As American as ethnic studies

A suggested merger between two departments at UC-Berkeley has partisans on both sides marking their territory.


Joan Walsh
September 28, 1998 1:12PM (UTC)

Almost 30 years after a bitter student strike led the University of California at Berkeley to create one of the nation's first ethnic studies departments, the department's chair is proposing what seems like heresy to some: merging ethnic studies with the increasingly popular discipline of American studies.

"I see it as a way to redefine not just American studies, but what it means to be American," says Professor Ling-chi Wang, ethnic studies chair and a department co-founder.

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It's also a way to redefine ethnic studies, which is struggling with challenges from within the university and without. The number of ethnic studies majors at Berkeley has been declining steadily since the early 1990s, from a peak of about 400 to less than 200 today. At the same time, the discipline has drawn the fire of anti-affirmative action regent Ward Connerly, who recently asked for an examination of ethnic studies departments, which he described as a bastion of self-imposed isolation for students of color.

Wang's proposal, which he made last spring, has nothing to do with Connerly's attack. Its result would be a new department of American studies with five "concentrations" -- African-American studies, Native American studies, Chicano studies, Asian-American studies and comparative ethnic studies -- along with the existing group major in American studies. Wang describes it as a way to transform American studies, by making race and ethnicity central to the question of American identity. But he admits it's also a way to stabilize his struggling department, which has partly been a victim of its own success. He traces some of the department's troubles to 1989, when ethnic studies proponents and others succeeded in getting Berkeley to require undergraduates to take a course in "American cultures," comparing at least two different ethnic groups and their American experience.

But where similar requirements imposed around the country mandated the study of non-European cultures and therefore benefited ethnic studies departments, Berkeley's requirement had two novel twists: It included "European-Americans" among the ethnic groups that might be studied and allowed required courses to be taught in any department, not just ethnic studies.

Since then, more than 300 American cultures courses have been offered in 40 departments. "Today you can study Asian-American literature in the English department, not just Asian-American studies," Wang notes approvingly. "Ethnic studies created the scholarship that allowed these courses to be taught elsewhere." But the innovative requirement has also allowed students to indulge their curiosity about issues of race and ethnicity outside of ethnic studies. Since the early 1990s the number of majors has declined significantly, and so has the number of students taking courses in the department -- with the exception of courses tailored to meet the American cultures requirement.

"We used to turn away 1,000 students a semester," Wang says, explaining that the decline in majors, combined with the heavy reliance on American cultures enrollment, means the department is offering fewer upper-division courses -- leading to a further decline in majors. "You don't develop a field if you don't have students enrolling in upper-division courses," he adds.

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Meanwhile, the small, interdisciplinary American studies program -- which is not a department, has no full-time faculty and offers a curriculum based mostly on courses cross-listed in other departments -- has grown to more than 300 majors in just four years. Much of its popularity derives from its flexibility, which lets students tailor individualized majors from a broad list of approved courses.

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A merger between ethnic studies and American studies "will make Berkeley's American studies department instantly the largest, the most diverse and hopefully the best, in terms of faculty and curriculum, in the United States," says Wang.

But American studies proponents have been remarkably cool to Wang's idea. The proposal to merge ethnic studies with American studies is a little like the United States proposing to "merge" with Haiti -- some fear that with 18 full-time faculty positions and a 29-year history, ethnic studies could overwhelm the fledgling program. Outgoing American studies program director Kathy Moran was reluctant to discuss Wang's proposal, saying only, "We don't want a fight about this. We're looking for ways to accommodate one another. But we're a tiny group major, and they're a department. People don't want to be taken over."

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The new head of the American studies program, Donald McQuade, declined to comment on the proposal, as did the dean of interdisciplinary studies, Carolyn Porter. "It's enormously contentious," was all Porter would say. But Pedro Noguera, an education department professor who also teaches American studies and ethnic studies courses, supports Wang's proposal. "To continue to position ethnic studies at the margins of the university is a mistake," he says. "And I think American studies has some responsibility to ethnic studies, which provides a lot of courses that American studies majors take. You could say ethnic studies is doing the teaching, while American studies is getting the majors. I think they have to care about the health of ethnic studies."

But the emphasis on getting approval from American studies professors may be premature. Wang does not yet have full support from his own department, or from African-American studies, which is technically independent of ethnic studies but would join American studies in the new proposal. Percy Hintzen, chair of African-American studies, supports Wang's proposal, but he notes that many of his faculty colleagues have reservations.

"I think the proposal recognizes that the question of difference is central to the study of America," Hintzen says. "But to tell African-Americans, who have had the role as spokespersons for the study of difference, and who have been the premier department in ethnic studies, that they must give up this role and integrate, well, you can imagine the concern."

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Indeed, Barbara Christian, a respected figure in African-American studies nationally, expresses skepticism about the proposal. "I laud the idea of redefining America, and American studies, but I think there needs to be a lot more discussion. The symbolism of not having an ethnic studies department, or an African-American studies department, could be really profound. And would we really have the autonomy to do the work we want?"

Ethnic studies students are concerned as well. "There's not necessarily opposition, but there are a lot of questions," says Caroline Streeter, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in ethnic studies at Berkeley, in the nation's only Ph.D. program in ethnic studies.

"We've suffered a lot of political losses, with the passage of Proposition 209 [repealing affirmative action in California] and the declining number of black and Latino students here," Streeter says. "That makes it problematic to give up our profile and our autonomy." Streeter also describes ethnic studies as a "haven" for students and faculty of color in a university that still suffers from "institutional racism."

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But Noguera thinks the "haven" defense isn't a strong one if the goal is to change the way issues of American identity, culture and race are taught university-wide. "You can't argue against exclusion and then lament what comes of inclusion. We've succeeded in getting departments to deal with race and ethnicity in a way they never did before. What would it say about the role of ethnic minorities in America to continue to insist that ethnic studies be separate from American studies? The symbolism is very disturbing."

Graduate students have asked to be included in future discussions about Wang's proposal. Wang welcomes the debate. "I'm moving very slowly. I think there needs to be a lot of participation and discussion. I feel the burden of 30 years of ethnic studies on my shoulders.

"But I don't want to preside over the death of ethnic studies, and I truly believe without a serious change, ethnic studies will die within the decade."


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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