New professors expand Asian-American study

Andrew Donohue

More Asian-American-focused classes will speckle University course guides beginning next fall due to the hiring of four professors in the College of Liberal Arts.
The move beefed up CLA’s Asian-American faculty numbers and laid the foundation for the possibility of an Asian-American studies department. This spring, the University hired one visiting and three new Asian-American professors to instruct Asian-American curriculums along with other fields of study. They will take their posts in the fall.
Currently, the University employs only one professor who teaches Asian-American courses.
“There has been a long-standing student interest in these types of classes,” said David Roediger, chairman of the Program in American Studies. “This was a long-time proposal that we were finally able to push over the top.”
With an enrollment of 2,723, Asian-American students constitute 7.2 percent of the student body — the largest minority group on campus. Despite the enrollment numbers, Asian-Americans remain the only minority group, of the four largest, without a studies department.
African-American, Chicano/Latino and American Indian students are all represented with separate studies departments at the University. The Department of Afro-American and African Studies employs 16 professors, while the others employ two each.
CLA Dean Steven Rosenstone said discussion is brewing on all fronts, but the hirings were not directed toward the formation of an Asian-American studies department.
Roediger said time will tell whether an Asian-American department evolves, depending on student interest and class enrollment.
“This is the start of an Asian- American studies department of some sort at the University,” said Carolyn Nayematsu, director of the Asian/Pacific American Learning Resource Center. “We are forming a core.”
This spring, the American studies department made plans to bring in two Asian-American professors for the fall. The first is Cathy Choi, who just finished her graduate work at University of California-Los Angeles this spring. Choi will become an assistant professor with a tenure track in the fall.
Among other courses, Choi plans to teach a course on post-1965 Asian immigration.
Choi filled the new position as professor of Asian-American studies within the Program in American Studies. Administrators said the other professors were hired in their fields of specialty and will teach Asian-American classes in addition to the current curriculum in their departments.
The second new hire is Robert Lee, a distinguished professor from Brown University and expert on American civilization.
“When I visited the campus last month, some of the students were quite enthusiastic about the idea of a program or department,” Lee said. “Obviously with a group of Asian-Americanists just joining the faculty in various departments, it will take some time to get orientated.”
When he visits for fall quarter, Lee said he plans to offer a course on Asians in the Americas, focusing on immigration, and one on Asian-Americans in popular culture.
“For us in American studies, it moves us to a whole new group of students on campus,” Roediger said. “It reminds us how complex race is. It is not only just black and white.”
The Department of History also added a new assistant professor, Erica Lee, from the University of California-Berkeley.
“We are absolutely delighted to have Erica,” said Kinley Brauer, chairman of the history department. “She will not only provide a welcomed addition to existing courses, but will help establish an entire new field of Asian-American studies that we haven’t covered.”
Jigna Desai, a graduate student at the University, is the only new hire who won’t have to change ZIP codes. Desai closes out her studies in English and at the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies this spring and will become an assistant professor with a tenure track in women’s studies in the fall.
“We’ve seen a rise in student interest, but in the past there hasn’t been opportunity to teach these classes,” Desai said.
Before the spring hirings, Josephine Lee in the English department was the only professor specifically teaching Asian-American-focused courses, along with drama and Shakespeare classes.
Josephine Lee, who came to the University in 1994, is optimistic about the possibility of an Asian-American studies department.
“There is definitely a possibility, but it all depends on student interest,” she said.
Along with Josephine Lee, Desai taught Asian-American-focused curriculum this year as a graduate student. Next year, Desai will instruct a class on Asian-American women’s cultural studies and an Asian-American writers class.
Desai said in the past, class enrollment reached about 20 students, one-third to one-half of whom were Asian-American.
“We are definitely about to start a new era of Asian-American studies at the University,” Desai said. “It will be interesting to see how it develops.”
Jill Sanders, a senior English major, took Desai’s class on Asian-American female writers this year.
“It was one of the most knowledgeable classes I’ve taken at the University,” she said. “The readings changed my thinking about minority literature.”
Two years ago, Sanders made a push to establish an Asian-American studies department at the University through the Minnesota Student Association. While the association passed a resolution giving the possibility of an Asian-American studies department full support of the student body, Sanders is still waiting for results.
“Enrollment is not the only issue,” Sanders said. “It is making sure you have a diverse curriculum and a history of all Americans is being taught.”