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Courses on Identity Shouldn’t Be So Rare

Queer Queries

Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators work in University Hall.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators work in University Hall. By Aiyana G. White
By Aaryan K. Rawal, Crimson Opinion Writer
Aaryan K. Rawal ’26 is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Their column, “Queer Queries,” runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.

At the start of each semester, I tell myself that I will do (almost) all of my readings, submit (most) of my assignments on time, and attend (some of) my lectures — or, in other words, be a (somewhat) responsible student.

At the end of each semester, I inevitably feel profound disappointment at my seeming inability to engage fully with Harvard’s opportunities.

Now, as reading period begins, I once again find myself falling short of my goals to complete work in a sustainable or timely manner. But this go-around, my sense of inadequacy is more complicated: Atop my usual habit of comparing my work ethic to that of my peers, I feel as though I have wasted a rare opportunity to enjoy academic inclusion.

I am the product of a Southern public school system defined by censorship: textbooks in elementary school told me that the Civil War was about states’ rights; my middle school history teacher justified Japanese internment camps; my high school English teachers feared provoking the ire of an increasingly active book-banning movement.

It was thus energizing to have the opportunity to take two courses this semester that centered my community: Gov 94TL, “Asian American Politics” with professor Taeku Lee, and DPI 376, “Queer Nation: LGBTQ Protest, Politics, and Policy in the United States” with lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93.

For the first time in my Harvard experience, I partook in discussions of politics and policy without feeling as if they were abstracted into being identity-blind.

And transformative they were: I was excited to go to class, complete readings, and attend office hours. Indeed, with dedicated peers and deeply committed instructors, intentionally honing in on oft-neglected communities in academia allowed me to understand that my concentration did not have to confine itself to the ivory tower, but could instead address the daily experiences of my communities.

In short, I experienced the power of inclusion within academia.

Of course, life got in the way: I missed chunks of this semester as I admitted myself into the psych ward. Naturally, my engagement with my courses fell off.

I tried to be graceful with myself and to acknowledge that I was prioritizing my wellbeing — I told myself there would be further opportunities to engage in academic work grounded in pieces of my identity.

But Harvard is not a beacon of inclusive scholarship.

“Asian American Politics,” for example, was only possible because Professor Lee came to Harvard as part of a recent effort to hire scholars studying ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration. Meanwhile, “Queer Nation” is a course primarily targeted at graduate students, deterring undergraduate enrollment.

My awareness of this dynamic led me to, unsuccessfully, attempt to attend a “Queer Nation” lecture before checking myself into the hospital in October.

In hindsight, I am ashamed that I prioritized a class over my own life. Truthfully, though, I understand why I did: Representation provided meaning to my Harvard education; it re-invigorated my intellectual passions. I hoped to endure in those rare spaces that affirmed my identity in their academic pursuits.

Of course, Harvard can make empowerment and representation in its courses less exceptional; the University can preserve and nourish affirming spaces through more active institutional support.

An Ethnic Studies concentration and full-fledged Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department with tenure-track positions, for example, can provide scholars with the resources and structural stability needed to craft interdisciplinary courses that resist historical exclusion. Moreover, existing departments should generate courses that focus on the marginalized — Professor Lee’s course, for example, is listed under the Government department.

I recognize that empowering curricula is not entirely inaccessible at Harvard. There are still other courses to take. Still, I wish that courses that allow us to study our identity could simply be a class, rather than a rare commodity that we feel that we can waste.

Aaryan K. Rawal ’26 is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Their column, “Queer Queries,” runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.

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