The future of Asian-American Studies: A talk with Vivian Truong

Courtesy of Vivian Truong.

When pre-registration began last spring, then-seniors Nicole Kormendi ’20 and Sylvia Peng ’20 impatiently opened AskBanner, eager to confirm that the class they had long campaigned for would be offered next semester. And there it was—AMST/ASIA 185, Intro to Asian American Studies. Even though Kormendi and Peng were graduating, they were thrilled that incoming first-years would have the opportunity to take the course, which is currently being taught by Vivian Truong, one of Vassar’s newest professors.

In addition to having been involved in the hiring process for Professor Truong, Kormendi and Peng were excited to see Intro to Asian American Studies on the class schedule because they were two of the founding members of the Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group (VASAM), a pre-org pushing for Asian American Studies (AAS) courses—and, more broadly, Critical Ethnic Studies classes—to be more widely available at Vassar. 

VASAM was founded in November 2017 by members of Vassar’s Asian Student Alliance, but the history of the fight for AAS at Vassar goes all the way back to 1979, when the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) movement reached Vassar and Asian American students called for an AAS program. Then, in 1991, the Asian Student Alliance planned a protest day to advocate for AAS at Vassar and ask that the demands from 12 years prior be met. These demands have yet to be fulfilled. 

Today, Vassar offers a correlate for AAS, but according to VASAM member Gabor Ptacek ’22, “It’s very difficult to fill the correlate because there’s just not a very consistent offering of courses. People will be using courses that aren’t related to AAS to fill that correlate, just for the sake of having it.” 

Ptacek, who is from the San Francisco Bay Area, said that his high school offered more AAS classes than Vassar. “That’s messed up,” he opined. “This is something I would have wanted to study. I would have probably majored in AAS if it was offered here.” For many of the students involved in VASAM, seeing themselves represented in their classes and professors is an essential but missing aspect of their education. Johnson Lin ’21, another student involved in VASAM, said he hardly learned any Asian American history throughout middle and high school: “It’s such a big void in terms of my knowledge, and it’s something that obviously means a lot to me as someone who cares a lot about the Asian American community.” 

As Ptacek points out, AAS isn’t just for Asian Americans: “It’s a big part of American Studies broadly, that American Studies people should be learning about. It’s not just for Asian people, the same way that Africana Studies is not just for Black people, the same way that Latinx studies is not just for Latinx people. They’re all so interconnected, and that’s also why Critical Ethnic Studies is something VASAM is pushing for in tandem with AAS.”

One of the largest barriers students face in studying AAS is the lack of professors who can teach these classes. The AAS correlate is understaffed and draws on professors who cannot always teach AAS classes because they are also obligated to teach within their own departments. Sometimes, if these professors are on leave, there will not be any AAS classes offered in a semester. This most recently happened in Fall 2019. In light of the once again lacking course catalogue, VASAM took it upon themselves to teach an entirely student-led, anti-institutional, un-credited AAS class that met weekly and included an end-of-semester showcase complete with art, photography, essays, poetry, critical theory, and presentations.

That is why hiring new professors is so vital to VASAM’s goals. The group worked with the Asian Studies and American Studies departments last year to get a tenure-track line for an AAS professor approved by the Vassar administration, and they hope to have that professor hired by next fall. In the meantime, Professor Truong was hired last spring as a Post Doctoral Fellow in American Studies and Asian Studies. “She’s an amazing professor,” said Ptacek, who is in the AAS intro class this semester.

Professor Truong got her BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University in 2012 and her PhD from the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. In her own words, she is “a community-engaged historian who takes an intersectional and comparative approach to the study of Asian American movements.” Truong also coordinates a public history project that partners with the grassroots organization Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) Organizing Asian Communities and documents over three decades of Asian American community organizing in New York. Her current research project, “Whose City? Our City! Asian American and Multiracial Movements against Police Violence in New York,” examines how policing was a form of state-sanctioned removal for Asian American communities in New York. She is also participating in the A/P/A Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project

This week, I got in touch with Professor Truong to ask her about teaching AAS at Vassar.

What made you want to teach at Vassar?

