Against the backdrop of rising student interest in an Asian-American studies program, students interested in the field will have a chance to pursue their interests in a new course next fall.
Taught by English professor Anne Cheng, ENG 224: Asian-American Law, Bodies and the Everyday will examine the role of Asian-Americans in American constitutional history, focusing on both specific court cases and how the law affects everyday life. Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge Denny Chin ’75 will attend many of the course’s meetings and help Cheng teach the course.
Though not the first course on Asian-American studies to be offered by the University, this class has the potential to be the foundation of a possible series of Asian-American studies courses. Involved students said they hope this series will one day evolve into a full-fledged Asian-American studies program.
Given the recent push for a program at the University, the course has generated excitement and revitalized efforts to establish an Asian-American studies program at the University.
The movement for a formal academic program got started in the 1970s and culminated in a 36-hour sit-in at Nassau Hall in 1995 by 17 students. The sit-in ended when University officials agreed to meet with the protesters and made several commitments, including a pledge to procure $6 million for the hiring of several new faculty members in Asian-American studies and Latino studies.
But in a 2007 article, then-Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel told The Daily Princetonian that these plans were made before the protest and did not come as a result of the student demonstration.
For Cheng, the results of the protest 17 years ago are still unclear. Though she noted that there were courses offered as a response to the sit-in, she said they were mostly one-time courses taught by lecturers or other junior academics who didn’t remain.
“Before I came, I was very anxious not to be the first and only [faculty member specializing in Asian-American Studies] here, and I was reassured there would be other hires especially in other departments,” said Cheng, who was hired in 2006. “It didn’t happen, partially because of the economic downturn, but since I’ve been here I’ve been the only person.”
When she first arrived around six years ago, Cheng and other faculty created a proposal signed by faculty and alumni suggesting a certificate program in Asian-American studies. The American Studies program had just hosted a conference among faculty who were interested and talking about these issues. Cheng said the group never heard back.
“I am not so worried about the certificate question — fighting that battle has been draining and unproductive for the last several years,” Cheng said. “The most important thing to do is just get a set of courses on the ground. These classes would then provide a foundation for building something fuller in the future.”
Cheng submitted a proposal to the 250th Anniversary Fund — which is intended to raise money for innovation in undergraduate education — attempting to establish a suite of four courses to follow the course she will teach next term. In planning these courses for the next four years, Cheng focused on issues she believes are of particular interest to students.
The suite would consist of courses such as “Asian Cuteness and American Style,” focusing on the popularity of Asian cuteness in cartoons, clothes and anime. Another potential course, “Asian-American Avant-Garde,” would look at a series of novelists, playwrights, artists, painters and architects.
“All these really incredible, important people who do amazing experimental things … We don’t really think of them as Asian-American, like Maya Lin,” Cheng said.
The third course, “Cosmopolitan Conversion,” would explore what it means to be cosmopolitan from the point of view of the Asian diaspora. Finally, “Chinatown, USA” — which Cheng has previously taught — would look at novels, films and plays in which Chinatown plays a central role.
Cheng said her long-term goal in establishing this set of courses is to establish a foundation for other departments to create their own sets of Asian-American related courses. She suggested that departments like history, politics, art and psychology could participate in a program, with all their courses cross-listed with American studies.
“Asian-American studies is very interdisciplinary by nature,” Cheng explained. “It can’t be represented by one person like me.”
A common factor Cheng and students see in the difficulty of establishing Asian-American studies courses is the turnover in the student body. Though there has been a struggle since the 1970s for an increased presence of Asian-American studies on campus, efforts must start anew every few years.
“Students come in waves; they’re kind of reinventing the wheel,” Cheng said. “I encourage them to have a sense of continuity — what is the history and what issues have been broached. Otherwise they’re starting the effort every time.”
In response to that problem, the Asian American Students Association has focused on spreading awareness on campus. This is the first year it has had an Asian-American studies committee, created for the sole purpose of advancing Asian-American studies at Princeton, representatives of the organization said. AASA’s active membership has doubled due to the change in organizational structure to attend to Asian-American studies, they noted.
“Having that institutionalized as part of AASA, we’ll be able to have consistent effort year after year,” Dan Chen ’14, AASA vice president, said. “By not having specific people in charge of advancing the effort, it’s hard to build upon what previous students did.”
Last summer, Charles Du ’13 and Tara Ohrtman ’13, heads of AASA’s Asian-American studies committee, began reaching out to professors both at Princeton and other schools. They have attended conferences both at Reunions and at the University’s peer institutions, getting new perspectives on the best way to approach establishing an Asian-American studies program.
“Students from other schools have contacted Tara and me offering their help, advice and resources,” Du said, adding that Cornell, Penn, Columbia and Stanford all have strong Asian-American studies programs. “Princeton is going to be behind — we already are behind.”
Du is also a former staff writer for the ‘Prince.’
AASA’s work has also put it in touch with the Asian American Alumni Association of Princeton (A4P). Reactions to the new course and other recent efforts have been very positive. Mo Chen ’80, Chair of A4P, said the new course was “wonderful news for the entire student body and faculty.”
“Asian-Americans are a major part of American history and culture, and everyone should have access to learning about it,” Chen said in an email.
Though AASA was in contact with Cheng while establishing the course, students emphasized that the suite of courses is entirely a result of Cheng’s persistence.
“Almost all the credit goes to Professor Cheng — she’s been really instrumental in making this possible,” Chen said. “It’s helpful to have someone like her who’s committed herself to the cause for many years to get this started.”
In the meantime, students are working on other ways to increase the presence of Asian-American studies on campus. AASA is expanding its fundraising and outreach efforts, as well as continuing the Asian-American reading group and attempting to establish a lecture series and website to house information on Asian-American related courses. For most, however, recognition from the University is still the main goal.
“The important thing about the 250th fund is I want the University to show its support for this pedagogical mission,” Cheng said. “I want them to say, ‘We recognize this suite of courses, and we support it.’ I hope that they would — we’re not asking for very much from them except for this recognition.”
Du also said the University’s support is essential.
“If the University doesn’t support that, I don’t know how we can say we are committed to full academic intellectual inquiry — or even that the University is committed to diversity,” Du said.