Students Weigh in on the Current State and Future of Asian and Asian-American Studies

The recent launch of a new Global Asian Studies (GLAS) major at UIC has prompted some UChicago community members to reflect on the University’s offerings in Asian and Asian-American studies.

By Justin Walgren

The University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) recently launched a new Global Asian Studies (GLAS) major, which combines UIC’s former Asian-American Studies (ASAM) and Asian Studies (ASST) programs. The announcement of the GLAS major at UIC has prompted questions about similar steps the University of Chicago should be taking to improve or expand its offerings for Asian and Asian-American studies, as well as other areas of race and ethnic studies.

The Maroon interviewed four members of the University community for their opinions on both the current state and future of Asian and Asian-American studies at UChicago.

Third-year Suah Oh is the vice president external of the Korean Students Association. Oh is a psychology and political science double major, and her political science bachelor’s thesis will focus on East Asian national relations. Oh voiced her dissatisfaction with the University’s current offerings for Asian and Asian-American studies: “I’m always on the lookout for any [courses] in Asian American history or Asian studies…with that interest in mind, I feel like my passion for the topic hasn’t been matched.”

Oh felt that Asian and Asian-American studies was not adequately served by existing departments such as the East and South Asian Languages and Civilizations departments, which primarily focus on linguistics rather than ethnic studies. She also expressed disappointment with her Civilizations Core sequence, Introduction to the Civilizations of East Asia. She explained, “Typically, how it would function is that in the fall, you focus on China, in the winter, you focus on Japan, and in the spring, you focus on Korea… But by the time I got to spring, they had scrapped the Korean curriculum.” With few other course offerings relating to the study of Korea, Oh had sought to use the Core to explore that passion but was ultimately unable to.

Second-year Reese Villazor echoed similar sentiments about the Core. Villazor is the vice president of Kababayan, a Filipino and Filipino-American student interest group, and a member of Dear Asian Youth, an Asian and Asian-American youth advocacy group. Speaking on her experience in the Core, she said, “Last year, I was in Poetry and the Human as my Hum. I believe we only read one Asian poet…and that was in the optional third class in the sequence.”

Villazor is a Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) major, with a specialization in Asian-American studies. As part of the class of 2025, her cohort was the last to have the option to elect a CRES major before the program transitions to a new Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity (RDI) major.

Villazor chose CRES because she appreciated the option to select a specialization. However, she later discovered that, at the time, there were very few classes that could count towards her specialization. She told a program administrator, “You guys only have two courses focusing on Asian American studies currently, but the [Asian American studies] specialization, which is still offered, requires four.” The administrator explained that the limited course offerings were due to the fact that the University currently has no faculty that specialize in Asian-American studies. Therefore, the availability of Asian-American studies courses was contingent upon the availability of teaching fellows.

One such teaching fellow is Alice Yeh, a recent Ph.D. graduate in anthropology who will be the instructor for Introduction to Asian American Studies during winter 2023. Yeh’s research incorporates transpacific and Chinese diasporic studies, but she acknowledged the limitations of her research background. “My work touches on Asian-American studies, but I was not trained in ethnic studies. Not to mention the obvious, which is that Asian-American studies exceeds Chinese diasporic and Chinese American history,” she said.

Commenting on the attitudes among the University’s academic community and her own wishes, Yeh said that new faculty specializing in Asian American studies are needed. “I’d wager that the modest consensus is that new hiring needs to happen. The University ought to hire multiple people with more targeted Ph.D.s,” she said.

Similarly, both Oh and Villazor, expressed a desire for new hiring at the University. Calls for such hiring have also come from university faculty.

Adam Green, a professor in the Department of History who now also chairs the curriculum committee of the RDI department, commented on the University’s previous dismissal of race and ethnic studies: “Programs like Asian-American studies, African-American studies, Latino studies… these were programs that were not seen to fit the ways in which the University defined ‘valid and compelling’ knowledge.”

Professors like Green fought hard against this belief, and, in the wake of the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial violence of 2020, they successfully convinced University administration to establish a department dedicated to race and ethnic studies, something that had never existed at UChicago before. That department is the RDI department.

Green acknowledged RDI’s current lack of faculty with research and teaching interests in Asian-American studies. However, he pointed out that RDI is only in its formative stages and that hiring scholars dedicated to Asian-American studies is a priority for the department. He also emphasized that RDI should not be seen as the end goal for racial and ethnic studies at UChicago. “It is really, really crucial to underscore that the existence of RDI does not relieve other academic units and the University itself of the general responsibility of trying to advance these aims. If anything, it should provide encouragement and help… offer a model,” he said.

He noted that in addition to RDI, there have been calls to establish departments and programs solely dedicated to fields such as Asian-American and African-American studies, in line with peer institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and UC Berkeley.

Green also said that he and other members of the RDI department encourage student feedback: “We are always open and eager to speak with students about their concerns and how to continue with our plans being mindful of their priorities. We’re here, in part, to serve needs that for too long have been overlooked.”