Historically, institutions of higher education were intended to educate the white, wealthy and male elite of colonial America. Heralded universities such as Harvard and William and Mary groomed the ministers, lawyers and politicians of the day, securing these individuals’ positions as the ruling class.
Centuries later, the Seven Sister Colleges, including Vassar, were founded to provide women with an education equivalent to that provided in the then men-only Ivy League.
During the ’60s and ’70s, the United States witnessed a number of progressive movements in higher education. As colleges and universities incrementally opened their doors to those they historically excluded, many students, faculty and administrators demanded that college curriculums reflect their existence. Vassar student and faculty involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, National Black Student Movement and other movements resulted in programs such as Africana Studies and Latino Studies. Vassar has yet to realize an Asian-American Studies program, despite similar activism for such a program.
As part of its ongoing efforts for a full-fledged academic major, the Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group—co-sponsored by the ALANA Center—hosted Envisioning Horizons: The Future of Ethnic Studies at Vassar. The forum, which took place on April 18, explored how a critical ethnic studies curriculum could look.
Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University Chris Eng invited others to think of Critical Ethnic Studies not just as an academic field or program. Eng said: “When we think about what Critical Ethnic Studies is, it might be more [useful] to think about what it does and what it can do. Think about Critical Ethnic Studies as not necessarily a predetermined or fixed entity or field, but instead think of it as a type of intellectual project.”
Eng compared the ways colleges and universities conceptualize diversity on their campuses to how ethnic studies scholarship is addressed. He explained that, too often, the issue of campus diversity is reduced to quantitative terms. “What structures make students feel included or welcomed? And what are the structures of stability for students and faculty of color?” Eng asked.
Similarly, a lack of critical engagement with all of the facets of ethnic studies on campuses is usually addressed by creating an academic curriculum. However, Eng explained that truly engaging with ethnic studies requires more than simply studying it in the classroom. “This is why I think Critical Ethnic Studies is addressing this kind of impasse.” He explained, “The addition of the term ‘critical’ is really about pushing back against some of the assumptions that mere inclusion or recognition of ethnic studies as an academic unit on campuses is enough.”
Associate Professor of English Hiram Perez echoed Eng’s sentiments. Perez presented further ways Critical Ethnic Studies can be integrated into a campus, such as a working group made up of students and faculty. He also mentioned cross-collaboration between multidisciplinary programs. Attempts at this inter-institutional engagement have not been made without friction, however. “I think, historically, there’s been some resistance to that. Maybe that is an issue of disciplinary territoriality [and] people guarding their territory,” he postulated.
Perez pinpointed the curricular approaches to addressing Critical Ethnic Studies, such as providing thesis writing seminars in which students might be required to work collaboratively across the multidisciplinary programs. Faculty can also think more critically about the readings and other assignments required in classes. Perez elaborated, “We need to think not just about instituting more programs, we can certainly have that conversation, but [can] also [talk] about transforming the perceived politics of knowledge production and demanding socially relevant educational structures.”
Assistant Professor of Education Jaime Del Razo, who spoke from the audience, reminded those in attendance to remember the history of the struggle for Critical Ethnic Studies. “As we sit here at Vassar, 50 years after the Third World Liberation Project, I think it’s important to have these conversations also in a historical sense, in terms of what those students were demanding of universities,” he acknowledged.
Recognizing the push for Critical Ethnic Studies as a political pursuit as well, Del Razo pointed out that the pushback is to be expected. He expressed, “Any time you try to institute any political project, here, or on the street, there’s gonna be tension.”