Action advances to represent Asian women in curriculum

Two months ago, Michelle Zhang ’15 and Grace Sparapani ’16 launched an online petition calling for more Asian and Asian American women’s perspectives in the Women’s Studies program.

An article previously published in The Miscellany News explained the push behind the petition.

“Ultimately, the petition called for more discussions of race and intersectionality and the instatement of an Asian or Asian American woman on the steering committee of the Women’s Studies Program. The petition also states that if the administration can’t find a person for this committee, then the committee should collaborate with Asian and Asian American students” (“Petition seeks Asian inclusion,” 2.12.14).

Last week, Zhang met with the program’s Steering Committee to discuss potential revisions to current and future curricula.

“Changes are forthcoming in the Women’s Studies Department,” wrote Zhang in an emailed statement.

She continued, “The Department has added a few more Asian and Asian American feminist readings to the Intro curriculum, augmenting two pieces total from Vandana Shiva and Uma Narayan, and promises to review the greater departmental curriculum with the same goal.”

The petition states in part, “We believe in the power of academics to shape social conversations and would thus like to challenge the Women’s Studies program to accept the responsibility of initiating this change. As Asian and Asian American women, we do not see our voices in the literature we read.”

Elsa Stoff ’17 was one of the 356 students who have signed the petition, which she heard about through an emailed link.

She said she signed the petition because of her personal beliefs. “I think considering and learning about every intersection of feminism is important,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

Women’s Studies major Elena Riecke ’16 agreed with the sentiments expressed in the petition.

Riecke wrote in an emailed statement, “I haven’t really been in the department long enough to say if we needed a petition, but the syllabus for Intro could definitely use revision and I think it was a valuable way to talk about how a lot of people weren’t happy with it.”

She went on to explain that the department still has room to grow and its curriculum could be stronger. “I love the department, but I’d like to see them come through more with listening to student input and applying intersectionality!”

Along with lobbying for more female Asian authors, the petition also voiced concern about what it saw as a lack of Asian women faculty on the Steering Committee.

Professor of Chinese and Japanese Peipei Qiu explained that she temporarily took time off the Steering Committee to focus on directing the Asian Studies Program. However, she decided to return early due to the arrival of the petition.

Qiu names some of the Asian women faculty members who have taught women’s studies courses in previous years.

“As for the representation of Asian Women’s voices in Women’s Studies curriculum, Professors Uma Narayan and Seungsook Moon teach regularly in the WMST program. My course, ‘Women in Japanese and Chinese Literature,’ has been part of the WMST curriculum, too,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

According to Qiu, the faculty has taken note of the petition and are moving forward to address the concerns it presents.

She wrote, “To address the issues raised by the students, [the women’s studies] faculty will conduct a more thorough review of our entire curriculum at the end of the academic year so that we could achieve a fuller representation of Asian women.”

Qiu further noted that she and Associate Professor of English and Director of Women’s Studies Leslie Dunn have sat down with students to discuss the future of the Women’s Studies program.

“[W]e had a wonderful conversation. We mainly talked about how to enhance the existing representation of Asian women in [the women’s studies program],” wrote Qiu.

She continued, explaining how the involved parties came away with a shared conclusion.

“[W]e all agreed that the communication between students and faculty is very important and should be kept regularly in the future,” she wrote.

Stoff is currently enrolled in the introductory women’s studies class, which provides a survey of past and contemporary feminist theory and figures. The class often considers these in the frame of other social issues like sexuality, disability and race. Her class recently read Grace Tsao’s “Growing Up Asian American with a Disability.”

Riecke described how she never planned on becoming a women’s studies major.

She wrote in an emailed statement, “My introduction to Vassar Women’s Studies was Rebecca Edwards’ Sex and Reproduction in 19th Century America, and she and Lydia Murdoch converted me from Neuroscience and Behavior right when I was about to declare.”

Riecke wrote, “I love Women’s Studies at Vassar because it doesn’t just take a single approach—Intro opens up the entire course talking about intersectionality, which is basically talking about how different hierarchies, power structures, systems, etc interact.”

The program’s multidisciplinary nature attracted Riecke and prompted her to become a major.

She wrote, “I chose Women’s Studies because everyone who teaches in the department is really passionate and the topics really resonated with experiences I have in everyday life.”

Although Riecke enjoys what the program has to offer, she added that she did notice a shortcoming on behalf of the department when it came to the inclusion of alternative feminist perspectives.

She continued, explaining that there are more issues to think about.

“I think we’re also really guilty, especially in the choice of readings, of establishing white feminism as ‘feminism,’ and then talking about feminist pieces by non-white authors as ___ feminism, like feminism with some kind of adjective for it to define it as different,” she wrote.

Riecke commented on the idea of defining feminism from a specific approach. She said,  “I think…it is really important, but it can definitely feel like we’re doing token non-white readings sometimes.”

Architects of the petition hope that the call for revisions to the Women’s Studies curriculum will provide an impetus for future dialogue around issues of inclusivity within academic settings.

As the petition states, “We believe that change initiated by the Women’s Studies department can incite a campus wide shift for greater recognition of Asian feminism and to create a place in which Asians and Asian Americans are allowed to voice the grievances of their own oppressions.”

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