The Purpose of Asian American Studies

In another internet group, someone posted the following article: Has Asian American Studies Failed? Take a look at it. It’s an article by a professor of Asian American Studies who argues that maybe Asian American studies has failed, since Asian Americans don’t seem to be shaping the public dialogue. This was the very first topic I ever blogged about. Back to my roots, baby.

While I agree that we haven’t been shaping the public dialogue, I don’t think that AAS has failed. The purpose of Asian American Studies is to study, not to change. I don’t know if everyone would agree with this since AAS came about by people who fought for change on the streets. But I would submit that while AAS was conceived on the streets amid protests and sit-ins, the purpose of the departments themselves were always to transmit knowledge of literature and history, rather than to teach people how to create change.

Think about it. In a typical AAS class, you learn about literature and history. You learn facts. You learn interpretations. You don’t take any classes to learn to make change. If that were the purpose, the curriculum might be different. Instead of just learning literature and history, you might be required to also study:

a) Management: so you could learn to motivate and lead groups of people and to fire deadbeats and Orientalists

b) Accounting: so you could learn to stay in the black with any organization you run

c) Government: so you could learn to lobby for effective change

d) Marketing: so you could spread the message

f) Fundraising: so you could generate a dangerous warchest

g) Law: so you could push the envelope and not end up in prison

If change creators were the end lesson, they’ve totally been going about it wrong. But come to think of it, this sounds like fun. Maybe Asian American Studies ought to have a more activist bent.

(Pic from here)

12 thoughts on “The Purpose of Asian American Studies

  1. Academia is for studying. Not for advocacy of an ideology or idea. Therefore the program is doing just fine. Recent decades we have seem to forget that the purpose of universities is based on the philosophy behind the idea of a Renaissance Humanist Education; to study and gain the theory of subject matters to enlighten the mind and soul as well as creating a better citizen.

    Measuring how much it has shaped public dialog is the wrong measuring stick. The shaping public dialog have long been a side-affect by gathering a group of people seen as knowledgeable experts of a subject, but it is not the stick to measure as it is not the purpose of the field.

    Making the ends is to influence public dialogue rather than studying itself defeats why universities exist in the first place.

    Of course, many areas have already been heavily influenced by the temptation to advocacy on issues (the issue of that is it creates bias and indoctrination rather than dialogue) along with the other major force that universities is seen more and more as place to gain a trade (which is understandable when the stakes is raised by a large amount of loans for so many of us).

    Still, if you want to see public dialogue influenced, it should be life after/outside of college where the school’s role is help people have informed, freethinking minds. Not during college with a purpose to generate activists.

    Of course, an ambitious person could use those subjects listed above to help that person have the foundation to be successful, but AAS shouldn’t be about that. It is for academia, not a place for a bright eye student to be taken in and told of our wrongs and the end product is to become an activist to right them. Some subjects is already commonly said to behave with that mission and I think it is the wrong direction in that subjects too (or shouldn’t exist in the first place).

    I should also mention that change makers should come from diverse backgrounds and not just kids straight out of college studying Asian history and culture. Like wealth backgrounds, previous professions, and more varieties of studies (how many congressmen are lawyers again?).

  2. The problem with a lot of these ethnic-based degrees (African-American studies, Asian-American studies, etc.) is that they teach people how to be victims. This mentality is very disempowering.

    Employers want a practical skill and I disagree with that tired old canard (oftentimes heard on blogs) that liberal arts degrees teach you how to think. Rather they prepare its bearer for a lifetime of making mocha cappuccinos. Try raising a family on the income that work produces. If you look at starting salaries by major you will see that engineering comes out on top along with other technical fields.

  3. WOW. I can’t believe I agree with Fun.

    I definitely agree that the worst aspect of many (insert word) studies major curriculum is their penchant of always playing the blame game and pulling out the victim card.

    I admire Asian Am Studies and the related websites that go with it (aka this one) for its intentions of spreading news and awareness. But I have to admit… the only time I have ever been mentally shaken in my life was when I was taking Asian Am Studies in college. Not going to lie…. a lot of that stuff Fs with your head which makes me give those who are “on the front line” of Asian Am Advocacy much more respect.

  4. @ Dreamer, re: “Academia is for studying. Not for advocacy of an ideology or idea.”

    Your username is “dreamer” and yet what you said is stone-set in realism. Here I think I’m more of a dreamer than you.

