Thursday, December 29, 2011

Has Asian American Studies Failed? Continued

(image via bigWOWO)
I've been amazed by the response to my last post on Asian American studies--some great comments here and even more discussion on Facebook, and even a shout-out from angry asian man. It seems like the state and place of Asian American studies is something a lot of people have been thinking about, although I get just as strong a sense that people are eager for a more open discussion of some of the challenges facing the field.

Since not all of the comments are collected in one place--and many reflected much more thought on the topic than my off-the-cuff remarks--I thought a follow-up with some comment on the responses might be useful, in order to keep the conversation going. So, a few issues raised for me by the responses. (Some of these comments were made on my Facebook page, so I won't identify those commenters by name unless they choose to identify themselves.)

  1. Defining "the public." Much of my post was devoted to the question of Asian American studies' impact on "the public sphere." As one colleague pointed out to me, "success" or "failure" in this realm may well depend on how we define the "public" that Asian American studies is designed to reach and serve. This colleague suggested that Asian American studies might in fact be aimed at creating "alternative public spheres" that lie outside mainstream institutions and are critical of them.

    I think this is an excellent point. The "public" is not defined entirely by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Asian American studies has, in fact, been reasonably successful in creating alternate public spaces (see #5 below). Some of those spaces have been within the academy (academic programs, journals), although of course such spaces have their own problematic relationships with power. There are also alternative spaces of publication (a major element of the movement was its creation of Asian American journals, and that continues today). Asian American literature itself can be such a space.

    I think that my question, though, was a little bit different. Given the existence of such hard-won alternative spaces, how, if at all, do those alternate spaces interface with a larger public space? Do such alternative institutions speak only to a small audience, while having little impact on a larger discourse? What audience, what community does Asian American studies speak to? (More on this under #2.)

  2. Our "activist roots." Quite a few comments linked what I was saying to a complaint that is frequently heard about contemporary Asian American studies: that it is locked up in the ivory tower, and has lost touch with its activist roots.

    I actually think this is not what I am saying.

    I don't know if I speak for other younger Asian Americanists in saying this, but "get back to our activist roots" feels like a non-starter to me, for at least two reasons.

    First, about the worst way to motivate a politically committed person under 45 is to say, "Why can't you do it the way we did it in the '60s and '70s?"

    Second, and more seriously, younger Asian Americanists have grown up and been educated in an entirely different context. If we think about the roots of our field, we think of activist students who shut down colleges and staged hunger strikes because they wanted a place for Asian Americans and Asian American studies within the university, a place that did not then exist. Four decades on, that place has been established (though it's always tenuous, and needs to keep expanding). The fact that students across the country can now take Asian American studies courses and degrees, that graduate students can be trained in the field, that Asian American studies is recognized as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry--this is a realization of the vision of the activists who fought for our field. There's a deep irony, then, in seeing some Asian Americanists actually feeling bad or guilty about being within the university, about occupying that space that is the product of so much struggle.

    By no means am I saying that Asian American studies should turn away from politics. It can't, even if it wanted to. Asian American studies is, by definition, a political field, since its object--"Asian Americans"--is itself a politically defined category. In fact, all academic fields are political in this sense--it's simply that Asian American studies, like other fields in ethnic studies, must constantly remain conscious of its political nature, since race in America is always a site of controversy and struggle.

    I guess what I'm saying is that in Asian American studies at its best, teaching is activism. When we go into our classrooms and tell students hard, overlooked truths about the history of Asians and anti-Asian racism in America; when we make a case that Asian Americans have produced a culture and a literature that is worth studying; when we show Asian American and non-Asian American students alike that there is a place for Asian Americans in the curriculum and the classroom--that is activism, but that is also just what we do every day. Serving and educating our students can and should be an activist mission. (And scholarship, in this sense, is activist too.)

    Of course, I don't mean that teaching and scholarship are the only forms of activism that Asian Americanists should undertake. I suppose the thing that links my concerns with the "activist roots" argument is the question: what connects Asian American studies to the wider world outside the university?

    I guess where I differ from the usual response to this question is that I don't think that the answer lies in abandoning what we are currently doing in favor of some more "real" form of activism. I guess what I'm suggesting is that we do what we are currently doing in a "bigger" way, on a bigger stage, in a way that is far more public.

    We often hear that Asian American studies should serve the Asian American community. Indeed. But how is that community to be defined, now, in 2011? In the past, "community" might have been defined in terms of local Asian American populations, and the question of an individual university's relationship to the particular community that surrounded it. That's still true today; much of what we do in Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is inflected by the significant Hmong population in our state and our student body. But my sense is that there is now a greater awareness of a national Asian American community, one that has become aware of itself through politics, media, the Web.

