'Asian American Studies Now'

May 7, 2010

Ten years ago, Jean Yu-wen Shen Wu co-edited Asian American Studies: A Reader (Rutgers University Press), an anthology intended to introduce readers to the discipline. For such a relatively young and dynamic field, a decade is a very long time indeed -- a point underscored by the title of her latest anthology, Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader (Rutgers University Press). Wu, senior lecturer of American studies at Tufts University, and Thomas C. Chen, who is co-editor of the new book and a doctoral candidate in American civilization at Brown University, spoke to Inside Higher Ed via e-mail, discussing how Asian American studies has changed -- for better and worse -- and what scholars should strive for as the field continues to grow.

Q: You note in the introduction "an emerging need to define the current shape" of the discipline. What are some of the defining characteristics of Asian American studies today?

Wu: I think Asian Americanists and other scholars who are familiar with the field would say that the interdisciplinarity of Asian American studies means that it includes many disciplines and methodologies, and that since its inception some 40 years ago, the field has been continually stretching to contemplate and include new Asian American experiences and more disciplines. A GIS expert in the field of geography or urban studies can be as much a part of the field as a social historian. So I think one of the defining characteristics of the field is its continuous grappling with inclusion and redefinition, as well as the great diversity of perspectives of those engaged in this endeavor. Another important characteristic is that it is a site in which dominant social structures and narratives can be revealed, interrogated, and challenged.

That said, I do not think that the field is always perceived in these ways by those outside of and unfamiliar with it. Though Asian American courses and programs exist in a number of institutions in higher education at present, I encounter significant numbers of academicians that regard the field as some form of not-very-rigorous "personal identity" and perhaps "cultural enrichment studies" that exists mainly to serve Asian Americans or those non-Asians with specific interests in Asian America. Some continue to conflate Asian American studies with Asian studies. It appears that even when Asian American studies is pretty well-established in an institution, it is seldom considered an area that is requisite for students to study in order to become "effectively and well educated" as they walk across the stage at graduation. So I think that Asian American studies is often regarded by those outside of the field as an optional special interest field, not as foundational education that is critical for all students if they are to understand and navigate their lives and society in the 21st century.

Chen: Defining Asian America itself has become an increasingly complex issue within the field -- who or what constitutes Asian America, and what purpose does this category serve? In the past, the field sharply distinguished itself from Asian studies through an explicit focus on Asians living in the United States. But the boundaries of the field are changing now with a growing interest in transnational flows of people, culture, and capital. Similarly, there has been a push to widen the field beyond the United States to include all of the Americas and to further integrate diverse Asian American ethnic groups and populations both within and beyond the United States. Debates over the nature and content of Asian American studies are ongoing, and they are bound up with the field’s ongoing struggle to define itself as a political project. Whereas a fairly coherent set of political commitments characterized the field in its initial phase, the field today is characterized by quite varied political ideologies and practices. Indeed, what constitutes a political act has itself become subject to various interpretations.

Q: What have been some of the major changes in the field in the decade since the publication of Asian American Studies: A Reader?

Wu: Asian America itself has expanded in numbers, diversity, and complexity in this past decade. Experiences, concepts, ideological projects that are researched and taught in Asian American studies have grown tremendously. Just as an example, research and writing on transracially and transnationally adopted Asian Americans is a pretty well established topic in Asian American studies in 2010 but was not really in existence in a significant way when Min Song and I prepared the first anthology. Even when Tom Chen wrote his undergraduate thesis on this topic in 2004, he had some difficulty identifying others studying it in the academy. Today, however, just six years later, a student working on this topic would have a significant volume of scholarship to refer to.

Chen: New topics of study and previously understudied Asian American populations are the focus of a lot of exciting new work. Transnationalism, for instance, has become a major concern in the field, generating new questions, novel theories, and innovative methodologies. Entire bodies of new work have developed around populations for which there was previously little scholarship, most notably transracial and transnational adoptees. Previously understudied Asian ethnic groups such as Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese have likewise been the subject of major new work. Meanwhile, new questions are being asked and new approaches applied to familiar topics including citizenship, immigration, and community formation. Of course, these examples are just scratching the surface of the wide range of new work that has been produced.

Professionally, a whole new generation of scholars have taken their place at the center of the field, as in all ethnic studies fields. Many of the scholars in this generation actually have formal training in Asian American studies or ethnic studies, which is very different from the previous generation that pioneered the field. No graduate programs in Asian American studies or ethnic studies existed for the first generation, who created the interdisciplinary programs and departments that exist now. Accompanying the institutionalization of Asian American studies are changes in the way that people relate to and view the field. The first generation of scholars fought hard battles to gain institutional space in the academy and to defend Asian American studies as a legitimate field of study. Fighting for the field on both intellectual and political grounds in many ways defined their relationship to the field. Asian American studies has since become rather well integrated into the academy, with a greater emphasis placed on professionalization, and I sense that this process has changed the character of how many relate to the field.

Q: One theme emphasized throughout the book is "the relationship between Asian American studies and ongoing social justice initiatives." What is the state of that relationship at present -- and how does that compare with what it ought to be?

