Last Wednesday, the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) issued a statement of solidarity with Asian Americans in the Amherst College community following the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16. This statement ended with a call for an independent major and department of Asian and Pacific American Studies at the college, recognizing the role of higher education in pushing back against harmful stereotypes at a societal level.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first calls for an Asian American Studies department at the college. As we come upon bicentennial, it’s worth questioning what has held back efforts to pursue Asian American Studies for nearly a quarter of the college’s history. This is an especially poignant concern as we reflect over the increasingly open racism against Asian Americans in the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the push for the new department began in 1972, the college only hired its first Asian American Studies professor in 1994 (who only stayed for three years) and declined to join the Five College Asian/Pacific/American Studies Certificate Program (A/P/A) until 2005, five years after it had been established. It hired its first tenure-track Asian American Studies faculty in 2008, slowly employing and retaining a total of three tenure-track Asian American Studies faculty — Professors Bolton, Dhingra, and Hayashi — by 2018, each of whom now participate in the A/P/A program along with Visiting Professor Odo.
In President Biddy Martin’s letter addressing anti-Asian racism following the March 16 shooting, she specifically highlights the role of education in combating systemic racism. She also claims that the college is committing to educating students on the Asian American experience through enhanced curricular offerings. Specifically, an assistant professor, Christine Noelle Peralta, who specializes in Asian American Studies will be joining the faculty in fall 2021. We acknowledge that hiring more faculty in an area of study is one of the first steps toward establishing a major. However, after almost 50 years of calling for a department, such limited efforts are inadequate.
After all this talk, we’re left with the question: Why don’t we have an Asian and Pacific American Studies department or major yet? On this question, the recent effort to create an Education Studies major at the college offers a revealing parallel. Education Studies was successfully instituted as a major in that it was successfully undertaken in about a tenth of the time that advocacy has surrounded the potential Asian and Pacific American Studies program.
The proposal for the Education Studies major projected itself far back in time, to 1950. Proponents claimed that Amherst students have always been interested in working in education after undergrad, so the college should provide a course of study preparing them for that work. Obviously, in the case of an Asian and Pacific American Studies major, for many students, the major would serve less to prepare them directly for future work, but more to prepare them for life itself as an Asian or Pacific American or someone who interacts with Asian and Pacific American communities.
Another key theme from the creation of the Education Studies program was an acknowledgement that many peer institutions offer their own Education Studies programs and, thus, the college was lagging behind and disadvantaging its own student body. While this is not true of Asian American Studies — the closest such program is at Tufts University, but few have yet to follow—when has Amherst College ever been ashamed to take the lead? Not to mention that creating a formal program for Asian American Studies would give us a nice edge over competitors like Williams, whose current hodgepodge of Asian American Studies courses resembles our own.
Pedagogy that centers Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and other marginalized peoples is foundational to the pursuit of justice and truth. Having an Asian and Pacific American Studies major is essential in fighting against xenophobic, racist and sexist political rhetoric.
We, the Editorial Board, stand behind calls from the AAS and Asian American Alumni for a deeper investment in Asian and Pacific American Studies at the college. At the very least, we deserve to know why these calls remain unanswered for a task that doesn’t seem harder than the creation of an Education Studies program or even the recently created Latinx and Latin American Studies major. Our Asian American and Pacific Islander peers deserve the same investment and scholarly respect as anyone else, and it is incumbent on the Board of Trustees, President Martin, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and the Committee on Educational Policy to demonstrate that this college affords them that respect.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 6)