    This is a community that tends to react to--indeed, to come into being around--major traumas or media events. Sometimes these are acts of violence against Asian Americans, from the murder of Vincent Chin to the death of Private Danny Chen. At other times, it's a response to more quotidian media controversies, like the rise of the "tiger mom" or the notorious "Asians in the Library" video. Much of the energy that drives this sense of national community comes from younger, college-educated, media-savvy Asian Americans who spread news and images through social media and are often the first responders to anti-Asian images in the media. In more sustained controversies, we'll often see such Asian Americans working in conjunction with more traditional advocacy groups, elected officials, local community activists, etc.

    It would be easy to argue that some of these controversies, such as that over the "Asians in the Library" video (or, in an earlier decade, the Abercrombie & Fitch boycott) focus on relatively superficial media images that don't speak to the deeper social, political, and economic needs of the Asian American community. But it's also true that these kinds of controversies can galvanize Asian Americans--particularly younger Asian Americans--into activism. And it's also clear that such controversies are sites where Asian American studies is uniquely positioned to make a strong intervention--although it often has not done so.

    Last spring, when the "Asians in the Library" video went viral, I tried pointedly to ignore it. But I quickly discovered that my students were not ignoring it: they wanted to talk about it in class, and I soon found myself invited to a student-organized discussion on the video. What I quickly discovered was that the video referenced any number of stereotypes that are common fodder for discussion in Asian American studies--from the idea of Asian Americans as unassimilated foreigners to fears of Asian invasion--but that the students themselves weren't familiar with this context, making the video feel both like a raw and personal attack and like a set of images that seemingly came out of nowhere. But the real revelation for me was the way a discussion of the video opened up into a range of student experiences with racism, from run-ins with campus police to the casual harassment Asian students experienced walking down State Street on a Saturday night.

    What I saw in that discussion was the way the lessons of Asian American studies could provide a context for Asian American students struggling to navigate the racism that permeates everyday life and media. Yet it was an opportunity I would have missed if my students hadn't pulled me into a discussion of something that had caught their attention, but that I (mistakenly) thought was beneath mine.

    How can we be sure that when events like these occur, Asian Americanists are not just reacting, too slowly and at too great a distance, but aggressively intervening in public discourse, helping to set the tone and provide context? We can't count on the media to ask us for our opinion, so we've got to find other ways of putting ourselves out there--blogs, op-eds, social media--and to do it in the heat of a controversy, not well after it's past.

  3. Professional academics vs. professional activists. Blogger Bryon Wong responded to my earlier post by suggesting that we shouldn't expect Asian American studies to train activists:
    The purpose of Asian American Studies is to study, not to change. I don’t know if everyone would agree with this since AAS came about by people who fought for change on the streets. But I would submit that while AAS was conceived on the streets amid protests and sit-ins, the purpose of the departments themselves were always to transmit knowledge of literature and history, rather than to teach people how to create change.
    I guess in what I've said above I'm somewhat agreeing--although perhaps from a rather different angle, by suggesting that study and activism are not necessarily so rigidly separate. But it's certainly true that Asian American studies courses are not generally in the business of training students how to be professional activists--organizing, advocating, reaching out to the community, communicating to wide audiences, etc. Which makes me wonder if the apparent divide between academics and activism is more a practical than an ideological gap.

    Example: Ramey Ko, who provided some insightful comments on my original post, is a man who wears many hats. He's an Austin municipal judge, a progressive activist who's part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and a lecturer in Asian American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin. Ko observed that
    more AAS programs could use folks with activist and organizing backgrounds more effectively as adjuncts. I'm an AAPI political activist, and by teaching adjunct in AAS at UT, I try to make engagement, awareness, and activism a part of my lessons. We also have adjuncts teaching classes on campus organizing, AAPI political movements, etc. from a more hands-on perspective.
    But as Sarah Park, another academic, noted in another comment:
    I don't think this topic is unrelated to the ongoing conversations at AAAS regarding how to support AAS faculty in our pursuit of tenure, etc. We should be advocating and commenting on issues affecting our communities, but it's hard to do when other obligations loom.
    That's certainly true. The professionalization of Asian American studies, and the rise of tenure-track positions in the field, is absolutely a positive in terms of the field's long-term health. But it brings with it all the usual pressures to publish and focus on university service, and junior faculty members may well find it difficult to imagine doing any kind of public advocacy work in addition to their other obligations (or, worse yet, feel that such work is too risky to their careers). I think it's no accident that I started this blog when I was a grad student, largely abandoned it when I was an assistant professor, and am returning to it now that I have tenure.

    Both Ko and Wong suggest that Asian American studies programs could get more into the business of training activists, and Ko suggests that adjunct positions can be a good way of getting professional activists into the classroom. This is a great idea, but it doesn't quite address the issue Park raises, which is the other side of the arrow: how can we provide space for those who are professional academics--Ph.D.-holding researchers whose primary workplace is the classroom or the library--to address wider public audiences?

