The CLAS New Heads Series talks with incoming heads and directors of departments, centers, and institutes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We ask them questions about their department’s research, education and outreach mission, and how they fit into the multidisciplinary context of a liberal arts and sciences education.
Associate Professor of History Jason Chang began as Director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute in August 2018.
What would you say are the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute’s areas of strength?
The Institute’s biggest strength is the global scope of its faculty’s research. Since we are both in the ethnic studies field of Asian American studies, and the area studies field of Asian studies, our faculty are not typical country or ethnic group specialists. To be brief, we look across borders and between communities. Besides leading to award-winning scholarship, prestigious fellowships, and frequent media requests, our research profile results in teaching great courses.
What interests students in studying Asian and Asian American Studies?
Many Asian American Huskies take our classes because they never saw themselves represented in their schooling. Our Asian studies courses also draw students learning Asian languages who want to develop their cultural awareness so they can work in Asia. Some take our courses because they’re interested in struggles for justice, human rights, and gaining knowledge about specific regions in Asia and that of Asian American populations of the U.S.
What are the most loved classes taught in Asian and Asian American Studies?
One of our most popular courses is AASI 3531: Japanese Americans in World War II. It examines the subject’s history with a focus on the unjust internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. This topic has a long history at UConn because, at the time, the University was the only institution in Connecticut to admit Japanese American students.
What types of jobs do students pursue after studying Asian and Asian American Studies at UConn?
Asian American studies and Asian studies are applied fields, meaning they exist because they are designed with practical knowledge, skills, and information to work with and for Asian American populations or in careers abroad. Huskies who take Asian and Asian American studies courses teach, practice law, work for arts institutions, establish medical practices, work in the foreign service, work with small businesses and do social work.
Have there been recent changes in the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute that have strengthened the program?
We are thrilled to have new Assistant Professor in Residence Na-Rae Kim, a specialist in world literature and North Korean refugees. She’ll be teaching courses in Asian American studies, significantly expanding our curriculum. We are also kicking off our new minor in Asian Studies.
What do you see as upcoming challenges or opportunities for Asian and Asian American Studies?
One of our biggest challenges is developing institutionally to reflect the growth in faculty over the last few years. We are now at 12 core faculty, up from four when I started at UConn in 2011. We are overhauling our curriculum, expanding research and publication support, and expanding our network on campus.
Are there any common misconceptions about Asian and Asian American Studies?
There’s a big difference between Asian studies and Asian American studies. Asian Studies is about Asia, its diverse countries, regions, ethnicities, culture, and languages, etc. Asian American studies is a field about the history, culture, politics, and identity of different Asian immigrants and their descendants in the U.S. Naturally, there are overlaps between the two but they are quite different fields.
Many people think they have to be ethnically Asian to take an Asian American or Asian studies class, but this is absolutely not true. Because our programs are fundamentally about justice, human rights, and peace, they are, by definition, for everyone.
Where do you see Asian and Asian American studies going in the next 10 years?
The institute has a lot of room to develop at UConn and current events regarding asylum family separation, refugee bans, changes on the Korean peninsula, proposed naturalization reforms, as well as trade sanctions and tariffs, demonstrate that our work is more important than ever.
What first interested you in Asian and Asian American Studies?
I was first a student of Chicano studies with a strong interest in the U.S./Mexico border…see? You don’t have to be Chicano to take Chicano studies courses! By understanding the Mexican American experience better, I found a greater appreciation for my own Asian American identity and found that Asian American studies had a lot to offer for even the study of Mexico. That’s what my first book, Chino, is all about.
What’s your favorite place on the Storrs campus?
My favorite place on campus is the Asian American Cultural Center on the fourth floor of the Student Union. I teach my courses there and I love being reminded of the student protests and hunger strike by Professor Paul Bock in 1988, in response to anti-Asian racial violence on campus, which lead to the creation of the Institute and Cultural Center. Last year the Institute and Cultural Center celebrated their 25th anniversary, honoring this legacy.