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Stanford scholars enjoy resurgent interest in Asian- Am studies
STANFORD -- When Gordon Chang started graduate work at Stanford University a decade ago, he hardly would have guessed that a degree in Asian-American studies would become one of the hottest academic tickets of the 1990s.
"I entered in 1982 thinking about doing work in Asian- American history, but after looking around at the job market, I switched my emphasis to U.S.-Asia diplomatic relations," said Chang, now an assistant professor of history at Stanford. "The job prospects were just not that strong."
Today, Asian-American students make up more than 18 percent of undergraduates at Stanford (24 percent of this year's freshman class), and even more at state schools like the University of California at Berkeley, where 29 percent of the undergrads are Asian-American.
Those numbers, plus the heightened emphasis on multicultural education at universities throughout the country, have led to a great demand for scholars in Asian-American studies.
"Nationally, if one went through and counted up all the positions that are being offered, there are probably maybe 15 to 20 openings in Asian-American history, sociology and literature," Chang said. "UCLA alone is now looking for something like six positions. This is one area that's really booming for scholars."
Chang was wooed back to Stanford in January from the University of California at Irvine, and David Palumbo-Liu, an assistant professor of comparative literature, came to Stanford last fall from Georgetown University.
In addition to teaching and research, the scholars are using a $15,000 grant from the Irvine Foundation to plan new courses in Asian- American studies, including a two-quarter introductory and interdisciplinary course to begin in the fall of 1992.
Chang, a fourth-generation Chinese-American from Oakland, Calif., became interested in Asian-American history in the late 1960s as an undergraduate at Princeton. There, he was one of only five Asian- American students in his class.
"Asian-American studies grew with the whole rise of other ethnic studies programs in the 1960s," Chang said.
"The famous student strike at San Francisco State in 1968 led to the establishment of Asian-American studies there; that was followed by a strike at UC-Berkeley for similar demands. Then, from around the mid-'70s to the early '80s, there was a period of downturn, and programs around the country were struggling."
As a graduate student at Stanford studying Chinese history in 1970-71, Chang was asked to teach Stanford's first informal course on Asian-American history, through the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues program.
He stopped out of Stanford in 1972 and spent the next 10 years teaching Asian-American history at Laney College in downtown Oakland.
In 1982, he returned to Stanford to complete his doctoral work in U.S.-Asia relations. He then spent two years as a researcher at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control. Throughout those years, Chang continued to teach Asian-American history through the workshop program and the Department of History.
Seeking a tenure track position, Chang decided to leave Stanford in 1989 for the University of California-Irvine. His departure was of major concern to Stanford Asian-American students and others, who barricaded themselves in President Kennedy's office for eight hours in May 1989.
Now that he's back at Stanford, Chang is seeking to meet the growing demand for material relevant to the Asian-American condition.
This spring, he is teaching an advanced colloquium for upper- division students called "Research into Asian-American History."
Next fall, he will teach the department's first regular course on Asian-American history, an introductory series of lectures that will look at the context of Asian-American immigration, the work of Asian- Americans on the railroads, in mining, fishing and agriculture; the establishment of Asian-American communities; and the Asian-American experience in World War II and the Cold War.
Among his research projects are a biographical study of Cal Tech scientist Xueshen Qian, "a less well-known Asian-American Oppenheimer" who was harassed for alleged communist sympathies in the 1950s, and a history of Asian-American faculty, staff and students at Stanford.
Palumbo-Liu received his doctorate in 1988 from the University of California-Berkeley, where he studied classical Chinese and taught in the Asian-American studies program. After graduation, he spent two years on the English Department faculty at Georgetown University.
Palumbo-Liu specializes in classical Chinese poetry and poetics, literary criticism and theories of literature, East/West poetics, and Asian-American ethnicity, culture and ideology.
His courses this year at Stanford have included readings in the Asian-American novel (including works by Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan), East/West comparative literature, and Asian-American short stories and drama.
Each course has drawn about 20 students, the majority of whom are Asian-American.
"I think that students take the courses for both intellectual and personal reasons," Palumbo-Liu said. "A lot of Asian-Americans have questions about themselves and where they fit in. This is one way for them to see the more obvious relevance of the humanities curriculum to their own lives."
Both Palumbo-Liu and Chang agree that the biggest challenge in teaching Asian-American studies is the diversity of nationalities and experiences the field encompasses.
"Generally, as a term, Asian-American has come into popular use -- as a census category it's been accepted," said Chang. "But Asian- American can mean anyone from Asia, from Pakistan to Okinawa, so it's difficult to talk about that variety of people as one group."
Chang and Palumbo-Liu are being aided in course development by a group of about 12 faculty and staff who have personal or scholarly interest in Asian-American studies. The group meets regularly to discuss readings and exchange ideas.
In addition to their classroom teaching and research, Chang and Palumbo-Liu act as mentors to many Asian-American students on campus and are frequent speakers at the Asian-American Activities Center, the East Asian Studies theme house, and the Asian-American theme house, Okada.
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