Duke English Department and the AAS Program

Tuesday, December 11, 2018
By: Caitie Buteau, English Department 2018 Fall Digital Media Intern
Professor Ku Class

Since 2002, students at Duke have been pushing the administration to create an Asian American Studies Program. With almost a full quarter of the student body identifying as Asian or Asian American, many students struggled finding a space on campus to learn or process explicitly Asian American issues. In the Spring semester of 2015, students were given a physical space (The Asian American Pacific Islander Bridge for Action, Solidarity, and Education--also known as AAPI BASE--within the Center for Multicultural Affairs) in the Bryan Center. Looking forward from that moment, the space helped alleviate some issues Asian and Asian American students were struggling with. But many still were frustrated with the lack of representation in the curriculum and finding genuine understanding on campus that went “beyond the Indian restaurants, pho shops, and token gestures of appreciation for annual cultural celebrations,” as one guest column by the Asian American Studies Working Group noted to The Chronicle in 2016.

The Asian American Studies Workshop Group stated that their goals for the Asian American Studies Program would be to “provide an academic avenue for examining the intersectionality within the Asian American experience with regards to class struggle, sexual and gender diversity, mental health, as well as how those experiences fit into the larger history of race in America....AAS would coexist and interact with the scholarship that has been and is being done in African & African American Studies and Latinx Studies. We believe this program would not only benefit Asian Americans, but is fundamental to a greater understanding of American identity, history and culture. Especially at a university in the South, the creation of AAS at Duke would give the university a chance to be a leader and innovator in a growing academic field.”

In 2017, the Duke Student Government (DSG) voted unanimously to support the AAS Program at Duke. Senator for Academic Affairs Manish Kumar, a sophomore at the time, introduced the resolution to DSG to advocate for “a program that will feature a ‘fully operational department, tenure-track faculty and an academic major’…[and] support hiring more diverse faculty and administrators,” according to Stefanie Pousoulides’s article in The Chronicle, “DSG Votes to Support Asian American Studies Program at Duke.”  

Since 2013, the administration has been searching for viable AAS faculty and creating a certificate option on AAS. While there is still not yet a certificate from the university on AAS, the program and infrastructure to take the steps to creating the certificate have been put in place. Now in 2018, we are getting to see the fruition of those earlier students’ efforts. Professor Ryanson Ku, currently an adjunct professor within the English Department, is teaching a course titled Introduction to Asian American Literature: Representation in Asian American Literature and Culture as part of the recently (in 2018) Duke AAS Program.

Walking into the classroom, it was clear that, given the space, students seeking these types of classes would enroll. Out of fourteen students, there was only one non-person of color. What was even more interesting to me, though, was that only two of those fourteen students were English majors. With Duke’s general prerequisites for graduation including Arts, Literatures, and Performance (ALPs), most students opt for “easier” classes within the humanities like photography or painting. Having taken classes within the English Department for three years now, I can say from experience that it is rare to see a class where there are more than five people not majoring or minoring in English or Literature or getting a certificate in Journalism. For an English class to have a majority of non-English students is something I have never experienced.

The space that Professor Ku’s class gives to the students not only allows the students to learn about Asian American history and culture, but it also allows for more diversity in the classrooms themselves. Not even looking at racial diversity, but focusing on major and year-in-school diversity, the university should see this pilot of the AAS Program a success. Professor Ku will be teaching another Asian American Studies class in the Spring semester called Alternate Asian American War Histories.

Professor Ku’s goal for his intro class was to allow for his students to connect personally to the material. The way Professor Ku structured the curriculum allowed for class debates on which authors accomplish the most for Asian American representation, meaning in ways that challenge how Asian Americans are viewed in a white society and how they want themselves to be represented in media and literature.

Being an Asian American myself, I wish I had room in my schedule to take this class. It’s an inviting space to discuss the image of Asian Americans in media and is a personal issue for so many students on campus. When I visited Professor Ku’s class, I was able to glean firsthand some of what I’ve been missing this semester. At the time, the class was reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, a collection of stories that detail how Chinatowns were created in the 1800s. Chinese men were taking white jobs, and this tension created lasting effects on how people view Asian American men as impotent and unsuitable for women. White society largely adopted an us-versus-them mentality, and Asians, while being Americans, also isolated themselves in Chinatowns.

The classroom debate format allowed for challenging questions, and I witnessed how the classroom tension allowed students to dive deep and address core differences among the authors they were comparing. Chinese women, for instance, are not submissive in the West, while women in the East believe themselves to be weak. Kingston addresses these stereotypes and seeks to show that the narrative for Asian women is not as clear-cut. The class debate focused on Kingston’s merits in not trying to make the Asian American experience palatable for white people and revealing the real gender gap in Asian American culture--and further how we need to confront the Asian American myths and stereotypes within society to help Asian Americans reclaim their identity and allow for others to understand their differences.

After leaving, I was able to reflect on the class and its place at Duke. The specific readings and authors studied within the class are necessary, though not immediately as important as what this class represents to the Asian American students on Duke’s campus. Professor Ku's class is the manifestation of the administration saying, “Hey, I see you and want you to be who you are and help others learn about you and your culture.” It is the administration putting words into actions for the benefit of the students. It is the administration taking a step to help their undergraduates grow in ways not possible before. I hope that with the success of Professor Ku’s class within the English Department, the administration will continue to implement an Asian American Studies certificate and/or major and that students will be able to explore their culture and background in more than just a physical room within the CMA. Having a student community is one thing but having advisors and faculty to help guide students' journeys of self-discovery and understanding is why we're here.