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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Has Asian American Studies Failed?

Episode 1: The New York Times publishes a review of the learning center at Heart Mountain, one of the sites of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Halfway through, the piece takes a hard turn toward historical revisionism. Internment was "more the rule than the exception" and was applied to other ethnic groups too. Japan was a "racist, militant society" and many Japanese Americans were "strategically devoted to the mother country." And "the Japanese were known for similar espionage elsewhere."

These are precisely the kinds of arguments that were made in 1941 to justify the internment, so it's rather shocking to hear them repeated in 2011. Moreover, they're precisely the lines of reasoning that have been thoroughly debunked by Asian American historians. Only Japanese Americans, and not German or Italian Americans, were subjected to mass internment based solely on ancestry. The FBI, far from seeing Japanese Americans as dangerous, found no evidence of espionage or disloyalty in the population. (Don't take my word for it; just glance at Ronald Takaki or Sucheng Chan, or any standard history of Asian Americans.)

A week later, the NYT printed two letters responding to the article, both from Japanese Americans. Although both eloquently rebutted the review's falsehoods, the Times' choice of letters suggests a merely personal response from Japanese Americans, leaving aside the larger question: How could a reporter writing for the New York Times in 2011 be so utterly ignorant of the basic facts of Asian American history?

Episode 2: The Wall Street Journal publishes an article by a Chinese American Yale law professor called "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." The article sings the praises of a harsh "Chinese" mode of parenting, including ridicule, shaming, and relentless perfectionism, and proclaims it superior to permissive "Western" parenting. A firestorm of controversy ensues, with the author of the article denounced as a monster and an abuser, and the term "tiger mother" enters the language as shorthand for extreme Asian parenting.

You can read my own take on the "tiger mother" controversy elsewhere, but for the moment the point I want to make is this: The debate that went on in the media was almost entirely between the "tiger mother" herself and her white critics. Although almost every Asian American I knew had an opinion, and many of them shared them publicly, their voices went practically unheard. Perhaps most baffling was that the author herself, American-born and Ivy League-educated, seemed utterly ignorant of the idea that such as thing as Asian American identity existed. Her argument was based entirely on the idea that she (and her mixed-race daughters) were purely "Chinese" and not American. She seemed not at all aware that the struggles with cultural identity, assimilation, and resistance that underpinned her parenting struggles were exactly what we talk about when we talk about "being Asian American."


Two depictions of Asian Americans in the pages of two of our country's leading newspapers. In both cases, what's misleading in the pieces could easily have been avoided if the authors had ever taken Asian American Studies 101. Or if even the most basic elements of Asian American studies had filtered out into mainstream American consciousness. But they haven't.

Which is why I ask: Has Asian American studies failed?

The question may seem a bit perverse. By many measures, Asian American studies has enjoyed notable success within the academy over the past several decades. The field boasts its own professional organization, the Association for Asian American Studies, with its own journal and annual conference. Over 30 colleges and universities across the country now have Asian American Studies programs, and many more schools now offer coursework in the field. Asian Americanist graduate students and faculty can be found across the social sciences and humanities, and the wealth of books and articles in the field continues to grow. It's a vibrant field of intellectual inquiry.

Yet despite all these successes, it would seem that Asian American studies has a long way to go in reshaping the larger public discourse on Asians in America. We can't expect every college graduate to have taken a course in Asian American studies. But would it be so much to ask that some of the basic insights of the field--its rewriting of the historical record on Japanese American internment, its assertion that Asian Americans are not simply foreigners or aliens, but have an experience and history of their own--be more common knowledge? Why don't we see Asian American scholars being quoted in the media or publishing books that reach a wide audience?

Perhaps what I'm describing is simply part of the perceived (and perhaps growing) divide between academic and popular writing. Certain people I know have written quite extensively about the history of this divide, and it's not surprising that as Asian American studies has matured as an academic discipline, scholarship in the field has become more specialized. The question is: how, if at all, is that scholarship reaching readers outside the field?

The job of popularizing the insights of Asian American studies, when it's been undertaken, has generally fallen to journalists. The work of Helen Zia is exemplary in this regard; her Asian American Dreams is one of the few works of popular nonfiction that I can think of that attempts to cover some of the same ground that work in Asian American studies does. More recently, bloggers like Jeff Yang and angry asian man have served as a rapid-response team for Asian American media images.

What we don't see, though, is any kind of direct conduit for the lessons of Asian American studies, as taught and practiced in the academy, to reach a wider audience. The two examples I've cited above, and innumerable others, suggest to me that such a channel is needed--that we need to find new ways for what we do in Asian American studies to have an impact in the wider public sphere.