    Academia isn’t for studying, goodness *that* is how low our intellectual standards are? Academia is for nurturing future leaders, pioneers, and innovators… and advocates. Academia is inherently idealistic, and full of dreamers, because it’s about changing the present for a better tomorrow.

    Idealistically, for example, law school is about nurturing advocates who will make it their mission to improve our legal system and render it more just for all, or at the very least, on the individual level pick up the lives of those the legal system have left behind.

    APA studies is the same way. Idealistically, its purpose is to teach about the injustices of the past, hoping it will kindle some fire of activism in our youth so that when they go out into the world, they will advocate greater justice for all, that they will be, well, APA activists.

    The fact we have so few APA activists does in a way lend itself as evidence in support of Yu’s point– yeah, APA Studies has failed our community in some ways. Likewise, the fact there are so few lawyers who act as true social justice advocates means law school, too, has failed us in some ways.

    APA Studies has also failed at inspiring our youth today. When I was in college, there was a core number of us APAs who were very much into APA Studies and saw the importance of it in our personal curriculum. Today’s APA college youth don’t think the same way. There is no longer that core number. In fact, the majority of them don’t even think racism exists anymore. Um… are they not living in the same world I’m living in?!

    Re: “Still, if you want to see public dialogue influenced, it should be life after/outside of college where the school’s role is help people have informed, freethinking minds. Not during college with a purpose to generate activists.”

    I disagree. If you don’t get them while they’re young, you’ll never get them. The older you get, the more self-centered you are, believe it or not. You no longer care about utopian theory or justice for all. Your main concerns are whether you can pay the mortgage this month, the everyday existential worries of your profession, whether you’re saving enough for your kids’ tuition, and the health of your rapidly aging parents. Change will always start with our youth.

    I say bravo to Yu’s piece.

  5. I name myself dreamer because I find it a fitting name to my ambitions as well as my ideals. My ideals do not include academia as a place for this matter. I find this idea that the University should be the place to teach them to become activists is borderline indoctrination. The only reason such people become such activists is because they were taught to be so rather than coming to it on their own by recognizing some injustice.

    Let me copy and paste from Wikipedia of what academia is about as I failed to explain it in my own words.

    Renaissance humanism was an activity of cultural and educational reform engaged by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are today known as Renaissance humanists.[1] It developed during the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, and was a response to the challenge of Mediæval scholastic education, emphasizing practical, pre-professional and -scientific studies. Scholasticism focused on preparing men to be doctors, lawyers or professional theologians, and was taught from approved textbooks in logic, natural philosophy, medicine, law and theology….

    …Thus, they would be capable of better engaging the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy

    Study to understand. Study for wisdom. Study for enlightenment. For the for more worldly soul and better engagement of the civic life.

    I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty idealistic to me. University is to create informed citizens (in theory and elements of that idealism exists in practices still). The creation of future leaders, innovators, pioneers, and advocates is a by-product, not the aim.

    This have drifted away by a dual force that the purpose of the school is to train activists and by the increasing need that students finds jobs after (as said shown above, academia is not originally about training people for jobs). For the latter, I’ll leave that for a separate discussion. But just understand that many years ago, like the 1950’s, academia was mostly for the most brilliant and the rich. The ones who can study such stuff and move on to whatever profession they wish (or their parents). At the same time, schools was also affordable enough that the ambitious can still enter, work part-time jobs, and come out with a degree that so few had (along with the association of the rich, the brilliant, as well as the ambitious) that the person will stand out anyway. That have been more and more warped by the need that students have to make a “profit” from the time in school.

    This is/was the foundation of the University. In whatever subject, this was to seek not just the answer but the theory behind it. To not just know legal documents like the Constitution, but the philosophy behind the document. To not just know the answer to the derivative (2×2 + 3)(4x + 5) but also what that really means in the universe of numbers (best way to conceptualize is from a graph).

    For Asian Studies, this means studying history, language, and culture to understand the inner workings that driven our histories, affected our languages, and shaped out cultures. With this study, the hope that this creates a more informed and enlighten person who can better interact in the civic forum now having a better understanding of the world. Whatever this means an informed citizen or activist.

    What Asian Studies or any of the _____ studies should not be is a place to champion any causes. The aim is knowledge, not creating activists.

