The Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an interdisciplinary program that focuses on the scholarship and experiences of Americans, Pacific Islanders, and immigrants to the United States from Asian heritage groups. The program sheds light on Asian American experiences and concerns, both historically and in contemporary society.
“What we are doing in the Asian American Studies Program, in addition to doing education on campus, is we’re trying to develop the fields of study, as well,” says Lynet Uttal, director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “So there will be Asian American literature [and] we’ve had a visiting assistant professor to teach about Hmong American issues on campus for four years now. Also, we’ve just been approved to hire a permanent professor who specializes in Hmong American studies.”
The Asian American Studies Program (also called “Asian Am”) is a very active interdisciplinary program devoted to the teaching, research, and cultural activities of Americans of Asian ancestry. The program serves as a teaching and resource center not only for Asian Americans but for the university community as a whole.
In 1988, the Asian Coalition group of activists, community members, and university students, faculty, and staff wrote a proposal for the creation of an Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1991, a director — Amy Ling — was hired, and the first Asian American Studies Program in the Midwest had begun.
“I think what’s different about Asian American studies — what attracted me to it — is that it’s not just a disciplinary department where it’s an area of studies but it’s also a place where people come to look for a better understanding about their own identity, or, they come to understand another culture,” says Uttal in an interview with The Madison Times at Jade Mountain Café, a Taiwanese coffee and tea shop on Madison’s near east side. “For example, there are a lot of white students who are going out with an Asian American man or woman and they want to understand that person better.”
Uttal started her position as director in January of 2008. She will be wrapping up her last year this year and passing her duties on to a new director. On top of being the director of Asian Am, Uttal is a professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies and is also joint governance faculty in Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Program and Department of Gender & Women’s Studies.
“The Asian American Studies Program is not a department; it’s a program — which means we’re still very small,” Uttal says. “We offer courses so that people can get a certificate in Asian American studies. We also work with student groups so the students can put on events in collaboration with the program.”
The Certificate in Asian American Studies provides students with an opportunity to develop a sustained intellectual focus on Asian American racial formation, communities, and culture. The program also serves as a teaching and resource center not only for Asian Americans but for the university and Madison community as a whole.
Asian Am seeks to educate the university community on Asian American issues in a variety of ways. It offers an array of courses devoted to the historical, political, literary, sociological, psychological, and educational concerns of Asian Americans. To supplement coursework and to introduce the community to the creative achievements of Asian Americans, the program also sponsors many events from film and video festivals to lectures and readings by both emerging and prominent Asian American writers and scholars to conference on Hmong issues. They also sponsor individual speakers who come in and speak on, for example, Filipino poetry or Asian American spirituality and also sponsor "Asian American Heritage Week on the UW-Madison Campus."
“A lot of the student groups are into identity issues where they are asking what it means to be Asian American,” Uttal says. “That seems to be a question that keeps coming up for the last 30 years as if we never quite resolved it.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans comprise about 5 percent of the United States population. Asian Americans are our third-largest minority population in the United States census behind Blacks and Latinos. And on many of the big U.S. college campuses — like the University of Wisconsin-Madison — they are often not as visible and vocal as those other groups. That’s one of the reasons that the Asian American Studies Program is so important.
“We’re kind of invisible,” Uttal says. “There are some wonderful individuals who are Asian Americans who act from both the identity as Asian Americans and also as individuals. We just don’t have a set of Asian American issues in Dane County like we have African American issues or Latino issues.
“In Dane County, you have Hmong Americans, east Asian Americans like Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Korean Americans. There are Indian[-Americans]. Some are international students who come to Madison or the Hmong from all over Wisconsin,” adds Uttal, who herself has a mixed racial, cultural and national background. She has a Japanese American mother and a Russian-American Jewish father. “But if you look at Asian Americans there is nothing that pulls us together as a monolithic group other than, literally, race. We don’t have a common language like Spanish. We come from backgrounds where our national heritages — Korea, China, Japan —hated each other. We were killing each other. So, we don’t have a historical connection.”
There is a bit of a cultural connection based upon Eastern spiritual principles, but there doesn’t exist that unification, brotherhood, and camaraderie that results from generations of struggle that you might see in the Latino and Black communities in the United States.
“If you are a Latino in the community and you see another Latino professional, I think you feel a connection — that you’re on a team together,” Uttal says. “In contrast, if you are Asian American, you don’t necessarily walk down State Street and see another Asian American student and give him a high-five and say, ‘Hey, we’re connected! There’s more of an individual existence.’”
That’s part of the reason that Uttal considers the process of operations for the Asian American Studies Program like the many petals of a flower. Instead of always dictating top-down what Asian Am will do and who it will serve, the program will listen to input and feedback from the students. Asian Am students are coming from all different angles and there isn’t just one common vision.
“You bring to this program what you’re interested in,” Uttal says. “So, if you’re interested in developing an introduction to Asian American Studies course that would serve the ethnic requirement for science students because you recognize that a lot of the science students are Asian American or going to be working with Asian Americans in the future … you want them to take an introduction to Asian Am studies to fulfill their ethnic requirements.
“Our style of operation really rests on people choosing what petal they want to put on the flower and then following through on that,” she adds.
Courses on Asian Americans at the University of Wisconsin enhance connection, civility, and civic engagement. “The whole university feeds the Asian American population because of the strong STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] sciences here,” Uttal says. “There are a lot of Asian American students and Asian American international professors that are working in those fields more so than like the humanities or the social sciences.”
Although Asian American Studies focus on the American experience, students may greatly benefit from courses in the language and cultures of Asian countries from which Asian Americans have come. The UW-Madison has a large number of Asian area programs and departments, including the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, the East Asian Legal Studies Center, Center for East Asian Studies, the Center for South Asia, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Asia.
There are local Asian organizations that are strong in the community — the Wisconsin Organization of Asian Americans and the Hmong Education Council. “There are some great resources here in Madison,” Uttal says. “Our student groups come to the program looking for support and we find ways to help them. Anybody who is doing anything connected with Asian American Studies — whether it is history, literature, communication arts — we want our students to know about them.”
As Asian Am continues to grow and Uttal finishes up her time as director, she has many goals for the program.
“We just got approved for this faculty, tenure track-line hire for Hmong American Studies…. It’s probably the first one in the United States,” she says. “UW-Madison is really putting itself on the map for Hmong American studies. Last year, we had an institute where we brought 30 scholars from around the United States to come and participate in a think tank on what is Hmong American studies. We also recently hired a person in geography who has a partial specialization in Hmong international studies so Hmong studies is very much a national/international field. So, one of our goals is to definitely [to] develop the field of Hmong studies.”
Of course, an overall goal will always be for the Asian American Studies Program to become a department.
“By becoming a department that means we can hire and tenure people in Asian American studies,” Uttal says. “For example, we were approved for this faculty line in Asian American Studies, but [right now] we have to find a partner to partner with to provide the tenure process. This means that we don’t get to choose whoever we want…. We have to choose based upon another department being interested in having somebody who is specializing in Hmong American studies. There are a lot of departments on campus who want to do that; so we won’t have a hard time finding a partner, but it means that we have to continue to create partnerships and have less control over who gets hired. So becoming a department is one of our goals.”
For more information about the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, please visit http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/aasp/people/index.html