Who is ethnic studies for?

Opinion by Miguel Samano
Nov. 13, 2017, 3:00 a.m.

I’m taking an introductory science course right now. Much to my chagrin, I am reaffirming that I have no interest in studying science for a living. And I have been able to learn this because the class brings in speakers from across the sciences who are each modeling how people frame questions and communicate answers in their respective disciplines.

The WAYS requirements are working. I was pushed to step outside of my field, even if now what I want most is to turn around and run the other way, back to literature.

Now which way am I supposed to run when I dislike my introductory ethnic studies courses?

As I wrote in my last column, I think these courses do not consider literature in its proper light. This is partially because I wish more texts were discussed as if they were “Great Books,” but mostly because I want literature talked about as Literature, i.e. as literary critics would discuss it. I want to read studies employing the methodologies of my field — the whole gamut, ranging from close reading to “queering” the text to deconstruction and beyond — but instead, one or two studies are framed as representative of ethnic literary studies.

This is a problem. My cohort in the humanities lacks people interested in Chicanx literature, and I suspect this is part of the reason why. Literary studies, as a discipline and set of methodologies, is not being modeled in introductory ethnic studies classes. I imagine that the same holds true for the social sciences.

If ethnic studies truly were interdisciplinary, it would unsettle me and every other student regardless of discipline. Its promise is this: By juxtaposing a set of representative or foundational studies from various disciplines, ethnic studies reminds students of the hidden assumptions underlying the methods within any discipline.

Yet we are largely not being taught to be interdisciplinary thinkers. Ethnic studies has become extra-disciplinary. It has become a meeting space for many disciplines and a home to none.

Until ethnic studies can become a home — a lodging house where, say, literature and sociology, have each checked out a room — it should not be a department.

Ethnic studies has invited literature and other disciplines in, but it has left their baggage at the door. The baggage — histories of squabbling scholars, catalogs of all the times the discipline changed its collective mind, the meat-and-potatoes, back-to-the-basics take on a field — has been left outside the house of ethnic studies.

There is no literary criticism without context. There is no political science, sociology, anthropology or any other disciplinary approach without context either. But that is what packing these various disciplines into a single 10-week course proposes.

Instead of packing in material, why not curate? If the course structure cannot be helped, if we must take a couple of studies as representatives for a whole discipline, why not choose the right studies?

In the case of literature, say, Intro to Chicanx/Latinx Studies would have us reading excerpts from landmark works such as “Chicano Narrative,” “Chicano Poetry and “Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies.” (I leave it to those knowledgeable about the social sciences to draw the appropriate comparisons.)

The same would hold for other introductory ethnic studies courses. Why aren’t Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Houston Baker, Jr.  on the syllabus for Intro to African and African-American Studies?

Ethnic studies is not curating. To put the problem simply: Who is ethnic studies ‘“for”?

Ethnic studies courses are not “for” students planning on graduate school. They are not “for” me. Last year I wavered between taking Intro to Chicanx/Latinx Studies or an introductory comparative literature course. I ultimately went with the latter because I knew it would survey the history of the field; perhaps Intro to Chicanx/Latinx Studies had a similar project. Perhaps if I had taken it, I would have learned how to study issues within the field from the perspective of scholars from different disciplines.

I now know that I would not have. After a year and a half spent reading Chicano/a literary criticism, I am convinced that spending a mere week studying literature is not enough time to learn a disciplinary approach. Criticism has a history to it. My favorite literary critics work within and are responding to the same trends affecting literary studies as a whole: the rise of deconstruction, the postcolonial turn, the recent shift to decolonial thought and practice and so on. I had to read across decades of studies to grasp this point.

Departments also have to contextualize their approaches, but they are much more successful.

While departments in the humanities are largely “for” those students planning on graduate school, there are also courses intended “for” students who might only take one course in the department. These courses are often cross-listed or offered as IntroSems. Often, and importantly for aspiring scholars like me, they meet expectations at odds with each other. In one of the few ethnic literature classes I have enjoyed, the professor held the attention of students taking their first college literature course. She did this while introducing us to concepts that had I not known, I would not have felt prepared applying to graduate school.

The resources for crafting strong interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs are already here. Since 2007, the Faculty Development Initiative was founded to fund the hiring of faculty members working on race. Usually, these faculty members, and others who study race, offer courses cross-listed in the Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) family of programs or African and African-American Studies (AAAS).

The issue we are facing for ethnic studies programs is the same as for the decline of the “Great Books” approach to ethnic literature. As noted above, we have the research and teaching talent. What we lack has almost everything to do with pedagogy, or what I would call a better curating practice.

Recent reporting leads me to believe that I am in the minority on this view. I am part of the dissenting 25 percent of Chicanx/Latinx Studies majors who do not want their program to become a department. I want arguments about the “symbolic” value of becoming a department left at home, unless we want to come off as being mostly talk and little substance. Ethnic studies programs at Stanford have not (yet) earned the right to call themselves departments, and won’t until they can become truly interdisciplinary again.

Can ethnic studies live up to its promise? The students taking its courses, not to mention majors such as myself, would benefit much more if it did.


Contact Miguel Samano at msamano ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Miguel Samano is an opinions editor majoring in Comparative Literature and Chicanx-Latinx Studies. He loves sleeping, drinking night coffee, seeking out new books to read, and eating tacos with friends.

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