The Asian American Initiative was formed in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi doxxing event on Davidson College’s campus in fall 2018. The need for a space to build community, as well as visibility, for Asian American students became apparent; greater social consciousness of America’s cultural histories and their progression into contemporary contexts is necessary if we, the Davidson College community, are to avoid another such event. Thus, AAI formed a dialogue series for Spring 2019 in order to demonstrate student interest in Asian American Studies, as well as to spread awareness about Asian American Studies and what it would look like at Davidson College. Our dialogue series modelled a class structure at Davidson College, complete with academic reading and discussions––focused on topics like Asian American queerness and the hypersexualization of Asian women and the emasculation of Asian men. It was met with strong student support: we had fifty-six students attend our interest meeting and over thirty people who attended the different dialogue series events, reaching and exceeding actual class sizes at Davidson College.
We invited Dr. Khyati Joshi, an Asian American specialist from Fairleigh Dickinson University to conduct a workshop on building Asian American Studies at Davidson College and give a lecture on “Why Asian American Studies.” We also organized and facilitated lectures by Davidson College professors: Dr. Yurika Tamura gave a lecture on “East of California” theory and her experience teaching Asian American Studies in the South, while Dr. Gary Bertholf lectured on Afro-Asian relations.
Core members of our working group were also able to attend the Triangle Area Asian American Conference at North Carolina State in Raleigh, where we attended lectures, workshops, and established connections with students in triangle-area colleges who are also working to build Asian American Studies. Additionally, AAI has garnered publicity at Davidson and beyond. In 2019, The Davidsonian published news articles about AAI’s fall 2019 demands, push for Asian American Studies, as well as a perspectives piece by Cathy Xu ‘21 about our work. Various Asian American alumni also published a perspectives piece on their support for the Asian American Initiative. NBC Asian America then featured Xu in an article on nation-wide efforts to build Asian American Studies departments in institutions of higher education. As our work continued in 2020, The Davidsonian conducted a follow-up interview with us about what we had done so far, as well as our visions for the future.
In October 2019, we released our first demands on campus. We then met with the chairs of twenty-seven departments on campus in order to gauge their support for Asian American Studies, and also had two meetings with President Carol Quillen and Dean Phillip Jefferson. In fall 2019, the Humanities Program and Gender and Sexuality Studies Department requested an Extraordinary Opportunity Hire for Dr. Yurika Tamura, but was rejected. In the spring, the English Department requested a tenure-track position in Asian American Literature, but was also denied. Dr. Yurika Tamura’s Visiting Contract was extended, and Davidson hired two new visiting Asian American specialists: Dr. Diego Luis through the Humanities Program, and Professor Heidi Amin-Hong in the English Department. Even with these hires, Davidson still lacks a tenure-track faculty member that specializes in Asian American Studies.
We note that the college has tenure-line faculty specializing in East Asian Studies (Dr. Kyo, Dean Lozada, Dr. Pang, Dr. Rigger, Dr. Shao and Dr. Shen). South Asian Studies is also offered at Davidson, but it is only a minor and does not have the necessary structure for its growth on campus; it consists of only three faculty members studying South Asia––Dr. Bill Mahony, who studies Hinduism, Dr. Syed Rizwan Zamir, who teaches Islamic Studies, and Dr. Sarah Waheed, who is the only specialist and historian in South Asian Studies. In fact, the department is actually in jeopardy, given that Dr. Sarah Waheed’s contract will be terminated after the 2020-2021 academic year.
Consequently, we are demanding that Davidson College establish Asian and Asian Diaspora Studies as a distinct department from those already offered. The current East Asian and South Asian departments are restricted to the Asian continent and, therefore, do not fully account for the realities of immigration and diaspora that are increasingly relevant in our globalized society. Asian and Asian Diaspora Studies would emphasize the need for transnational methods and theories to study the movements of peoples and the transformation of sociocultural and sociopolitical landscapes beyond and within borders. The department would also include Asian American Studies, which would recognize East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander history, experiences, and cultural production in the United States. Having such a broad department would allow these tracks to share resources and mutually benefit each other in growing the department, as well as in providing students a more well-rounded education in Asian Studies.
Both the doxxing of neo-Nazi students at Davidson College in the fall of 2018 and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that there is a distinct lack of social consciousness about the racist history and ideologies at the core of this country. Davidson College has made significant progress in addressing the history of other American ethnic groups with the establishment of Latin American Studies, Africana Studies, and now the addition of Jewish Studies courses, much of which has resulted from the activism of students and professors of color––but the history and reality of Asian America remains ignored.
Furthermore, Asian Americanness is not only our history, but also our present. Asian Americans are writing, composing, analyzing, creating, and researching, and yet we are not studying them. As an interdisciplinary subject, Asian and Asian Diaspora Studies would have courses in common with Africana Studies, Sociology, English, Gender & Sexuality Studies, History, East & South Asian Studies, and beyond.
Two of Davidson College’s peer institutions––Claremont McKenna and Pomona––have established Asian American departments, and since fall 2018, Duke University has launched an Asian American Studies program and hired two tenure-track, Asian American specialist positions. As for the east coast, small liberal arts college and peer institution Vassar College also recently started a Transnational Asian American Studies concentration within their Asian Studies department and provided a tenure-track line position this year. Of our other peer institutions, seven offered three or more Asian American Studies courses in October 2019, which has now increased to eleven; two offered minors or concentrations in October 2019, now five.
Since we published our demands in October 2019, Davidson College has only hired contingent faculty on short term contracts, highlighting the lack of commitment to Asian and Asian Diaspora Studies. Davidson also lacks in comparison to the offerings of other higher and/or peer institutions, especially since there are still no permanent faculty positions. Again, there is no consistent curriculum here as all of the Asian American specialists are contingent faculty. In addition, no one aside from Professor Amin-Hong is explicitly asked to teach Asian American Studies content as part of their contract or to teach it as specialists, as Dr. Tamura and Dr. Luis were hired as part of the Humanities Program.
Hiring visiting faculty, instead of offering tenure-track positions, is a temporary solution. At Davidson, contingent faculty are paid significantly less than tenure-track faculty and are not expected to mentor students or have a stake in larger institutional politics. Yet, Asian and Asian American contingent faculty on campus are forced to provide extra support to their Asian American students and uncompensated labor to the institution because there are so few tenure-track Asian and Asian American faculty on campus. This month, April 2021, Professor Amin-Hong accepted a tenure-track position as the Assistant Professor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature at the University of California Santa Barbara. She will be terminating her two-year contract early––after just one semester of teaching––and leaving Davidson College. In stark contrast, UC Santa Barbara has an established Asian American Studies program which allows for mentorship to assistant faculty and offers more stable, long-term positions. Davidson College continuously loses faculty of color to other institutions that will better support them, both financially and academically. Davidson’s “solution” of only hiring contingent faculty for under-resourced departments, like Africana and GSS, is not only unsustainable but also fails to provide students with mentorship and faculty with stability.