The History of Asian Studies at Vassar College
by Martha Kaplan, Professor of Anthropology with research by Kwang Yeon Lee '10 and Adhira Mangalagiri '11
Founded in 1965, but shaping its current direction in the past decade, Vassar's Asian Studies Program offers contemporary, multi-disciplinary study of Asia in a complex interconnected, world. Students focus comparatively on East Asia, South Asia or Southeast Asia, with growing opportunities to study West Asia and the Asian diaspora including Asian America. Attuned to critical scholarship on interpretation, postcolonialism and globalization, the Asian Studies Program opens the Vassar curriculum to the world area that includes three fifths of humanity in a dynamic array of cultural and political histories. Because the field is so large and diverse, the program has always been known for its strong, individualized faculty advising. As one of Vassar's first multidisciplinary programs, the program began in 1965 with six core participating faculty. In the 1990s Vassar made a commitment to developing the Asia curriculum. In the 2000s this commitment and a series of major grants, has increased the participating faculty to twenty-two. The program's twin goals are to provide a rich curriculum for students who wish to focus on Asia and to infuse the study of Asia throughout Vassar's curriculum. The Asian Studies Program's history offers a window into changes in the American and international academy, changes at Vassar, and changes in world relationships.
Founded in 1965, but shaping its current direction in the past decade, Vassar's Asian Studies Program offers contemporary, multi-disciplinary study of Asia in a complex, interconnected, world. Twenty-two faculty from twelve departments offer courses on Asia in global context. Students focus comparatively on East Asia, South Asia or Southeast Asia, with growing opportunities to study West Asia and the Asian diaspora including Asian America. Attuned to critical scholarship on interpretation, postcolonialism and globalization, the Asian Studies Program opens the Vassar curriculum to the world area that includes three fifths of humanity in a dynamic array of cultural and political histories. Because the field is so large and diverse, the Program has always been known for its strong, individualized faculty advising. One of Vassar's first multidisciplinary programs, the Asian Studies Program's history offers a window into changes in the American and international academy, changes at Vassar, and changes in world relationships.
Studying Asia takes place in a complex intellectual history. Eighteenth and nineteenth century western scholars of Asia were known as Orientalists. Literary critic Edward Said (1975) argued that they portrayed an ancient, passive, exotic and voiceless other. Following World War II, in the cold war era, the American academy took an "Area Studies" approach, dividing the world into a modern, free, capitalist first world, a communist second world, and a developing third world, with Asian societies largely assigned to second and third world. Like "orientalism," the "modernization theory" of Area Studies has also been importantly critiqued, as world history shows that all nations are not proceeding on a single pathway toward a western ideal. Current scholarship in the field of Asian Studies is mindful of this past, asking new questions that go beyond east-west oppositions and do not locate modernity, capitalism, or complexity in any single part of the globe.
Before 1965 there was little sustained attention to Asia in Vassar's curriculum. Vassar faculty and students occasionally engaged Asia, in ways that sometimes mirrored, but sometimes challenged, orientalist and modernization theory approaches. History student Sophia Chen Zen '19 returned to China to write what some scholars have called the first modern Chinese short story. (The Asian Studies Program awards an annual thesis prize established in her honor.) Ruth Benedict '09, did not major in Asian studies or anthropology at Vassar, but as a founder of twentieth century American anthropology she became a scholar of Japan and proposed a post-World War II order that would aim to make the world safe for cultural difference. Curious about the world and how to change it, some Vassar students joined international NGOs like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Vassar's Centennial celebrations included women leaders from independent Asian nation-states including Korea, India, and Pakistan [see photo].
The Asian Studies Program was founded in 1965, spearheaded by history professor Johanna Meskill, a scholar of Chinese kinship and social history. Then known as the "East Asian Studies Program." it began as a "minor" and by 1970 offered a major. Some early faculty participants were stirred by debates over American cold war foreign policy in the Vietnam war era, and felt that American students and the Vassar curriculum needed to take Asia seriously. For others, World War II was formative for interest in Asia. Others drew their vision of Asian Studies from the orientalist tradition. Though named the East Asian Studies Program, from its beginning the Program included focus on East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, with courses taught by faculty scholars of China, Indonesia, Japan, and Vietnam, from the departments of history, religion and political science.
Following Johanna Meskill's departure to New York University in 1969, the Program was led for many years by Donald Gillen a historian of China (Chair/Director 1969-1989) and by Walter Fairservis (Director 1990-1993). The mission of the Program in this period was a curriculum imparting "the distinctive achievements of the peoples of Asia, their art, religion and thought, and their basic systems of social, economic and political organization, examining both traditional societies and transformation in recent times"(Catalogs 1968-1993). By 1971 the catalog also noted that "Although the principal focus will be on China, considerable attention will also be given to India and Southeast Asia" and in 1985 the name of the program was changed to the more accurate "Asian Studies Program" reflecting the program's curricular offerings in South Asia and Southeast Asia as well as East Asia. Because of Cold War restrictions, students on junior year abroad study largely went to Taiwan, Japan and India. A senior thesis requirement was added in 1981. Two introductory sequences were initiated in 1982 "Asia 107-108 "Introduction to Asian Civilizations: The Great Traditions" and "Introduction to Asian Civilizations: Modern Times."
