the Asian American literature class.

“I think these subsets of ethnic studies are not perspectives that are studied currently in our classes,” Choi said.

According to Tessa L. Desmond, coordinator for the Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights program, the College regularly offers about five courses in Asian American studies, a low number compared to other areas of ethnic studies, such as Latino studies.

“There really is interest," Desmond said. "What we have right now are broad introductory courses, and there’s interest in drilling down further."

According to Desmond, the working group set three goals at their meeting in October: to bring to Harvard off-campus scholars in the field, to present research, and to discuss current events.

“The main thing that the working group does is provide an environment where we can discuss both scholarly and… social involvements of Asian American studies,” Anita K. Y. Lo ’16, who is a member of the working group, said.

A Working Group for Asian American Studies
Undergraduates, graduates, and faculty alike discuss the intended goals and structure of the Asian American studies working group in the organization's first meeting on Thursday afternoon.

Last October, the group hosted Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian American studies from the University of Maryland, as a guest speaker. The group also held a thesis workshop for three seniors working on projects related to Asian American Studies, Desmond said.

This semester, the working group is planning to co-host an event with the Latino Studies Working Group. The event will feature Renee Tajima-Pena, a documentarian and scholar who has worked on issues relevant to both fields of study.

Desmond sees community-building, rather than curricular change, as the core purpose of the working group.

Ruodi Duan, the working group’s graduate student coordinator and a Ph.D candidate in History, said more offerings in Asian Americans studies could enrich Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum.

“I think it’s an under-taught and underspoken aspect of American history,” Duan said.

—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @miackarr.


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