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Stanford Ethnic Studies programs marred by coursework irregularity, students say

June 13, 2022, 8:10 p.m.

When Evan Kanji ’23 shares with his classmates that he is majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE), he is often faced with a variation of the same question: ‘Is that a flavor of Computer Science?’ 

“Because the program is so under-resourced, there are not as many people who might major in it or even know about it,” Kanji said. 

Although brilliant ethnic studies scholars have taught at Stanford, Kanji said, they are often restricted due to the limitations created by the program’s structure within the University. 

Majors related to ethnic studies at Stanford are housed as programs, not departments. This means that CSRE programs do not have the ability to hire their own faculty. Rather, they must rely on affiliated faculty housed in other departments, which can cause an inconsistent faculty directory and limited class options within these programs. 

Even amid these problems, Kanji said that his CSRE cohort has been very inspiring for him since everyone seems to have a strong passion that leads them to choose that major.

 “I wish that the administration would throw their full support behind that passion,” Kanji said. “That passion is going to be there and persist, regardless.”

Class Discrepancies

Irregularity among faculty often leads to inconsistency and insufficiency in classes offered each quarter, students contend. The Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies (CHILATST) program originally had five classes listed on Explore Courses for the spring quarter this year. Yet, right before registration opened, four of those classes did not appear on Axess, leaving students — who assumed the classes were canceled — unable to enroll and scrambling to find new courses. 

However, according to Stanford spokesperson Joy Leighton and CHILATST program director Jonathan Rosa, no classes in CHILATST were actually canceled this quarter. Professor Stephen Sano, the Asian American Studies (AAS) program director, attributes this discrepancy to “technical weirdness,” and miscommunication between the Registrar’s Office and the Explore Courses website. 

Sano offered the course ‘ASNAMST 115: Asian American Film and Popular Culture,’ which Professor Willian Gow used to teach, as an example. Gow taught ASNAMST 115 last year but has since stopped teaching at Stanford, with no intention of teaching the course this year. However, this course still rolls over to the next year on Explore Courses. These courses then don’t show up on Axess for students to enroll in because no one was planning on teaching it. 

Sano pointed out that this happens very often, and it creates an illusion that more classes are being offered within ethnic studies than there actually are. Although this can take place across all departments, it’s most common within ethnic studies programs because the course load varies so heavily from year to year. 

Still, the problem can leave ethnic studies students, who rely on these classes for their degrees, in limbo. The lack of ethnic studies courses offered was part of the reason that Kanji decided to take up a double major in Environmental Systems Engineering. 

“A lot of CSRE courses are really cross-listed and they’re primarily out of another department,” Kanji said. “That means that course listings can be pretty unreliable, like from one year to the next.”

Inconsistency within the discipline’s offerings can also be compounded by the short-term nature of lecturer jobs, which the program can hire for only a one-quarter period. Rosa said that this year, the program hired lecturer Omi Salas-SantaCruz, who taught Trans Latinx Studies in the winter, and lecturer Lucia Leon, who taught Intersectional (In)equalities: Latina/o(x) Families in the U.S in the spring. Neither of these classes are likely to be taught again because both short-term lecturers are no longer at Stanford.

Although students have expressed heightened interest in these courses, Rosa said that it is impossible to maintain that caliber of curriculum that students deserve. Caelin Dae Marum ’21 M.S. ’22, who majored in Native American Studies during her undergrad, experienced this during her sophomore year when visiting lecturer Shawon Kinew taught a class on the history of California Natives. 

“I only ever heard amazing things about her teaching and her classes, but I never got to take it because it was sophomore year and I was packed with requirements,” Marum said.

An impossible four-year plan 

Limited course offerings adds another level of stress for students trying to major in ethnic studies. Students at Stanford typically work to fulfill their major requirements during their sophomore year. To graduate with a Stanford degree, students must complete at least 180 units, though each major has specific unit requirements. If class offerings within a major constantly change, students do not know what is being offered throughout the course of their time at Stanford, or if the classes that are offered will even count toward their major. Because of this, fluctuating course offerings is incredibly stressful for CSRE majors. 

Though Marum enjoyed the courses available within the program, by her senior year it became difficult to find new classes and subject matters to learn about. 


“It’s really difficult for faculty to be able to give somebody an enriched four years of Native studies class, just because they’re so focused on everything else that they’re doing,” Marum said.

Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) Director Paula Moya acknowledged the growing interest in CSRE courses, which the program hopes to accommodate in the near future: “In order to provide stable curricula in these areas, we are in the process of hiring Associate Directors for the different Programs in CCSRE,” Moya said. “We hope that these searches will soon allow Stanford and CCSRE to provide, on a regular basis, the kind of introductory and advanced courses that students want. In the meantime, we hope to have an opportunity to meet with students interested in strengthening our core curriculum to hear more about their concerns.”

Rosa added that four-year plans are very difficult to sustain. Students are often left having to scramble a major together through one-off classes, cross-listed courses and directed readings. 

“[Students] really need a much more robust, better structured, substantive, intellectual opportunity. This is Stanford. We have the resources to do it. So we have to work together to advocate for it, and to build it,” Rosa said. 

‘It limits brilliance’ 

Despite the lack of resources allocated toward CSRE, Kanji praised the program for being able to create a space on campus where it’s acceptable to talk about racial issues and systemic inequality explicitly, which he feels is lacking in other departments. Although his experience has been positive and he is appreciative of the current faculty who work incredibly hard to maintain the programs, Kanji said he is aware of Stanford’s negligence toward CSRE. 

“We’re sort of left to stick together a program out of who’s around… It limits brilliance,” Kanji said. “There are really brilliant racial scholars here whose voices don’t get the platform they deserve and don’t get to reach as many students as they should because of the way the department is limited.”

Phong Nguyen ’25, a prospective AAS major, echoed these sentiments, adding that “Stanford boasts how it really gives back to ethnic studies and all of that, but I think all it really does is introduces it and does not properly invest into those systems of learning.”

Rosa stressed the importance of remembering all of the student activism that led to the creation of CSRE, including a hunger strike by Chicanx students in the 90s. Student activism, including a petition created by the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) in the summer of 2020, has also led to the departmentalization of African and African American studies (AAAS). This departmentalization comes after over 50 years of student activism by the BSU and BGSU. 

Rosas, who was a part of the faculty task force assembled by the University to asses race programming across campus, said that an important aspect of solidarity is recognizing the work done within AAAS and the student activism that led to its departmentalization. Rosa is currently a part of the Committee for the Departmentalization of AAAS, which is working with faculty and students across the University as well as racial scholars at peer universities to develop the AAAS curriculum. 

“One of my roles on that committee has been to ensure that Black Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx studies is a crucial component of the department of Black Studies. But we’re also trying to incorporate community engagement, engaging with the arts and technology… that are central to our work here at Stanford,” Rosa said. 

To solve the fractured structure of ethnic studies programs, Rosa said that the University should follow the lead of peer institutions like UC Berkeley and UCLA, who have both committed to cluster hires of Latinx faculty and scholars within the next few years. Such progress will ultimately come down to students’ ability to come together and advocate for a change, he said. 

“It’s important to honor the struggles that went into building this very fragile structure that is still limited, and to recognize that people have worked to create this while also articulating its limitations,” Rosa said. “[In the 90s] students worked in solidarity. I think we need similar such solidarity now to continue to build.”

  

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