  4. Networks. As several people pointed out, there are many organizations devoted to Asian American activism and Asian American media; a few that were mentioned included student groups like ECAASU; the Asian American Journalists Association; and the Banana bloggers' conference. The question is whether Asian Americanist academics are making connections to these kinds of groups; the answer, so far as I can tell, seems to be no. Can AAAS, our professional organization, play a more active role in forging such links? Should AAAS itself engage in more public advocacy? Perhaps a caucus of members interested in public affairs or advocacy would be a good start. (One commenter even suggested that AAAS could hire a media specialist, but I doubt there's money for that.)

  5. Media. Since mainstream media outlets are unlikely to feature Asian American voices, one major vehicle for the Asian American movement has always been the creation of alternative, Asian American publications. In the 1970s, journals like Gidra and Bridge mixed politics and culture. Amerasia was the first scholarly journal devoted to Asian American studies, and has since been joined by the Journal of Asian American Studies. Many younger Asian Americans, though, have long wished for a successful general-interest Asian American magazine that could bring Asian American issues and culture to a wider audience. a.Magazine sought to fill that role in the '90s; since its demise, the best aspirant to this role has been Hyphen, which has done a fine job of mixing politics, culture, arts, and books coverage with a strong online presence, and has even made efforts to bring Asian American academia into the conversation. (I'm admittedly biased on this front, having been part of a recent Hyphen roundtable on Asian American poetry--but hey, what other glossy magazine is actually going to have a roundtable on Asian American poetry?)

    There have also been numerous attempts to create an Asian American literary journal with some staying power. This has been a particularly difficult challenge: the first, groundbreaking Asian American literary journal, Aion, published in 1971, lasted only two issues. The relatively new Asian American Literary Review has been publishing not just Asian American poetry and fiction but something that we've rarely seen in Asian American letters--serious non-academic literary criticism (though often penned by professors, myself included). And there are at least two other Asian American literary journals currently publishing: Kartika Review and Lantern Review. Add it up and that's something like the most promising landscape we've seen for Asian American publications in years.

    I'm highlighting such publications because I think they have the potential to provide a bridge between Asian American academia and a broader audience. As both a poet and a scholar who focuses on Asian American poetry, I think there's a real hunger out there among Asian American poets for a greater sense of context for their work; Asian American writers have found a range of ways to forge communities with each other, but many younger writers don't have a strong sense of the tradition of Asian American writing, since it's rarely on the menu in most college or MFA classrooms. Literary journals that bring some part of the academic conversation into contact with working creative writers can play a huge role in closing that gap. Similarly, a general-interest magazine can provide a forum where the kinds of conversations that go on in Asian American studies can be brought to bear on the latest debates and controversies. Academics ought to support and engage with these journals and think of them (if the journals are receptive) as ways to reach an audience beyond their academic peers.

    Whew. OK. Enough from me for the moment. The bottom line, I think, is that there are actually a lot of avenues out there for us to make the lessons of Asian American studies more public; we've just got to connect the dots.


Calvin said...

What about the power and impact of what you're doing right now (blogging)? It's even more accessible and democratic than print magazines and literary journals. Now that the Internet and user-generated content is no longer newfangled, I think we can expect to see blogging, video blogging, etc. to create spaces for discussion and idea dissemination that are just as valuable and recognizably "prestigious" as older outlets.

Timothy Yu said...

Blogging is definitely a big part of this. There are already a number of Asian American academics who blog: Paul Lai and Stephen Hong Sohn post great book reviews at Asian American Literature Fans, and there's Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minh-Ha T. Pham's Threadbared blog. I know there are a lot more out there, and I need to do my homework on that front (suggestions welcome!).

One thing I'd like to see would be some kind of aggregator site that would connect Asian American academic bloggers, or a group blog of some kind.

liza said...

This is, I think, characteristic of a lot of the questions and issues being raised in and around Chicana/o Studies. Since I've just moved from an English dept in an almost all white insitution to a Chicana/o Studies dept with a significant Latina/o student population, I've been thinking about lately. I think you're right on the money especially in thinking about the relationship between teaching and activism. I think that you're right in saying that the difference is practical rather than ideological; if anything, I hope we are teaching our students how to develop a critical engagement, an epistemic framework for thinking about social change. Thanks.

CocaLola said...

You can forget about ECAASU on #4. Asian American Studies has failed that organization. Get updated about the controversy here:

Keoni said...

Both of the original incidents you mentioned were appalling, but given that a a large percentage of the American public rejects both global climate change and evolution, you might well ask if science has failed.

It seems to me to be a function of our current society that things like this happen, for various reasons. As noted, there are commentators like Michelle Malkin (and even scholarly books) that have stated that the internment of Japanese-Americans was justified. As for the tiger mom flap, well she's laughing the whole way to the bank.

Asian-American studies exists to put these things in context, to expose people to history, and to create the foundations for broader change. The rest of academia faces the same questions with regard to whether they need to engage more in respect to current issues. Clearly academics like Paul Krugman and Juan Cole have had voices in the discussion of economics and the Middle East respectively; the question for professors of Asian-American studies is how can you contribute to this discourse?

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