    Let me put it like this, taking examples of African Americans 3 most prominent civil changers: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. The first was a reverend (studied theology), second a dropout who studied on his own, and the third only had a high school education (Also take note that at the differences of their backgrounds too). Did they need African American Studies teaching them all the injustice to their race and how to become an activist? No. Two studied in their subjects that interested them and all three got involved in the community and then later started to fight to their ideals.

    Your example of the failures of our lawyers is an example of not the failure that the schools didn’t pound them enough to go do social justice, but a product of how much it become a cutthroat high-status trade. People go in there for the status. The failure of the field is it has been corrupted by its own high status and income of the top. Academia’s faults lies in that it walked away from its purpose to understand law and general ethics not that it failed to pound that a lawyer is all about social justice. In fact, some of the worst ones are “activist” law people whose push their pet causes to the detriment of greater importance (like upholding the constitution).

  6. Here’s something that I noticed in my discussions on the other forum.

    If you look at the mission statements of most undergrad universities or colleges, they almost always talk about education and studying. Look at SFSU for example:

    “The mission of San Francisco State University is to create and maintain an environment for learning that promotes respect for and appreciation of scholarship, freedom, human diversity, and the cultural mosaic of the City of San Francisco and the Bay Area; to promote excellence in instruction and intellectual accomplishment; and to provide broadly accessible higher education for residents of the region and state, as well as the nation and world.”

    or Harvard:

    Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities.

    The only “activist” undergrad mission I found was Stanford:

    “Its object, to qualify its students for personal success, and direct
    usefulness in life;
    And its purposes, to promote the public welfare by exercising an
    influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings
    of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for
    the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable
    rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Now if you look at MBA programs, they ALL talk about having their people make a difference. Look at Harvard:

    “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”

    Maybe these undergrad programs need to change their mission. Or maybe the departments can change their mission. I’ve heard that Stanford does a great job of teaching people to be entrepreneurs. Maybe they can bring this spirit to educating Asian American leaders, either at the grad or undergrad level.

  7. LOL!

    However, I do have a pretty ironic story to relate regarding this. I’m a graduate student in mathematics, and it usually surprises nobody because people had always conceived of me as that “nerdy math guy” or somehow perfectly fitting the AM stereotype. (I always try to point out something obvious: I’m not skinny nor do I wear glasses, LOL). While originally the motivations may have been based on tiger parenting, they relaxed over the years, and I pursued graduate school in mathematics because I truly found it interesting.

    But people will find this very hard to believe: I am the only American-born Asian that I know who is or aspires to be a mathematician as a career (other than a professor whose father also is a prof here in the US. I may also be atypical, having two grandfathers who were professors, though neither parent is). I attend conferences where 40% of the attendees are Asians, all recent immigrants, mostly from China (I recall a couple of guys from Vietnam and Korea, but that’s about it). This speaks to the AA-math connection being solely one of using math as a means to an end–math is not to be “studied” but rather only for bigger and better things (that is, Doctor or Engineer :). I don’t doubt that it is important training—US decline in scientific fields is something I’ve mentioned before—but I feel the true spirit of mathematics is different, and people miss the point when they say “Graduate student in math? Wow, you’ll have no trouble finding a job.” (Not true, by the way, I AM having trouble finding a job—I wonder if my major deserves to get cut by the Chinese government, LOL!).

    On a related note, because of this, I get asked the question “What part of China are you from?” even more often than I used to! And by other Chinese! So I often feel doubly excluded—both groups think I’m “one of them” where “them” is the other group. I imagine this feeling is quite prevalent among a lot of AA, but I never felt it so acutely until I got to graduate school.

  8. I definitely believe that! Actually, I don’t know ANY American born Asians who have tried to get a graduate degree in math. That’s totally awesome! It’ s the purest form of logic that exists.

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  12. My thesis is that Asian American Studies failed because of its lack of innovation. I regard Asian American studies as part of a larger study of Pacific Rim people. In the age of “Chinamerica” and a visible emergence of a maritime ocean trade world in Pacific Asia similar to the Mediterranean world. Asian American study should have a eye on places of Asian American but also on transnational flows of ideas, knowledge, capital, labour and tourism.

    Critique Of Literature

    Failure in adopting Algorithmic Criticism

    We live in the age of information age and we see the development of Literary Computing, Literary Darwinism and Digital Libraries.