The six core faculty participants in the Program in this period included historian Gillen and ethnohistorian-archaeologist Fairservis. Professor Yin-lien Chin developed the program in Chinese language, housed in the Asian Studies program until 2003. Students remember her as a tireless mentor, and also as a brilliant ping pong player. She was instrumental in the inclusion of Vassar students in a study program in Beijing when US-China formal diplomatic relations were established in 1979. Another affectionately remembered teacher, Tomiko Morimoto West, joined the program in 1986 to teach Japanese language courses, previously offered under the "critical languages" self study program. Student interest in Japanese language studies grew further during the era of Japan's rise to economic prominence. Political scientists Frederick Bunnell and Glen Johnson offered key courses on colonial and post-colonial contemporary politics of Asia, which served students in Asian Studies and International studies.
For many who recollect the Program in this period from 1968-1990, the larger than life figure of Walter Fairservis, whose nickname was "Indiana," is an example of the attractions and also the limits of an orientalist approach. Glen Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Political Science recollects that Fairservis would lecture on "precolonial" India, and Johnson on the colonial and independence eras, and they would have a lively debate, in which Fairservis irascibly insisted on the merits of the British colonialism. Insu Fenkl VC ' 9x remembers that many students were captivated by Prof. Fairservis who was legendary figure at Vassar for his expansive knowledge of Asian texts in multiple languages and his vibrant and energetic lectures. Perhaps most important to students of the time, he drew attention to Asia, as a place of world historic importance, a place worthy of a larger place in the Vassar curriculum. The 1990s, however, were to begin an efflorescence of new faculty and new curricular goals drawing from emerging trends in the field and reflecting global political and social transformations.
In the 1990s Vassar made a commitment to develop the study of Asia at Vassar through thoughtful and sustained hiring of Asia-specialist faculty in multiple departments, with attention to new trends in the field. From 1993-1995, directorship by Mary McGee, Assistant Professor of Religion, a scholar of India, gender and Hinduism, set a lively, student-centered approach to the program. The mission of the program in this period was a curriculum offering a multidisciplinary approach to Asia. Junior year study in Asia was strongly recommended. While majors were to focus on a particular area of Asia in depth, they were also to achieve comparative regional breadth. Students were also to achieve theoretical or methodological sophistication in two disciplines. The introductory course was updated in name and focus from "Introduction to Asian Civilizations" to "Introduction to Asian Studies". The new title removed the implication of ranking of societies implicit in "civilization" and also reflected the goal of introducing theoretical and interpretive as well as empirical issues. A required senior seminar engaging pan-Asian material and advanced theoretical issues in the field was added to the major requirements (Catalog 1993-94 on). Mary McGee and several other faculty who were at Vassar only briefly in the 1990s contributed to these new directions in the program, including Nancy Park, a historian of China, Carolyn Cartier a geographer of China, and Insu Fenkl, who taught on Korean folklore. Robert Brown (Classsics) and David Kennett (Economics) also participated in the program in the mid 1990s. In 1992 Hindi was introduced in the Self Instructional Language Program, and in 1993 Korean language was first offered.
Following Mary McGee's departure to Columbia University, and a year's directorship by political scientist Frederick Bunnell (1995-96), Professor of Philosophy Jesse Kalin led the program from 1996-1999. A former Vassar associate Dean, with an interest in Japanese film, Professor Kalin mentored junior faculty, especially faculty teaching Chinese and Japanese language. A prize in his honor for student accomplishment in Japanese language and culture studies is awarded yearly. Vassar had its first courses with study trips to Asian destinations in the 1990s: in 1995 to Indonesia (led by Fred Bunnell), in 1996 to Vietnam (led by Robert Brigham) and in 2000 to India (led by E.H.Rick Jarow). By the end of the 1990s, Vassar's new faculty and a post-Cold War, increasingly globally aware framework of world relationships would enable significant expansion of Vassar's Asia curriculum. This expansion would include the establishment of a separate department of Chinese and Japanese language and literature in 2003 and the rapid growth of the Asian Studies program offerings to enhance multi-disciplinary study of Asia.
