Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Removing varnish, applying lacquer

In the popular imagination, Stanford luminesces with ideals and innovation; but if you take a closer look, the eye-numbing, headache-inducing glare of doltish reality periodically wipes out my (admittedly naive) sense of idealism.

A highly-regarded professor, someone influential in the budding field of Asian American studies, and remarkably active in engaging students as both a teacher and mentor since 2007, was denied tenure by the University. Beyond excellent scholarship, which we all recognize as a baseline for academia (i.e. life at a first-rate research institution), the high caliber of his teaching and the profound difference he has made in the lives of many students ought to matter. By all accounts, this is what Professor Sohn contributes to the Stanford community, and it is what Stanford is rejecting.
My friend Thanh wrote a plaintive and extremely incisive appeal:
Hi everyone,
Please consider signing the petition below. The petition asks that Stanford’s Provost reconsider Professor Stephen Hong Sohn’s recent tenure denial. Professor Sohn is considered one of the leading scholars of Asian American literature today. The petition text gives more detail.
However, what I take issue with is the tenure process itself, especially the rubric with which Professor Sohn was evaluated. Stanford’s Department of English had already approved Professor Sohn’s file, which meant that the English faculty had determined his scholarship was rigorous, innovative, and “enough” to consider him a peer among the other literary scholars at Stanford. This is not an easy task to pull off.
When placed up for evaluation by the School of Humanities and Natural Sciences, he was evaluated by an external committee and internal committee, which “ranks” Professor Sohn among other scholars “in his field” to determine if he really IS the top in his field. If Professor Sohn was ranked as an Asian American literary scholar—perhaps this petition would not exist. I would like to think that he would have passed evaluation at this level. If he did not—well, I suppose if the society of Asian American literary scholars out there did not consider his scholarship “good enough,” that’s an actual debate to be had.
However, Professor Sohn was ranked as an “Americanist” scholar. Think Melville, Hemingway, Whitman, Steinbeck, as opposed to Chang, Chow, Mukherjee, Tagore, Lim, Lin, Nguyen, Le, Shin, or Park. Of course, since Professor Sohn’s work also looks at queer theory, feminist theory, critical race studies, kinship, transnationalism, and the cyberpunk genre, his “ranking” was poor among other scholars who are “Americanist.” Does the School of H&NS expect one of our few Asian American professors at Stanford to “play the game” and write thousands of pages about dead white men, whose literary value does not need any more boosting? Or does the University, one that considers itself cutting edge, concerned with constantly pushing disciplinary boundaries, and destabilizing established fields, want to invest in someone who is, oh, I don’t know—doing exactly that?
This rubric demonstrates how Stanford does not really value ethnic studies and minority literature as legitimate forms of scholarship. Even though the university has a Faculty Diversity Initiative, toots its horns for having a diverse student body, and boasts itself on increasing the numbers of faculty who are women and under-represented minorities (URM), Stanford (at its highest levels) really is only invested in these endeavors so long as it suits its public persona. The University will increase the percentage of women and URM faculty, but it will not give them an opportunity for promotion, perceive their inquiries as legitimate, and subsequently, keep them. I don’t know how else to say this, but frankly, this is some dumb shit.
Please consider signing the petition below, whether you are a Stanford student or not, whether you attend school in California or not, whether you are an Ethnic Studies major or not—you really do not need an “official” affiliation to care about these kinds of issues. These issues have real effects on students you will never meet, but whose wellbeing and quality of experience should matter to you anyways. It effects entire disciplines, entire universities, and, what is most important to me at the moment: Professor Sohn, one of my favorite people on earth.
In the silliest of appeals, this petition has a real effect on me. I have taken 4 classes with him—one as a baby frosh, and three as a graduate student. When he writes a letter for me—I get accepted to things. He is an amazing honors thesis advisor, who helped me pull through my “I am too dumb to do this, I shouldn’t consider myself remotely smart enough to research and write 60 pages.” He is also a cherished advisor for my Master’s degree.
Anyways, the link is below.
I say this with some hesitation, but this institutional decision makes it feel like we are in a “white boys club.” These types of situations are always complex, but the more I stare at it, the more it feels like a delegitimation of Asian American scholarship, which ultimately translates into denigration of an ethnic community. I doubt the review committee intended to be racially motivated, but this outcome broadcasts the message that “people like you don’t fit in here, because you aren’t getting with our program.” And “our program” is what mainstream white people know, are familiar with, and want. That seems more like a Hollywood mentality.
What strikes me as particularly ironic is that if this were the School of Engineering and some prof was doing weird, cool things analogous to “queer theory, feminist theory, critical race studies, kinship, transnationalism, and the cyberpunk genre” they would be like HELL YEAH, WE WANT YOU! Going off the beaten path and connecting different dots are hallmarks of the “cutting edge” in technical disciplines. In contrast, Humanities & Sciences, which ought to be the home for social justice, the school most sensitive to struggles for identity, appears to be a place where “traditional” understandings (perhaps we might call them mainstream and privileged understandings?) are superior, while approaches that are “queer/oddball/offbeat” constitute a liability.
Why is it that achievement in Asian American literature scholarship is easier to brush off? This brings to mind the recent ruckus about the Colbert Show and its use of ethnic slurs for satire. Regardless of your views on the incident, the #cancelcolbert conflict highlights a problematic feature of life for Asians in America: we get steamrolled because we are the “quiet” minority, because we don’t protest. Jay Caspian King writes about this larger issue in The New Yorker, forcing some hard questions beyond just the value of Twitter activism and the overreach of political correctness. So with regard to Professor Sohn, I wonder if this decision came down because in the eyes of these folks on the review committee, Asian American literature isn’t “part of America” yet — and therefore his work in this area does not merit him entry into this “prestigious” Stanford circle.
I don’t claim special insight on this issue. Nor do I contend that the problem is more or less prevalent at Stanford than at other institutions, though the fact that it happened is already an undeniable disappointment. I’m simply expressing a few emotions evoked by this frustrating turn of events.
Perhaps it resonates more strongly because of my life as an Asian American — a person of Asian descent in America. When the redacted review file comes out in June, we may also find other considerations at play. But for right now, the whole scenario feels, in some fashion, like the continued marginalization of an already quiet and pliant minority.
What is America? Are we, Asians and Asian Americans, part of the national fabric? One would hope an institution like Stanford University — founded by a fortune that was built on the backs of Asian immigrant labor — would be the most progressive leader on that question. At least we now have a chance to discuss it.