American Studies deserves student voice

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Author: Joe Siegal

As a liberal arts institution, Occidental emphasizes the variety and interdisciplinary nature of its academic offerings when seeking potential applicants. Once arriving on campus, though, it becomes clear that the college’s departments are composed of a group of more popular, well-funded majors, leaving important and undervalued disciplines behind in a structure that fails to give students and faculty of smaller departments much of a voice. As a result, students in smaller or less funded departments like American Studies need to develop ways to inject their own academic or critical points of view into the campus discussion. Actions taken by students on behalf of their smaller departments can help the college develop a stronger group of more diverse majors.

As an American Studies major, I am experiencing firsthand what it is like to be a student in a smaller major at Occidental. Only now is my department beginning to show signs of student investment in the health of the major through the creation of the American Studies Society at Occidental that aims to sponsor events and bring the major into a more prominent position in the academic culture of the college.

American Studies has a lot to offer to Occidental’s campus-wide discourse on issues of race, ethnicity and identity, yet it often gets misconstrued and misrepresented as an American history major, according to some of its students, who believe the department has more to offer to the campus community. In truth, American Studies is a field that reflects many of the academic values Occidental emphasizes in its liberal arts mission. Coupling analysis of the historical with critical cultural study and an emphasis on ethnic studies, it is a field that can and should be more integral in the community of the college because it can provide a different lens on American culture that often gets overlooked due to Occidental’s other fields of prominence.

On a campus that is constantly concerned with issues of hyperlocal and urban issues in Los Angeles through the Urban and Environmental Policy department or fixated on global issues as a result of the emphasis on and prominence of the Diplomacy and World Affairs and politics departments, American Studies could be the middle ground between these facets of the academic culture. American Studies is focused on shining a critical light on history and culture in an effort to understand what exactly it means to be American within these local and global settings. Though the perspective offered by this discipline could be vastly more important in Occidental’s academic culture, the opportunity for exerting any influence over the trajectory of the college’s perspective is stifled by the department’s lack of funding and inability to hire new professors with diverse perspectives on a full time basis.

Though American Studies is a department that emphasizes its interdisciplinary offerings, it is also a department with no center, leaving it in a predicament when it comes to forming a departmental identity. Professor Arthé Anthony, one of two full-time professors in the department, is retiring in June, which potentially leaves department chair Xiao-huang Yin as the only full-time American Studies professor. The administration may not necessarily guarantee a new hiring spot for a full-time professor because the department only has 13 students in the major at this point in time.

Though there exists an American Studies advisory board filled with several other faculty members from various other departments who offer courses under the major’s general umbrella, a lack of dedicated professors leaves American Studies — a discipline that has much to contribute to the campus culture — out of the dominant academic and cultural discussion on campus. Expanding the major to include more official offerings under its own name could serve to bring the department to increased prominence, as it could become known for the several perspectives American Studies envelops.

Additionally, the proposed sponsoring and acknowledgment of a club that would serve as a society of American Studies students is aimed at giving the department’s students a voice of their own, rather than letting other forces and the college’s budget dictate what departments get to be most prominent and influential on campus. Proactive, student-led academic movements like this are key to making change in the college’s academic sphere, garnering visibility for the major and providing a way for students to vocalize their academic perspectives.

“My hopes for the future of Oxy is that students are more enfranchised and have more say in the way their majors are read. I think the administration underestimates us…Some majors give you tremendous opportunities, but for the most part, student agency is undermined due to the amount of power the administration wields,” American Studies major Imran Chandoo (junior) said.

Though the American Studies major is only one of several smaller, somewhat understaffed and underrepresented departments on campus, it has the potential — through the efforts of its students — to spark much-needed student input in the academic realm of the college. Occidental’s potential as an institution can only be reached if its students are both emotionally and intellectually invested in the goings-on of their academic departments and the overall culture of the campus. Our major is trying to prove that student voices are the driving force of academia.

Joe Siegal is a junior American Studies major. He can be reached at siegal@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJSiegal.

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