In the 2000's, the program expanded from twelve faculty to its current twenty-two. Faculty who joined the program since 1990 have set the direction of the program as we currently know it: Joining in 1991 Martha Kaplan (Anthropology), Anne Parries (Chinese); in 1992 Anne Pike-Tay (Anthropology); in 1994 Wenwei Du (Chinese), Peipei Qiu (Japanese), Andrew Watsky (Art 1994-2008); in 1995 Seungsook Moon ( Sociology), Sonoko Sakakibara (Japanese 1995-2002), Bryan Van Norden (Philosophy), Yu Zhou (Geography); in 1996 E.H. Rick Jarrow (Religion),; in 1998 Jin Jiang (History 1998-2004); In 2000 Himadeep Muppidi (Political Science ; in 2001 Tomo Hattori (English 2001-2006), Michael Walsh (Religion); in 2002 Yuko Matsubara (Japanese); in 2003 Chris Bjork (Education,) Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase (Japanese), Haoming Liu (Chinese); in 2005 Hiraku Shimoda (Asian Studies graduate VC'95, History); in 2006 Fubing Su (Political Science); in 2008 Andrew Davison (Political Science), Sophia Siddique Harvey (Film); in 2010 Hua Hsu (English), Julie Hughes (History) Karen Hwang (Art History). In 2000 the program moved from Avery to Sanders Classroom building, and then in 2003 to its congenial setting with other multi-disciplinary programs in New England Building. Recent Directors were anthropologist Martha Kaplan (2000-2003), geographer Yu Zhou 2003-2006, and sociologist Seungsook Moon 2006-2009.
In this period we defined our current twin goals of offering a major for students who want to specialize in the multidisciplinary study of Asia and also diffusing the study of Asia throughout the curriculum so that all students will encounter Asia as they study at Vassar. The current mission of the program is to "promote a global understanding of Asia that recognizes interactions between Asian societies and relationships between Asia and the rest of the world that cross and permeate national boundaries" (Catalog 2011). In 2004 the program reconceptualized our introductory offerings: students now make a choice of two from a wide set of offerings. In this period program the program has strengthened offerings on South Asia and has worked to develop new offerings on Korea, and on Southeast Asian and West Asian areas. Curricular innovations include addition of a correlate sequence in Asian Studies in 2005, and in 2010, a new correlate sequence in Transnational Asian American Studies. Developed in response to long term student interest, increased interest in transnationalism and interconnection in the field of Asian Studies, and increased Vassar course offerings, this correlate provides a long awaited structured focus for students interested in the Asian American experience in the context of wider Asian diaspora studies. Since 2000 the Programs's overall yearly offerings (also including cross-listed and approved courses and not including language courses) have grown to average forty per year. This rich curriculum is possible because the program cross-lists and shares teaching resources with a dozen departments. While the number of Asian Studies senior majors has varied over the years from two to fourteen, the number of students enrolled in courses taught by an Asia specialist who participates in the program has increased steadily every year. Over a thousand Vassar students each year now encounter Asia in a Vassar course taught by an Asian Studies Program participating faculty member.
The vitality of multidisciplinary Asian Studies at Vassar was recognized by major grants totaling over a million dollars to the college, from the Freeman Foundation in 2002, the Luce Foundation in 2003, and (with History and Environmental Studies) the Mellon Foundation in 2009. These grants added scholars of East Asian Political Science, Chinese Literature, and South Asian Environmental History to the faculty, enriching the curriculums of both departments and the program. Faculty developed five new courses with study trips led by participating faculty to China in 2002 and 2005 focusing on silk road interconnections, Korea in 2003 focusing on social change, Japan in 2004 focusing on visual culture, and faculty study trips to China, Korea, Japan and Tibet. Grants funded Asia specialist bibliographers who made recommendations to improve Vassar collections. In the past three years Asian Studies graduating seniors received Watson, Fulbright and Hopkins-Nanjing fellowships. Laura Fletcher '09 commented:
"Another amazing part of the AS department is the faculty. What I loved most was the feeling of most individualized attention … Also, they help push you to go further into your goals that I have seen in other departments. The most obvious example of this I can come up with is how [my advisor] pushed me to apply for the Fulbright, which I ended up getting and now am in China for about 14 months. If she had not been watching out for me and what would help me further my goals as a cross-cultural psychologist, then I would have missed this amazing opportunity to study in China for a year."
Increasing global interconnection in the new millennium has brought new goals for educating Vassar students about Asia. In 2007 the program discussed its goals with optimism: "We recognize that many students come to Vassar with only minimal knowledge of Asia …We emphasize not only the mastery of a body of facts, but also critical thinking, comparative analysis and synthesis as other social science and humanities disciplines do. But by emphasizing specific societies or regions in Asia, we provide students with comparative skills to learn about and analyze different cultures and societies. This comparative knowledge and skills also facilitates the understanding of American society in its historical and contemporary relations to Asia. By gaining deep and broad knowledge about non-western regions, students become more sensitive and competent in dealing with cultural connections and differences. By being able to draw on specific intellectual traditions and empirical lessons from a wealth of societies Asian Studies contributes to a "well proportioned liberal education."