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Asian American Studies program to be created by September 2018

University faculty are working to create an Asian American Studies certificate program by September 2018. The creation of the program will be the culmination of the work of University students, alumni, and faculty who have  researched, petitioned, protested, negotiated, and advocated for the creation of an Asian American Studies program for over 40 years. 

This fall, an Asian American Studies tab appeared on the Spring 2018 course offerings page, featuring the first three classes: “Introduction to Asian American Studies,” “Multiethnic American Short Stories,” and “South Asian American Literature and Film.” All are cross-listed under the official course designation Asian American Studies.


“I am quite optimistic about the current moment for Asian American Studies at Princeton,” Judith Ferszt, Program Manager of American Studies, said. She has worked as program manager for 30 years and has witnessed the struggle to develop Asian American Studies within the American Studies program since the beginning in the mid-1990s.  “I know that our faculty is working hard on developing the curriculum for a certificate, and that the administration is very supportive. Everyone’s goal is to have a certificate in place by September 2018.”

This excitement is tempered by uncertainty over whether the program will come to fruition by the anticipated deadline.

“It depends on a number of factors including fundraising and the success of some faculty searches which are ongoing.  But that is the goal,” Ferstzt said. “If it doesn’t happen by September, it will happen a bit later.”

The need to find faculty and resources for the program is especially urgent given that the University is losing its Asian American Studies postdoctoral faculty. Laurel Mei-Singh, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in American Studies, is taking a tenure-track position at University of Hawaii next fall. History Professor Beth Lew-Williams, who teaches Asian American History, will be going on leave this year. American Studies has put out a search for a tenure-track assistant professor in Asian American literature and culture starting September 2018. 

“It’s a battle. It’s a constant battle. Everything is a battle,” said English Professor Anne Cheng, who has spearheaded the effort to develop Asian American Studies ever since she arrived in 2007. “When I get tired, I think about my students. And it sounds so corny…but you know, one of the most important things that all of us faculty do is to teach,” she said. 

“It’s really about the students,” Cheng added. “The thing is, I don’t need Asian American Studies here. I can do my own work. But it’s an obligation that we have to our students to provide the opportunity.”


The development of Asian American Studies is part of the larger transformation of American Studies into a full-fledged department. In 2015, Cheng and History Professor Hendrik Hartog co-chaired a task force on American Studies that produced a report — aided by background research conducted by students from AASA — recommending the transformation of American Studies into a collaborative center that would house Asian American Studies and Latino Studies. The report also recommended that the program be allowed to hire and house faculty within the center, a key provision that had barred them from creating a stable, long-term program. 

According to Hartog, the creation of an American Studies concentration is farther off into the future and will heavily depend on fundraising efforts to hire the necessary faculty. In the interim, several intermediary changes will be enacted to have American Studies function like a concentration without the official title.

“One of the intermediary steps is that Latino studies has been folded into American Studies,” Hartog said. “[The] second part of that is the creation of Asian American Studies as a kind of parallel program to Latino studies within American Studies.” 

The third change, currently being planned by the AMS curriculum committee, entails structuring the certificates to enhance interdisciplinary dialogue. All certificate-holders would start with AMS 101, the core class for American Studies, and then move out to three tracks — American Studies, Asian American Studies, or Latino Studies — before reuniting senior year in a series of capstone seminars. 

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“People would join together and talk across ethnic groups and identities about problems in American Studies,” Hartog said. 

There is a long and rich history of student, alumni, and faculty advocacy for Asian American Studies program. The agitation for the study of marginalized people on college campuses nation-wide has burgeoned since the 1970s. A program in African American Studies was created at the University in 1970 and a Women’s Studies program emerged in 1982, both prompted by student activism and demand. In 1988, members of the Asian American Students Association met with newly-instated President Shapiro requesting permanent Asian American Studies courses. 

Lacking institutional support, students eventually formed a task force in 1992 and issued recommendations to create a tenure-track position for a scholar in Asian American Studies. However, progress stagnated in a series of meetings, reports, and recommendations that amounted to death by committee. 

In response to mounting urgency, on April 20, 1996 — the weekend prospective students were visiting campus — a multi-racial coalition of 17 students stormed Nassau Hall and held a 35-hour sit-in. They circulated a petition demanding the inclusion of Asian American and Latino Studies courses in the curriculum, which accumulated over 500 signatures. Then-President Harold Shapiro condemned the sit-in as an “inexcusable occupation” and “deeply offensive.” 

