New department to focus on Asian literature, culture

Lauren Caruba, Assistant Campus Editor

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Northwestern is expanding its Asian studies course offerings with the creation of the new Department of Asian Languages and Cultures this fall.

The new department will bring a literary and cultural focus to the study of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hindi. Program course offerings will cover areas including literature and film. Although currently in its formative stages, the department will be fully staffed and running by Fall Quarter.

Prof. Peter Carroll, director of the Asian and Middle East Studies Program and head of the search committee for several of the department’s new faculty members, said the program will put Asian language studies on par with similar programs in European languages.

“This is a key area of human culture and expression which hasn’t been explored as much as it should be in the University curriculum,” he said.

The establishment of a more specialized Asian studies department is something the University has considered for decades, Carroll said. The push for the department’s creation intensified in 2008 with the arrival of Weinberg Dean Sarah Mangelsdorf, who identified the need for more Asian humanities courses and played a key role in the creation of the new department, he said.

Prof. Phyllis Lyons, NU’s only currently tenured faculty member in Asian literature, said although NU has strong Asian language classes, those courses do not specifically focus on Asian culture.

“If what someone wanted to focus on was language and culture, most likely literature, but maybe even film studies, there was no single place that anyone could go to,” said Lyons, who focuses specifically on Japanese literature. “That actually made Northwestern unusual among major universities.”

Continuing through February, a University search committee is conducting interviews with scholars who will potentially join the department as tenure-track faculty members. The committee is looking to fill positions in Chinese and Hindi studies, Carroll said.

While on campus, the candidates are also hosting academic talks to give students an opportunity to learn more about both the candidates and the new program. Paola Zamperini from Amherst College gave a talk Jan. 18 about gender and fashion in imperial China, and on Friday afternoon, Stephen West of Arizona State University discussed the role of sages in Chinese literature.

Bienen senior Rohan Thompson, a major in cultural musicology, has taken numerous Asian-related courses while at NU, including first-level Mandarin Chinese, translated Chinese literature and Hindi cinema. Thompson said the new department will provide a broader and more authentic view of Asian literature and culture.

“It would be really cool if they could offer literature classes in that natural language,” he said. “Things get lost in translation all the time.”

However, Thompson also said the University, which already has the Asian and Middle East Studies Program and the Asian American Studies Program in addition to language classes within the Program of African and Asian Languages, should ensure that the various departments work together and contribute to each other.

Lyons said she hopes the department’s humanistic approach to Asian studies will draw more NU students to Asian studies, especially those interested in studying or working abroad.

“Language has been holding the fort by itself for a long time, and it’s really exciting to have more subject matter,” she said.