Chen: Asian American studies was initiated together with ethnic studies as part of the movements for social justice of the 1960s and 1970s. From the outset, Asian American studies included a commitment to working with and serving Asian American communities in their struggle for a more just and equitable present and future. Activism defined Asian American studies at its inception. As the field struggled to legitimize itself and gain a foothold in the academy, it had to professionalize itself. Questions of power, justice, and inequality continue to permeate the field, and there are many scholars engaged in the field who are deeply involved in social justice projects and relate their research and teaching to the needs of Asian American communities. Nonetheless, I think the twin processes of institutionalization and professionalization have generated increased skepticism towards explicitly relating Asian American studies to ongoing social justice initiatives in Asian American communities. I would like to see more of us engaged in the field actively interrogating this relationship in our own work and in the field as a whole, and I would like us to find more ways of strengthening and renewing this relationship.

Wu: One of the reasons Tom and I wanted to put together a new anthology was our feeling that the relationship between Asian American studies and antiracist social justice work had become somewhat fuzzy over the years. Asian America is a political concept and Asian American studies is a site in which dominant narratives and current structural inequities can be revealed, interrogated, engaged, and challenged. The founding of Asian American studies was based in knowledge production that would serve antiracist social justice work in collaboration with and for our communities. The struggle that Asian American studies had to go through for legitimacy in the academy may have played a role in distancing its knowledge production projects within the academy from the practice of serving marginalized communities, from one of its original goals to work for justice for Asian Americans and other marginalized peoples. Changing demographics plays another role in obfuscating the connection between the field and social justice initiatives. Younger generations that did not experience the struggle of the ethnic studies movement in the 60s often are not aware of that history nor the nature and goals of Asian American studies and its relationship to antiracist social justice work. Their lack of awareness can be attributed to the omission and minimization of U.S. oppression and antiracism history in the content of their studies throughout their education.

Q: How would each of you answer the question -- posed in the book's introduction -- "what do we want Asian Americanist research, writing, and teaching to achieve?"

Wu: I think a simple way of answering this would be to say that I look for research, writing, and teaching in the field to foreground structural inequalities for Asian Americans and other marginalized populations, and the methods by which we can effectively challenge existing systems. I think we do not talk enough among ourselves but especially with our students about the power of Asian American studies to be "transformative" instead of "additive" education. One area that needs attention is more research on and training in pedagogy: how do teachers of Asian American studies encourage students to seek out the deep knowledge and multiple skills necessary for antiracist social justice work throughout their lives. What ways of teaching Asian American studies are most effective for realizing its potential as transformative racial and social justice education? I want to stress that educating and working for justice belongs in every field and profession, and most students need guidance and role models to think through how they can be most effective in whichever contexts they may choose.

Chen: Asian American studies has enormous potential for social transformation. Beyond its capacity to explicate social arrangements of power and to deepen our understanding of Asian American history and life, Asian Americanist research, writing, and teaching can imagine alternative possibilities for our communities and forge pathways toward bringing those possibilities into reality.

Q: Dr. Wu's essay, "Race Matters in Civic Engagement Work," makes repeated reference to "a dire lack of explicit education about the history of race and racial America throughout [American K-12 -- and postsecondary -- education]." What are some ways that you would like to see that lack addressed?

Wu: I know it would be simple for me to say that I want to see content that teaches about structural inequalities in the U.S. to be included in the curriculum across educational levels and institutions. This has been one of the core struggles of curriculum transformation projects that work for the adoption of anti-oppression education over many decades. And I really mean struggle. For example, many Asian American courses and programs in higher education have come about because students went on hunger strikes and laid their lives on the line to get curriculum changes.

However, this simple answer has met with consistent lack of action in many educational settings over decades. In discussing how curriculum gets changed I am reminded of a saying that states "changing the curriculum in the academy is more difficult than moving a New England graveyard." While this surely has been our experience in the area of teaching about race and racial history, it is important to point out that this kind of rigidity is not always the case across fields and for all curricular change. Schools and universities have found the resources and the will to introduce new content and even whole new areas of learning when they have wanted to do so, and when it has been strategic to do so. Look at the fields within computer sciences and technology, or area studies in particular languages and cultures when these are deemed salient for U.S. military or diplomatic or economic hegemony. So the dire lack of explicit education about the history of race and racial America across educational levels in the U.S. is a failure of will. It is not by any means accidental. It is the upholding by institutions of policies that are intentional about excluding or minimizing content that directly reveals structural inequities in our social systems. Teaching effectively about structural inequality inevitably leads to questions among students and teachers such as, "Now that I know about this kind of inequity, what can I do? How am I implicated in these systems of inequality? What can or do I do with my structural privilege or structural disadvantage? What is my role in challenging deeply oppressive power structures as they exist in the present?" These questions can and have been experienced as complex and uncomfortable questions in significant numbers of classrooms, and thus avoided, often systematically.

So to answer the question of how I would like to see the "lack" of teaching the history of race and racial America addressed, I would like to see many more educational leaders and administrators, faculty, students, parents, and leaders of professions urged to consider systematically the purpose of education for this century. And for those who say they want to see or be part of a more just world for more people, the question is, how will we harness our educational endeavors to help us get there? Are the structures, content, and pedagogies in and at all levels of our present educational system adequate for moving us forward? What and where are the gaps? What are the structures and content of our educational curricula at present that reinscribe and reinforce deep structural inequalities operating in our lives? What kinds of knowledge and skills do we need to be teaching and learning to ensure that our next generations have the will and are equipped to create a more just world?

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