By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
One day in April, Nan Ma, a senior associate professor at Bellevue College (BC), found that the course she usually teaches, Introduction to Asian American Studies, was not listed for next year. Other ethnic studies courses were listed, however. So she and a colleague tried to get in touch with faculty leaders and administrators. Encountering difficulties, she submitted a petition. Eventually, she contacted OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle, formerly known as Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA-GS).
Last week, BC President Gary Locke said the delay in listing the course was based on a misunderstanding—it would be offered in the spring. The holdup, he said, was because the Cultural and Ethnic Studies Department was waiting to hire a new faculty member.
“Last year, we had the Asian American Studies course in the fall, but with the new hiring that we’re making, the new addition to the program, we thought that when we offer that course, it should be influenced by the new faculty member,” he told the Asian Weekly. “If that faculty member is an Asian American Pacific Islander, does that person want to teach it in the fall or does that person prefer to teach it in the winter or spring?”
Still, the advocacy of Ma and others reveals the unique character that those who teach and support ethnic studies believe their courses should have. It also highlights the challenges colleges and universities face balancing full-time and adjunct faculty.
Ethnic studies began in the late 1960s after the Civil Rights Movement. Supporters stormed academic offices and staged sit-ins and protests for new courses that were not Euro-centric.
The courses were not only meant to reflect the experiences of people of color, they were meant to challenge the traditional knowledge shared in classrooms, which advocates said kept in place oppressive structures both in the United States and abroad.
“The kinds of stories that are told and shared in an Asian American studies class and in ethnic studies classes in general…tell students, especially those who come from marginalized backgrounds, that their own stories, experiences, and voices matter,” said Ma. “I also want to point out that the stories are not only about suffering and victimization, they also show minority individuals and communities as resilient, creative, innovative, resourceful, abundant actors, and agents of change.”
To students enrolled in the course (it is currently being taught by another faculty member) and those who’d taken it before, news that it was not listed for next year was a shock.
Janet Ha Andrews, 33, the daughter of refugees that fled the Vietnam War, is pursuing a second degree at BC while managing a small online business.
She was upset and felt “compelled to speak up” when she heard the class was not listed.
“Anti-Asian violence and hatred has been a part of U.S. history since before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, from the violent expulsion of the Chinese in the 1885 Tacoma riots, the stolen independence of the Philippines in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II,” she wrote in an email.
“My outlook is that Asian Americans should not be fearful, instead we must learn and educate others on our history so we can never let these things happen again to anyone.”
The course also raised questions about race and identity for students from other backgrounds.
Ma and her colleague, Tony Vo, an adjunct faculty member, were concerned that the lack of visibility of the course would lead to fewer students signing up.
“We explained that the College has moved to an annual schedule and since registration begins on May 10, students were already looking at the schedules to make their academic plans for the year,” wrote Ma in a letter to the diversity caucus on May 19.
“While the intent may be that the class will be scheduled after the new hire comes in, we emphasized that the impact is racial as this class is connected to Asian American identity.”
One response she received underlined changes in the structure of academia over the past several decades. Even a quarter century ago, graduate students entering higher education still had a fair chance of achieving a tenure track position. Today, the majority of teaching positions across the nation are held by part-time faculty who in many cases live below poverty level or have to moonlight at multiple universities.
The response in question was from an administrator who told Ma that since she and her colleague were adjunct faculty, the department did not need to consult with them about scheduling decisions.
“This sentiment that we are adjunct faculty and therefore are not [cultural and ethnic studies] faculty and do not need to be consulted…and that the chair and the full-time faculty are the decision makers for the department…does not uphold the College’s commitment to inclusion and furthers the disparities between full-time and adjunct faculty.”
Ma and others contacted OCA-GS, and Connie So, the chapter’s president, wrote a letter to Locke on May 28.
OCA-GS was “dismayed” that the course seemed to be singled out for exclusion.
“We understand that while the offerings of African American Studies, Latinx Studies, and Indigenous Studies are maintained, only Asian American Studies has been eliminated,” she wrote. “We strongly support the maintenance of these important disciplines, but we resent the obvious attempt to employ colonial divide and conquer tactics to weaken us all.”
On June 1, Locke called her and assured the situation was being resolved and the course would be offered. So told the Asian Weekly that she encouraged Locke to offer two courses for each area of ethnic studies.
“OCA-GS adamantly believes that having more Ethnic Studies offerings is particularly important considering current events,” she said.
For his part, Locke said he had a “good conversation” with So.
“In fact, she pointed out that there are so many other of the community colleges in the region that don’t even offer an Asian American Studies course,” he said.
But Locke also conveyed a misunderstanding of what So had said, inaccurately stating that she had told him that the University of Washington doesn’t have an Asian American Studies course this coming fall.
So, seeing the statement in print, subsequently told the Asian Weekly that, “What I said to Gary during our conversation was that this would not happen at the UW. But that’s because we have a different type of student body and AAS is popular.”
“I don’t know why the misunderstanding occurred with Gary. We had a good conversation, but I would NEVER say that UW was not offering AAS for any quarter. That’s patently false,” she wrote the Asian Weekly.
“For the record, there seems to be a misunderstanding because Dr. Connie So is teaching AAS 395 in the Fall,” she added..
After the Asian Weekly reached out to her, in response to her concerns, So said that Asian American Studies has been offered every quarter at the UW for the past 30 plus years.
Upon being informed of the misunderstanding, Locke wrote to her, apologizing.
“My deepest apologies for misunderstanding you and inaccurately describing the situation at the UW. A correction is most definitely necessary,” he said. “Again, my apologies.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.