It was mostly the students. Hearing about the history of the students really fighting for AAS at Vassar and being moved that the students—when they didn’t have any classes for a particular semester—actually ended up organizing their own course, and seeing the really amazing syllabus that they put together that they ended up teaching to each other in the absence of having AAS classes at Vassar that were formally offered. I was really inspired by a lot of the student efforts that were made in the years leading up to this position.

You have several areas of research, including Asian American Studies, urban history, and women of color feminisms. Have you always been interested in teaching Asian American Studies specifically? 

I’ve seen these fields as interconnected, so looking at Asian American communities particularly in urban areas and how they’ve contributed to those cities, [as well as] understanding how Asian American women have contributed to feminist movements alongside other women of color. So I really kind of see these as interconnected. I was really drawn to these various fields as an undergrad, thinking about my own experiences growing up in Brooklyn and about the forms of housing and educational segregation that still existed. Being able to take these classes in AAS and Urban Studies and Women’s Studies [helped me] to think about my own experiences and to be able to name these things that I had grown up with. I think I’ve always had that kind of focus on AAS, but these other fields I see as kind of intersecting with AAS. 

Do you want to incorporate those other fields into the classes you teach?

Definitely. Next semester I’m going to be teaching a course on Chinatowns, so that will be kind of the intersection of urban history, Urban Studies and AAS—understanding the history of Chinatowns as emerging from the era of immigrant exclusion in the late 19th century and how immigrants founded these neighborhoods out of this desire for a safe haven from racial violence. So [this course will be] tracing that history all the way up to the present and some of the current struggles over things like gentrification or labor. 

This semester you are teaching Intro to Asian American studies; what other types of classes are you hoping to teach at Vassar?

The classes I’m going to be teaching next semester are the Chinatowns class and a class on Asian American Archives. That’s in part inspired by the students’ efforts to document all of the struggles for AAS here at Vassar. They’ve been collecting a lot of the documents that have been produced from the past couple of years, but also previous efforts from the 2000s and earlier to push for these kinds of classes. I’m also working with a couple of public history projects, one that focuses on Asian American experiences of the pandemic, and I want students to be able to contribute to that, and also an archiving project that’s partnering with an organization in New York City that organizes low-income Asian immigrants and refugees. So [the focus is] getting students to really engage in the practice of archiving Asian American history.

There is a long history of the fight for Asian American Studies at Vassar. Are you excited to be teaching a discipline that many Vassar students have fought long and hard for?

It is really exciting. I think it’s also in a lot of ways humbling, to know that students have been pushing for this current class, the Intro to AAS class, for years now. I think in some ways it kind of feels like things are finally coming together for students and that they finally had this victory. It feels like a lot of pressure in some ways to meet these expectations of students who have been pushing for this for years, but at the same time, I think it’s a really exciting moment to actually have this class be offered, even in the midst of the current conditions we have to teach and learn in.

What is it like being a new professor during COVID-19?

It’s really difficult because I, of course, was imagining teaching this class in person, and a lot of the students who are in the class now have decided not to come back to campus, so it is all online. So it’s been kind of a learning curve to really adapt a syllabus I would otherwise have taught differently in different circumstances from this semester. I miss seeing students in person and being able to have those face-to-face interactions, but at the same time know that we’re trying to prioritize safety and access.

What do you hope to see for the future of Asian American Studies at Vassar specifically or at other primarily white institutions like Vassar more generally?

I think one of the things about student activism is that it often kind of comes and goes with students graduating, and one of the things I’m hoping is that the students maintain this kind of momentum because I am in a temporary position. I know that the school is actually hiring for a tenure-track position, but making sure that students really kind of maintain this momentum and investment in AAS at Vassar [is important]. 

With everything that’s going on right now—the president calling the coronavirus the China virus, and the rise of anti-Asian violence over the past several months. and all of these protests against police brutality and for racial justice—these issues of race aren’t really going away. It’s important to make sure that students actually have the space to continue to learn about our history and think about the context in which all these things that are happening now are occurring. I’m hoping for one day that Ethnic Studies or AAS is not necessary, but it’s clear that in the present moment these things are not going away.

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