- Bridging the Gap
There was a reference to a "Eric Michael Dyson" in the original version of this article which should have read "Michael Eric Dyson". The online version has been corrected.
As someone with one foot in academia and the other in journalism, I’ve held mixed feelings toward Timothy Yu’s “Has Asian American Studies Failed?” missive since first reading it last December. Yu seems primarily focused on the perceived distance between academia and mainstream public/media discourse. To the extent that I straddle both worlds, I would certainly agree that gap exists. However, where I depart from Yu is over what this implies, as well as how to address it.
For example, Yu argues that a more “successful” Asian American studies could have stymied “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua’s fifteen minutes of fame or prevented New York Times art critic Edward Rothstein from writing his bizarrely ahistorical [End Page 334] revisionism of Japanese American internment. However, the rigor and reach of any scholarly discipline do not guarantee the ability to “control the message,” least of all outside of the academy. Just ask climatologists or evolutionary biologists.
Yu also notes that Asian American studies lacks equivalent figures to, for example, African American studies scholar/pundits such as Cornel West, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Michael Eric Dyson. This difference may also be true, but I question how the discipline of Asian American studies ultimately benefits from encouraging more of our scholars to pursue professional punditry. Such visibility would primarily empower a professional intellectual class without necessarily translating into success for the discipline and its goals.
More importantly, a focus on professional intellectuals undersells the role already played by Asian American organic intellectuals, regardless if they enjoy the imprimatur of an academic title or not. To his credit, Yu recognizes a few of these: author/activist Helen Zia, columnist Jeff Yang, blogger Phil “Angry Asian Man” Yu. He could also have mentioned everyone from Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop author Jeff Chang, to pianist Vijay Iyer, to Disgrasian.com bloggers Jen Wang and Diana Nguyen, to civil rights organizers Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, to actor-turned-social-media-maven George Takei. In short, there is already a wealth of Asian Americans who prominently and intelligently participate in public discourse on community issues. In fact, it was many of these same people who led the critiques against Rothstein and Chua when those stories broke.
So what exactly is the problem? As it relates to Yu’s original concern, increasing the numbers of Asian American professional intellectuals would hardly have prevented such acts of ignorance and media obsessions as we’ve seen this past year. Besides Rothstein, someone at the New York Times green-lit Rothstein’s review and/or was responsible for editing it, despite his questionable historical claims. Some acquisitions executive at Penguin Press decided that Chua’s book pitch had merit, and, later, a host of managers at the Wall Street Journal had to agree to run and promote an excerpt from it.
If any of those individuals had a better understanding of Asian American issues, perhaps they would have given more pause as to the merits of each respective endeavor. The fact that they seemed to lack such knowledge isn’t a failure of the discipline for not making its research more publicly engaged. Such a lack exists because Asian American history and community issues remain at the periphery of mainstream media and educational institutions.13 Bridging that gap requires Asian American studies to continue to pursue what has been a core aim since its inception: to inform and educate people, even if that means one student at a time.
Yu writes, “We can’t expect every college graduate to have taken a course in Asian American studies.” If the goal is bridging our work to media institutions, [End Page 335] we don’t need to reach “every” college student. Asian American studies programs could, for example, forge partnerships with journalism schools on their own campuses to create classes or lectures on “race and reporting.” Historically, most j-schools have lacked these kinds of opportunities for their students to gain more...