    Literary Darwinism is a mode of criticism that make usage of experimental psychology and darwinism to examine literature and measure its contribution in influencing mating, family values, gender roles,…E.g. you can develop a list of masculine and feminine attributes and characters in fairy tales and draw a sampling of texts from a bibliography to examine cross-cultural pattern in fairy tales migration between countries. Because of the sampling approach borrowed from randomized experimental methodology you get another method of looking at cultural diffusion and binary structures men/women, white/rest, occident/orient,….

    This methodology aso apply in Asian American stock characters in white media, because movies and TV shows are texts also. Asian American Studies completely fail in analysing various Asian movies, TV media and music industries although they are very popular with the emergence of filesharing and Internet streaming sites. There is no searchable motif index like the one for folklore or type index. The list continues with Interactive Fiction Online Video Games and literary experiments in Second Life. We have authoring systems for these type of texts but no theory from Asian American studies how to construct them or to interpret them.

    The natives around the Pacific Rim try to get Intellectual Property for their folklore and cultural heritage to prevent the cultural appropriation of majority society and the hollowing out of the content and the community sense. Chinese folklore still use the Eurocentric Stith-Thompson Index to classifiy Chinese folklore narratives instead of developing an own motif and type index.

    We have interesting methodology from algorithmic criticism to imitate randomized sampling from socia science and psychology. We can develop features list and categories with closed-reading first and get a list a features them draw a sampling from a list libraries and bibliographies to examine the circulation of texts with certain features (stock characters, motifs, scenes,…).

    We can compute the similarity of texts with computational linguistics if we add ontology metadata to texts about characters, motifs and places or vocabulary and examine the spillover effects between authors. We can even try to examine the revenue of book sales from similar books with amazon sales data.

    We have various efforts to create an atlas of European novels, American movies, Dutch folktales… to visualize places, motifs and movement patterns of characters to study the shift in the semiotics of spaces with cultural artefacts. Asian American literature try to combat the homogenization of Asian cultures and spaces of origin of Asian american populations but they never develop an atlas of Anglophone cultural artefacts to show how the Orientalist represents Asian spaces.

    We have inherit Russian formalism and Czech structuralism to study the binary textual patterns white/colored, men/women, civilization/barbarian,…Modern text segmentation algorithm give us method to cut texts in fragments and pull semantic vocabularies out of them to study the language of whiteness and orientalism. We do not have that.

    There is no concious effort to digitalize Asian American or Asian diaspora textual production to get research resource and compare Asian American texts with Asian texts and Anglophone orientalism with large scale algorithmic criticism and Literary criticism.

    There is no effort to get (phonetic) transcription of scripts from Asian media with crowdsourcing in Amazon Mechanical Turk or similar Crowdworking platforms. The Asian Fanfiction research are behind of Anglophone Fanfiction studies about Dr. Who, Star Trek, Buffy,…

    The Theater & Musical studies do not include Martial Arts, dance and Beijing Opera and various Asian theater traditions. The injection of Video Games characters in musicals are actually done by Anglophone artists even if the Video game character is taken from a Japanese game.

    Movie/theater database with search function are not based on high-level concepts of actants, situations, motifs,…but on caucasian, Asian,…as filter for search. How to you teach modern French theory how to destabilize dominant representation of marginalized people with repetition, humour, alienation … if you never develop a proper database of the representations you want to attack.


    We have recognition of nationalism and long-distance nationalism in Asian American studies, but we never adopt modern comparative Diaspora studies that teach us who to change bi-national/two-level relationships of states to a tripartite/three-level relationships of sending state-diaspora-receiving state. Asian American diasporas lacs the organization of the Israel lobby, the Armenian lobby and the Greek lobby in special interest politics.

    The economic history of diaspora contribution for the sending states are very bad teached. We know that Little Italy have the fiscal worth of an entire Southern Italy province after the unification of Italy. Today we know that the South East Asian Overseas Chinese diasporas were the principal foreign capital source for the industrialization of their ancient migration sending regions in the Pearl River Delta. We know from extraction of patent data that a Taiwanese scientific diaspora and sea turtle entrepreneurship helped to industrialize Taiwan. We kno that the IT sector of Banglalore/India is part a creation of Indians in Silicon Valley.