How might we do that? A few ideas:
  1. Popularize. Asian American studies is interesting. It talks about hot-button issues like race, gender, sexuality, the media. It's politically engaged and upends conventional thought about America and American history. We ought to be finding ways, from journalism to popular nonfiction writing, to communicate the discoveries of our field to a wider public. (Note that I do not mean that our scholarly work needs to be conducted in "popular" language--that's another debate--but rather that we can and should translate some of that work for popular audiences.)
  2. Look outward. Asian American studies has its origins in activism and in service to the Asian American community. We might say it has historically looked inward, toward the Asian American community, because that is its natural audience. Is it also now time for us to look outward, toward "mainstream" audiences? Not to tell those audiences what they want to hear, or to abandon our history of Asian American activism, but to look at what is lacking in public discourse about Asian Americans and try to fill that gap. 
  3. Advocacy. When a controversy blows up in the media about Asian Americans, quick response is needed--and academics are rarely positioned to respond quickly. We can't depend on the media to call up a professor of Asian American studies when comment is needed on anti-Asian racism or a misrepresentation of history. Can we form our own "rapid response teams" of Asian Americanists who can jump on a controversial issue quickly and intervene in public discussion? (In some fields, activist professional organizations have taken on this role; it might be worth asking whether AAAS, or some subgroup within it, could be more aggressive in speaking out on public issues.)
  4. Public intellectuals? Asian American studies has not, for better or worse, produced professors who can also command attention in popular media--think Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Cornel West in African American studies. I'm not saying we need to go out and create Asian American academic celebrities, but might there be something to be said for Asian Americanists thinking of themselves more as public intellectuals, who have something to contribute to public discourse on the widest level?
These are admittedly half-formed ideas. I'm looking to start a conversation here about the role of Asian American studies in the public sphere, and to try to close the gap between the successes of Asian American studies within the academy and the continued ignorance of those successes outside of it. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

War Is Over (If You Noticed)

In March 2003--more than eight years ago--I ended my first blog post with these words:
I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm feeling compelled to start one of these things at the very moment that the U.S. has engaged in a mad war on Iraq. The blogger, the poet, and the dissenting citizen seem to have a lot in common these days: they're all trying to make themselves heard in a culture that seems intent on not listening.
In our worst nightmares, I doubt many of us could have imagined that the Iraq war would become one of the longest in American history--lasting longer than the war in Vietnam, but still sadly surpassed by the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

I saw few of my friends commenting on the formal end of the Iraq war this week. There's certainly little to celebrate. The bloody cost of this needless war, most of all to Iraqis themselves, has been simply staggering. Here at home there's little enthusiasm these days for giving credit to President Obama for much of anything, even for keeping his campaign promise to end the Iraq war.

I wish I had something more profound to say about the war's end. But thinking back to the beginning of the war did make me think back to that eight-year-old blog post, and more broadly to the question of how, if at all, public and political discourse has changed in that time.

When I started the blog, we were in the depths of the George W. Bush administration, the most hysterical moment of the "war on terror," and the march toward war seemed inevitable. The space for dissent seemed nonexistent. The sudden flowering of blogs by poets seemed to be a teeny little space where neglected and unpopular topics--from politics to poetry--could be hashed out, mulled over, shared in public. Even if there was little public there to receive them, doing this kind of personal writing in public seemed a transgressive act of its own.

As public dissatisfaction swelled in the second term of the Bush presidency, new spaces seemed to open up for political discourse. Barack Obama won in 2008 in part because he was best able to embody this transformation of public space--from fear to hope, to put it simply--and mobilized a new level of political engagement among his supporters. Unsurprisingly, the shine came off quickly, thanks to the cratering economy and disappointment that Obama turned out, after all, to be a politician and not a revolutionary or a saint. The 2010 backlash against Obama's mildly progressive agenda made it start to feel like we were back in the bad old days of the previous decade.

But then something else happened. In February, tens of thousands took to the streets of Madison and occupied the state capitol to protest against--of all things--a frontal assault on unions. In September, Occupy Wall Street took the fight to the banks and the financial elite. The common denominator for occupations all across the country was the occupation--the reclaiming--of public space. These are spaces not just of physical occupation but of democratic exchange and speech; the cynicism of Mayor Bloomberg's call for protesters to "occupy space with the power of their arguments" notwithstanding, the point is well taken: these physical occupations have opened up space for ideas previously unheard or shouted down to be taken seriously and even to drive public debate.

So does that mean it's time to start thinking and writing "in public" again? Shall the blog rise again? We'll see.