The students were put on probation, but the gears of change had been set in motion. In a 'Prince' article published two days later, the administration promised to invest $6 million to hire four to seven faculty members to teach Asian American and Latino studies. The sit-in was highly publicized, attracting coverage from The New York Times, partly because it was occurring in tandem with other ethnic studies student protests. (That same month, Northwestern undergraduates held a hunger strike demanding permanent Asian American Studies courses.) 

After the sit-in, American Studies was asked to organize faculty searches for Asian American scholars, but the hired professors eventually left after a few short years, according to Ferszt. Little progress was made in the mid-2000’s to advance a program for Asian American Studies.  It appeared to Professor Hartog that the central administration was reluctant to create another program devoted to race after it had upgraded African American Studies from a program to a center. 

“The central administration at that time did not want to more programs. It did not want to increase the size of American Studies,” Hartog said. “Part of the premise for the center was that it would have a strong comparative race component. That fell by the wayside for reasons that I'm not entirely certain of.” American Studies was limited to offering one or two Asian American Studies courses every year taught by visiting professors. 

In 2006, the program’s development started anew when Anne Cheng ‘85 was hired as a senior faculty member in the English department with the understanding that she would help build Asian American Studies, according to Ferszt. Through today, Cheng is the only senior professor who specializes in Asian American Studies. Despite being the sole scholar in the field at Princeton, Cheng began to build support for the program almost immediately.

“She started doing a lot of work,” Ferszt said. “She has boundless energy.”

Cheng and Hartog organized a workshop for faculty and administrators in 2008 on how the University should change with the presence of faculty of color, Hartog said. Out of that workshop, the current course “AMS 101: America Then and Now”was born. 

“Its working title was ‘What Every Princeton Student Should Know About America,’” Hartog said. 

Students and alumni remained persistent and vocal about their demand for Asian American Studies to become a certificate program. In 2008, Asian American alumni gathered over 600 signatures for a petition urging the administration to create an Asian American Studies program. The Asian American Studies Committee within AASA has worked consistently with administrators, particularly Professor Cheng, for years. 

On the twentieth anniversary of the first 1993 task force report , the committee issued a report that included a proposal for Asian American Studies certificate program that could support at least eight courses per year by 2015. 

In 2013, the committee created Unfound, an undergraduate journal for Asian American Studies — the first of its kind in the nation. Evan Krazter ’16, one of the founders of the journal, talked how its creators wanted to not only to demonstrate student interest in Asian American studies, but to illustrate the breadth and depth of intellectual engagement in the field happening in other universities by undergraduates. Kratzer also saw the journal as way for students to educate themselves outside of the classroom. 

“Courses were not sufficient, so if we wanted to learn something, we had to do it on our own somehow,” Kratzer said. 

Hartog and Cheng decided to organize a second conference in 2013, bringing the heads of ethnic studies from many peer institutions to campus to learn what did and did not work elsewhere. 

Ferszt noted that the conference reaffirmed the decision to house ethnic studies, such as Asian Americans and Latino Studies, within a comparative American context. 

“There was a very, very strong consensus among all of them that the comparative unified approach was the way to go,” she said.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Hartog. “One of the things that we learned was that it was always student activism, wherever you looked.”

“Administrations respond to student activism,” Hartog said. “I would say the rise of the Black Lives Matter stuff into 2014 and 2015 gives credence to that insight because suddenly the central administration was much more willing to do things with American studies than it was willing to beforehand.” 

The 2015 American Studies task force report, approved last year, has led to the current vision of American Studies as a collaborative center with three possible certificate tracks, one of them being Asian American Studies. The hard work of fundraising, developing a curriculum, and finding a physical space to house the center remains in progress.  

The realization of a certificate program, while a much-welcomed change, will come too late for generations of students who have already passed through the University’s gates. 

“[Students] have been coming to me and saying, ‘How come we don’t have Asian American Studies?’” Cheng said. “I saw myself in them. I had to go and basically create this field for myself. I had to teach myself.”

The University’s institutional neglect of ethnic studies is one of Cheng’s greatest grievances about attending the University as an undergraduate. 

“I didn’t even hear, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Asian American Studies or literature. If I had even heard about it I might have wanted to study it, I might not have, but it needs to be available,” she said. “You need to build it for them to come.”