    The Pacific Ocean trade depends on maritime regulations of labour and shipping industries. We know that Filipino seafarer labour reservoir is a resource which is developed by the labor broking state of Phillipines and that they are recruited by middleman firms on offshore islands which is the location of ship insurance also. There is no effort to link Phillipines seafarer histories with the history of Hong Kong, South China, Japanese auto export,…The influence of American port cities regulation and the emergence of Walmart is simply ignored.


    Various authors try to adapt social media and virtual worlds for social science. Survey methodologist study if it is possible to substitute polls with Twitter research. Some authors try to implement Twitter diaries to study consumption pattern for marketing but also for VAT taxation. Oral history and narrative methodology try to use Skype and Web surveys to reach out for marginalized people.

    Economists develop economic labs in virtual worlds to study microeconomics, but it is not adopted by Asian American studies to study migration sending and receiving areas or ethnic enclaves.

    Random Response techniques are implemented in Second Life to get datas about sensitive questions illness, drug use, sexual behaviour, but Asian american studies simply ignore the research but actually they need this research for getting data about marginalized populations.

    Sociologists developed a sophisticated occupation categories and economists developed income risks models based on occupation and regions. There is even proposals for developing a future market for income risks. This knowledge is obviously useful to talk about Affirmative Action, but Asian American studies ignore it.

    We have wonderful fiscal theories personal income tax, consumption tax and the inlfation-index versions of these important tax categories. We have monthly time series of remittances from transnational minorities like Asian American and Mexican american,…to examine how they smooth business cycles in the migration corridor. Asian american studies do not teach it. Although we should think about different income and consumption taxation of different occupation and social/racial groups and maximize tax revenues.

    We know from the OECD data that transnational diaspora imporves trade volumes, e.g. if there are different legal regime of commercial laws, information gaps and lack of export finance.

    Political science

    American liberalism loves international institutions and moral legitimization of international politics, because they deeply wish cooperation instead of war, but actually American foreign policy works with military assets.

    Jewish America mobilize debt funding with diaspora bonds and build infrastructure and buying of weaponry. India and Pakistan get capital inflows with diaspora bonds after they got nuclear arms and suffer ostracism from international capital markets.

    Haitian diasporas are very helpful in times of natural hazards. Mexican American diasporas participate in infrastructure funding schemes in their migration sending regions.

    Various financial insitutions try to transform remittances and redirect them towards a capital pool for microcredit schemes.

    But we have already international institutions out there and the tasks is to get organization incubators to spillover diaspora departments with own staffs who are free of taxations. We do not need private lobby organizations and private financial institutions to advance our interests. We need administrative law of international institutions and public sector jobs to set the agenda.

    Asian American Studies do not research anything in these areas although we have wonderful books about democratic transnational governance which should be linked with international institutions.

    Gender Studies

    Asian American gender studies are a completely mess. It is obviously that Asian American women and Asian female Non-citizen have different biographic pattern and work histories and hence it should be reflected in income and consumption taxations. The goal of the state is to maximize tax revenues over the lifetime of a female and a male citizen – not to micromanange equality with wasting tax dollars.
    Actually we need gender and generational accounting in the public sector to do it properly and get proper timeseries of tax revenues of different gender/age groups.

    We observe Filipino housemaids who use Online games, webcams and Skype to connect with their kids in the Phillipines and get them into a private school. The Phillipines have 10% of their populations abroad – they work as seafarer, housemaids, doctors, nurses,…The remittance economy is very important and the Filipino seafarer is very important to ship Japanese goods, Chinese goods and American goods.

    It i obvious to give them more attention, because the transnational family is a special kind of family and Asian american studies should study them closely.

    Instead we get strange left-wing liberal Asian American feminists who knows nothing about Filipino transnational families and the sacrifices they make to make the Filipino labor broker state working for our Pacific Ocean trade- the well-intentioned but dumb Asian american feminists fall for lines of various middle-class and social climber versions of white feminism, black womanism, postcolonial feminism line of equal pay, equal opportunity, orientalism,…But Asian Pacific transnational families have very real impact on rating notes, business cycles, trade volumes,…

    We even now start to understand how the new family type of Taiwanese astronaut family organize knowledge spillovers and capital transfers who drop their teenage kids for education in a Anglophone country and the parents returns to Taiwan to build manufacturing plants and export business.

    Asian American feminism is a pure discourse phenomenon and its sole legitimization is the pomposity that they can influence the occidentalist othering of Asian people at the source of occidental academic discourse productions. But actually Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian,…scholars have no interests in reading Asian American texts.


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