Demands for Asian American curriculum transformation not yet met

Several weeks ago the members of Asian American Curriculum Transformation (AACT) met with the faculty members from the English Department and American Studies program that sit on the Search Committee for a newly created position in Asian American Literature and Culture. After the meeting, we found ourselves disappointed that our vision for the future of Asian American Studies at Tufts did not coincide with the Search Committee’s efforts to secure a candidate for Tufts’ first and only tenured-track position for Asian American Studies.

For us, this new faculty position represents a year and a half of student struggle to untangle the bureaucratic hiring process and to educate our campus community about Asian American issues that often remain invisible in our curriculum, with the ever-present goal of making Asian American Studies a reality at Tufts. From our idealism and our frustrations, we now realize that while we succeeded in lobbying for a new professor, our efforts produced no lasting guarantee for the creation of an Asian American Studies program at Tufts.

As students struggling for the inclusion of voices and perspectives of people of color across our curriculum, we ask the entire Tufts community: What will it take to bring about lasting and substantive curriculum change?

We believe that an institution’s curriculum conveys its vision of what is and is not essential to a college education. The exclusion of diverse voices and experiences in our course material sends an explicit message that race and ethnicity, as areas of studies, are illegitimate and unnecessary components of a college education. Similarly, the perception of courses outside the African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and Native American rubric as “race-neutral” allows whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity to remain unmarked in the definition of “standard” curriculum.

In contrast, addressing race as a component in our social, cultural, political, and historical interactions serves to engage both white students and students of color in deeply academic, critical thinking. As products of our current curriculum, Tufts graduates will lack not only crucial knowledge for a complete understanding of America, but also the marketable skills to compete in an increasingly diverse workforce.

Since the creation of the Task Force on Race in 1996, students have been ready and waiting for resolutions to racial disparities in our curriculum. A critical examination of the Task Force’s curricular recommendations, and the limited progress made to address these goals, suggests that Tufts has fallen short of expectations for community collaboration in resolving racial tensions.

A lack of initiative and lack of vision by the administration to fulfill the spirit of the Task Force recommendations resulted in a process of curricular change controlled by individual departments and faculty members. In this decentralized system, a disproportional responsibility for curricular diversification falls on faculty of color, overburdening an already underrepresented group. This in turn leads to low retention rates for faculty of color, which further disrupts momentum for curricular transformation.

Similarly, the lack of tangible rewards for adding race/ethnic studies to the curriculum produces little incentive among departments to transform curricular priorities, placing the onus for change on student leverage. Reliance on reaction to student-initiated actions creates a hostile and reactive relationship among students, faculty departments, and administrators rather than a proactive vision and a cooperative model of change.

Without administrative intervention the problem remains cyclical; departments continue to rely on a process of hiring faculty of color to “infuse” ethnic perspectives into curriculum, rather than transforming curricular priorities to include new faculty positions in race and ethnic studies. Without bringing in outside expertise in gap areas, Tufts will never be able to build cohesive and sequential programs in race and ethnic studies.

Similarly, without transparent administrative procedures, students remain unable to fully engage in the curriculum change process, or to easily understand their role in doing so. These factors combined with constant turnover of the student constituency create a sense of “institutional memory loss” that stifles productive dialogue. Rather than allowing for collaboration among students, faculty, and administrators, the current system seems designed to outlive students and to disrupt any momentum garnered by student initiative. Students repeatedly expended energy to demystify the curriculum change process only to graduate without seeing results.

We are tired of waiting. We are worn out from trying to complete Tufts multiracial/multiethnic jigsaw puzzle of a curriculum piece by piece.

We believe that the discussion of Race and Ethnic Studies curriculum at Tufts needs to constitute a community-wide priority. On Wednesday, Nov. 6, a broad coalition of students initiated a Race and Ethnic Studies Course Fair and a panel discussion with Professors Gerald Gill, Joan Lester, Peter Winn, and Jean Wu. During the conversation, panelists and audience members, students and faculty, envisioned a Tufts education for the 21st century _ an education that places importance in Race and Ethnic Studies. This conversation needs to take place across our campus _ in our classrooms, our dorm rooms, and our dining halls. Together we can create collaborative solutions, rather than adversarial reactions.

In addition to making Race and Ethnic Studies a priority issue for discussion, Tufts needs to take substantial steps to ensure a long-term commitment to the development of African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, and Comparative Race courses. In order to create a unified home for Race and Ethnic Studies, American Studies needs to be made a department with primary hiring power.

Lasting and substantive curriculum change results from multiple directions and approaches. As students we should question whether our current course schedule engages us in issues of race and difference. Similarly, faculty must critique their departments and their own academic priorities to include missing voices of color, while administrators need to creatively seek resources to support the development Race and Ethnic Studies.

Laura Horwitz is a senior majoring in American Studies and Pam Chu is a senior majoring in Clinical Psychology

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