When I was undergraduate at Princeton during the last century, instituting an Asian American Studies (AAS) program was a focus of the university’s Asian American Students Association. After decades of effort by many students, Alumni, and professors, Princeton University finally has an official program in AAS. Beth Lew-Williams will join the faculty to teach a course on Asian American history in the spring of 2015. While the long period of time it took to get this course can be looked at as Princeton’s intransigence, this development reflects an evolution in Asian American Studies.
I got insights into that evolution during a talk by Princeton Professor English professor Ann Cheng at a meeting of Asian American alumni. When Princeton had no formal AAS program, she managed to work in Asian American themes into courses on American Chinatowns and on American Asia-mania. Johnny has outlined some of the problems he found with Asian American studies, such as its distance from “orthodoxy pedagogy.” Professor Cheng mentioned this in her talk, saying that in the past, Asian American studies courses and faculty stayed away from Asian Studies department in an attempt to differentiate themselves. She says that attitude makes no sense and has changed.
Johnny also mentions how much Asian American studies seem disconnected from the American experience. The Princeton AAS courses are part of the American Studies program, which definitely seems to me entirely appropriate. The American studies program hosted a lecture series on Asian Americans, which brought in Asian American scholars from various disciplines to speak about their work on Asian American and Asian migration/diasporic issues. Professor Cheng also mentions some other criticisms of Asian American studies that she had to deal with. One is that only Asians would attend that class, and she said that definitely wasn’t the case with her classes.
An obstacle to establishing AAS has been administration backing and funding. In the past, Cheng had to teach her AAS oriented courses as part of the African American Studies program. Princeton’s new President Chris Eisgruber has now endorsed AAS. Also, given that money talks, there is work ongoing to endow a fund to support Princeton AAS. You can see an appeal for funds in the video below.
In addition to Lew-Williams, Princeton is also looking to add a senior faculty member in Asian American studies. Given that AAS is inherently interdisciplinary, the position could be in Politics, East Asian Studies, or Anthropology. With luck, it won’t take until the next century for that to happen.