Looking back and moving forward: Asian languages and cultures department plans 10-year anniversary


Daily file photo by Ava Mandoli

Kresge Hall. The building is home to the Asian languages and cultures department, which is observing its 10th anniversary next year.

Skye Garcia, Reporter

Asian languages and cultures department Chair Laura Brueck joined Northwestern as an associate professor of South Asian literature and culture in 2013. Now, she’s planning the department’s 10-year anniversary. 

The Asian languages and cultures department was founded in 2013 after courses from the Program of African and Asian Languages and the Asian and Middle East Studies Program transferred into other departments. Some courses found homes in the Middle East and North African Studies Program, while others — like Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hindi and Urdu courses —  became part of the new department, Brueck said.   

Brueck sees the anniversary as an opportunity to highlight the history and achievements of the department. The event is scheduled for May 8, 2023. She plans to host a reception and invite students, core faculty and supportive faculty from across the University.

“A big part of being chair of a new department is not only to promote excellence, but you also have to constantly tell the story of your department,” Brueck said. 

Last week, Brueck and department assistant Jean Deven looked through the University Archives to aid in the planning process. Together, they explored records and photographs documenting the department’s history. 

Despite the youth of the department, some faculty have worked at NU since the ’90s, Brueck said. 

“We were really enjoying looking through old photo albums of our colleagues thinking, ‘Oh wow, they look so young,” Brueck said. 

Brueck said she was one of two tenure-line professors at the time of the department’s formation, along with Chinese literature and culture Prof. Paola Zamperini. 

Because only tenure-line faculty can act as chair, Zamperini acted as the founding chair of the department from 2013 to 2016, the year Brueck took over.

As chair, Brueck attends monthly meetings with the dean, reviews faculties’ vita supplements — a document that articulates what a faculty member accomplished in the last year — and reviews salaries for promotions. 

She said her most important administrative role is acting as a “middleman” between her faculty and the Dean’s Office. 

“One of the biggest roles is being an advocate for the faculty and the department,” Brueck said.

Brueck still teaches two classes per year and advises students, she said.  

Comparative literature second-year Ph.D. student Soumya Shailendra, whose research focuses on mourning rituals in 20th-century African American and Dalit literature, works closely with Brueck as an advisee.

Shailendra decided she wanted to work with Brueck at NU after reading her short stories, translations and books. 

“I especially came to Northwestern to work with Laura,” Shailendra said. “Her scholarship is pathbreaking in contemporary Hindi literary studies. I’ve really benefited from that relationship.” 

Third-year Asian languages and cultures Ph.D. student Ishan Mehandru was interested in studying Hindi-Urdu contemporary literature as a graduate student. 

He applied to NU because of its flexible approach regarding disciplinary interests and languages. 

“I could be a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Literary Studies Program and take courses in psychoanalysis and queer theory,” he said. “Northwestern gives you a lot of freedom to do that.” 

Mehandru said Brueck has helped him conduct his research. She is not only a great teacher, he said, but a talented translator. 

Both Mehandru and Shailendra plan to attend the 10-year anniversary celebration. 

Although many of the teaching-track faculty in Asian languages and cultures identify as Asian, most of the tenure-line faculty — those eligible to chair the department — are not. Brueck said she acknowledges this impediment to promotion.

“We are very conscious of the institutional and colonial history that has created the generation of scholars that many of us belong to,” she said. “We are all conscious of the racial, ethnic and, in my case, caste makeup of our fields that need to change.”

Brueck said she does not intend to repeat history. 

Instead, she plans to create opportunities for different people in the department moving forward. 

“Those graduate students will become the next generation of scholars,” Brueck said. “That is foremost on our minds.”  

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @SkyeAGarcia

Related Stories:

New department looks to bring Northwestern up to speed in study of Asian languages, cultures

Alum David Kan speaks about 1995 AASP hunger strike

African American Studies department commemorates 50th anniversary