Don't tell Phan Lam about the Oriental Studies Department. The chairperson of Students for Asian Affairs laughs when her program is compared, or equated, with student concerns about Oriental Studies. "A lot of the departments that we do have -- and if people point to the Oriental Studies Department -- they're great departments," said the College senior. "But many of the departments are of classical studies. [The Asian-American experience] is a unique experience." Lam and other students are frustrated that Asian Americans are not viewed as an American cultural group, but are seen as foreigners whose concerns should be lumped together with those of Asian nationals. Two years ago, students acting on this frustration formed SAA, a group dedicated to serving the distinct needs of Asians and Asian Americans at the University. With Asians and Asian Americans forming 18 percent of the University's student population, SAA is a new, serious voice working to be heard in an institution that says diversity is one of its primary concerns. Last year, the group lobbied successfully to institute a course on Asians in America, which is currently being taught on an temporary basis under the auspices of the American Civilization Department. This year, the struggle has continued as the group petitions to install the course permanently and add an Asian American literature class. Many California schools have majors in Asian American studies, and Brown and Harvard Universities both have courses in the subject. Lam said she thinks the University needs to keep up with that academic trend. · Jean Wu, a Bryn Mawr College professor who comes to the University once a week to teach the Asians in America course, said that the discipline of Asian American studies, like other ethnic studies, developed in the late 1960s in the wake of the civil rights movement. Minority scholars began to question the definition of an "American," contending that although the U.S. considers itself a melting pot, to blend into the society, one had to "melt" into the mold set by European immigrants, a mold that Asians could not fit because of their appearance. "No matter how long a person has been in this country, people still ask them, 'Where do you come from?' and, 'How did you learn to speak English so well?' " said Wu. Now, Asian American studies curricula around the country cover a wide range of historical and social science disciplines. The University of California at Los Angeles, for example, has an Asian American Studies specialization has courses relating the Asian American experience to law, women's studies, literature, and the media, as well as classes that are specific to one Asian ethnicity. But Wu said Asian Americans' experiences must be integrated into broader courses at different educational stages in order to form a complete picture of their contributions to American history. · Wu's classroom was in a controlled uproar toward the end of her three-hour class last Thursday afternoon as the students heatedly discussed the "glass ceiling" that sociologists say prevents the advancement of women and minorities in American companies. All but one of the 25 students in the class were Asian, and as the professor called on them to address Asian success and failure in the business world, they drew emotionally on their own experiences. One student said she planned to take advantage of new hiring trends that target women and minorities, while another said she hoped hard work would be enough to make her successful. Wu moderated the discussion while students nodded their heads in agreement or shot their hands up to comment. After class, College sophomore Yin Lai said she enjoyed the forum the course provided for discussing Asian American concerns. "I love it when we all argue and scream about it," she said. "You'd think that you're all think alike, but then you come up with Asians who have completely different experiences from you." Lai apologized playfully to Regan Allen, the only Caucasian in the class, for the way the class laughed when she brought up Asians' success in medical fields. Allen said the course gave her the chance to experience to experience academia from the point of view of a minority. "For me, this class is the first time I've been a minority," said the College junior. "Sometimes I get really upset when the professor asks us to relate to something and I can't relate." · Wu's class was implemented as a result of student action, and similar requests from the SAA have fallen on fertile ground at the University. Am Civ Department Chairperson Murray Murphey said his department has not received authorization from School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rosemary Stevens to continue Wu's course next year, but he said the course was not expensive and would probably be continued. He added that his department made a proposal to Dean Hugo Sonnenschein two years ago to develop Asian American studies coursework, and although the proposal was rejected, Murphey still considers the topic important. "We believe that such a course is necessary, at a minimum," Murphey said. "I think there ought to be more than this." And English Department Undergraduate Chairperson Alice Kelley said her department began looking for ways to add a course in Asian American literature after College senior Jim Lee wrote her a letter about the problem. The letter was circulated through the department, and Kelley said several professors told her they already taught the works of Asian-American authors in their courses, while Peter Conn expressed interest in teaching a course on the subject. But none of the professors is an expert in the field, and according to Kelley, it will be difficult to attract qualified faculty in a discipline as young as Asian American studies. "I know how eager these students are, and I really hope we can move quickly," she said. "I hope they won't think we aren't caring if we can't find someone." The swelling demand for Asian American studies mirrors the growth of other ethnic studies at the University. In December, the faculty will vote on the creation of a Latin American studies minor, the culmination of three years of student activism for the cause. Similarly, Kelley said an increase in student demands for African-American literature courses several years ago outstripped the University's ability to find qualified faculty. "It's like a few years ago when we were looking for a senior African-Americanist," she said. "We had to woo like crazy and we lost." The University administration has also begun to respond to requests for Asian American studies coursework. Sonnenschein created a committee last May to advise the dean on how to integrate Asian American studies into the curriculum. The committee will report to Stevens by the end of the academic year.Comments powered by Disqus
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