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Letter to the Editor: AASP and LLSP directors back departmental status campaign

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As individual faculty members who are also directors of the Asian American Studies Program and the Latina and Latino Studies Program, we write to express our support for the “To Be Departments” campaign. This campaign, organized by the Latinx Asian American Collective, includes a petition with over 1,100 signatories in favor of the development of an Asian American Studies Department and a Latinx Studies Department. We endorse such departmentalization as a way to address the chronic challenges we face as a result of our status as programs that inhibit the sustainability and growth of our vibrant fields.

Each of the many programs in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has its own history, resources and operational structures. These are often based on the individual negotiations that directors and senior faculty engage with the administration. Our ethnic studies programs, however, have a shared history: They emerged as a result of long term (10 to 15 years) student mobilizations that demanded ethnic studies be a central part of the undergraduate curriculum. As a result of the gradual diversification of the student body, the educational mission of our units has become critical to many of our students, shaping their worldviews and their life paths. As we have consistently argued, Latina and Latino Studies and Asian American Studies not only foster interrogations of power and colonization among students of color, they also offer all students the critical intellectual discourses, methodologies and thinking needed to promote social justice and change in our various communities, our country and our world at large.

Emerging from student strikes for the development of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University in 1968, our fields, fifty years later, still offer rich, complicated and heterogeneous scholarship. Our courses provide insight into the multiple points of views and positionalities within our respective communities and equip students with critical thinking skills. Like African American Studies, we constitute inter- and multi-disciplinary spaces for the production of knowledges not found elsewhere in the University. Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies deserve spaces of their own in the University and the College — spaces that will allow us to become flagship centers in the Midwest.

The current structures of Weinberg programs constrain our pedagogical and intellectual imprint. Of central concern is that programs cannot autonomously hire tenure-track faculty members trained within our fields unless we partner with a department to be their tenure home. This inhibits Northwestern from hiring the most relevant and cutting-edge scholars in our fields, as these hires must also be acceptable to and vetted by multiple units. This also means that every faculty hire in our programs is doing (at least) double duty: service for their program and for their tenure home department. The fact that our programs are comprised of people of color, many of them women, doing such work (which often includes being minority faculty in “traditional” fields and serving as mentors to numerous students in a “diverse” university who seek out faculty like them) should be lost on no one. Additionally, faculty’s individual commitments to their home departments can also hinder their commitments to the programs.

This pressure to perform across units in service heavy roles exacerbates the precarity of our programs, making it difficult to find people to fulfill service requirements and to fill our teaching needs. Finding people to serve as directors, for instance, is difficult, as we have so few faculty from which to choose. Once one becomes a director, our budgets are so small that much of our time is spent fundraising in order to maintain a robust programming that benefits students, faculty and the community at large.

NU has been impressive in creating a diverse student population. While less diverse at the faculty level, the university must acknowledge the role of ethnic studies units in hiring and mentoring faculty of color. Our programs remain subordinated and lack self-determination with regard to hiring and setting priorities. It is now critical for the University to respond to the needs of students and faculty, including this demand to departmentalize Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies.

Nitasha Sharma
Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies, Asian American Studies Program
Director, Asian American Studies Program

Frances R. Aparicio
Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese
Director, Latina and Latino Studies Program