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Northwestern University

College launches Intercultural American Studies Council

The new unit will be the tenure home for new faculty in Latina and Latino Studies and Asian American Studies

By Rebecca Lindell

In a nation that is increasingly diverse, at a time when issues of migration and identity are dominating the national discourse, ethnic studies programs offer a vital lens through which to understand culture and society.

Leading and shaping those conversations are Northwestern’s programs in Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies, which have been driving research on race, diversity and diaspora for years.  

Both programs generate cutting-edge scholarship and offer dozens of courses on topics such as Asian American Literature, The Mixed-Race Experience, and Latina and Latino Social Movements. Faculty in both programs have been cited for their outstanding teaching and research. Their work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other organizations. 

“These programs are core components of an arts and sciences education, and they help us to understand the moment that we are living in,” said Director of Latina and Latino Studies Geraldo Cadava, who is also an associate professor in the Department of History. 

“When our politicians are talking about building border walls and separating families, or urging people who aren’t immigrants but actual American citizens to ‘go back to where they came from,’ programs like Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies can explain and contextualize our current political dynamic.” 

As interest in these topics has grown, the number of students majoring and minoring in Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies has risen accordingly — along with the need to support the expansion of both programs.

A strong base for both programs 

To further this goal, the College was recently awarded a $2.75 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The award supports the creation of the Intercultural American Studies Council, which provides a strong base for growth in both programs, fostering teaching and research that emphasize intersectionality and intercultural meetings. 

This innovative new unit will serve as the tenure home for incoming faculty in Latina and Latino Studies and Asian American Studies. As such, it will be on an equal footing with academic departments such as English, chemistry and African American Studies, and will facilitate collaboration between graduate clusters and certificate programs, including Comparative Race and Diaspora Studies, African American and Diaspora Studies, and Native American and Indigenous Studies.

“While some of our disciplinary and departmental structures remain fixed, research and teaching are constantly in dynamic and creative flux,” said Adrian Randolph, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Fields like Latinx Studies and Asian American Studies respond sensitively and meaningfully to key social and cultural developments. The Intercultural American Studies Council will enable us to better recruit, promote and retain scholars in these fields and thus help advance understandings of our complex and evolving world.”

The Mellon grant has already made possible the hiring of two new faculty members into the Council.

Mérida M. Rúa, currently the chair of the Latina/o Studies Program at Williams College, will join Weinberg College next year as a full-time, tenured senior faculty member in Latina and Latino Studies. Rúa is the author and editor of numerous works on Latinx studies, including A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago's Puerto Rican Neighborhoods (Oxford University Press). In the book, Rúa traces Puerto Ricans' construction of identity and examines the ways in which they have been racially imagined and positioned in comparison to blacks, whites, and Mexicans over time. She also authored numerous articles on older Puerto Rican adults in an era of gentrification and Latino urban ethnography.

Meanwhile, Patricia Nguyen, who has been teaching at Northwestern as a visiting scholar, will assume a full-time teaching-track role as an assistant professor of instruction in Asian American Studies. Nguyen has more than 15 years of experience working in arts education, community development and human rights in the United States and Vietnam. She has facilitated trainings and workshops with numerous organizations, including The Fulbright Program, the American Center at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, and Jane Addams Hull House, on issues ranging from forced migration, mental health, youth empowerment and language access.

More autonomy for programs

The council grew out of a series of conversations between administrators, students and faculty. 

Asian American Studies director Nitasha Sharma and professor emerita and Latina and Latino Studies director Frances Aparicio initiated discussions to explore ways to support and expand ethnic studies at Northwestern. Interim Asian American Studies director and Professor of Anthropology Shalini Shankar assisted in the formation of the unit, as did Cadava.

The new council will be co-led by the directors of the programs that compose it. For the coming year, that will be Associate Professor of English John Alba Cutler, who will serve as the interim director of the Latino and Latina Studies program while Cadava is on leave, and Sharma, who will resume her role as director of the Asian American Studies program this year.

The council will not supplant or otherwise affect the everyday operations of the programs in Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies. Rather, it will provide faculty affiliated with these interdisciplinary programs the opportunity to make their own hiring and tenure decisions. Until now, those decisions have been handled by the scholars’ “home” academic department. 

Such a process can be complicated for those who do not fit entirely within a single department. “We’ve had some really exciting candidates over the years who didn’t have a natural fit in a department, because they were truly interdisciplinary scholars,” Cadava said. 

“Their methods might be influenced by anthropology, but they aren’t fully anthropologists; or they might draw from history, but they aren’t entirely historians. So they just didn’t fit squarely into a department, but they were outstanding scholars who would make an important contribution nonetheless.” 

The council will address that issue and provide the interdisciplinary programs with “a great deal of hiring autonomy,” Shankar said. 

“Any time we hire a faculty member with tenure, for example, or where there is a question about going from associate professor to full professor, the council will get to vote on it,” Shankar explained. “So this will allow scholars in Asian American Studies to determine what counts in Asian American Studies — what qualifies as good scholarship and a worthwhile intellectual contribution.” 

A greater degree of focus 

Another benefit is that the faculty that are hired into the Council will no longer divide their teaching between their home department and their interdisciplinary program.

“The people that we hire into the council will devote 100 percent of their teaching to their [ethnic studies] program,” Shankar said. “It doesn’t mean that they’ll be less interdisciplinary. But it does mean that they will be able to dedicate much more of their time to teaching in the areas of their core research interests, and students will benefit from this level of focus. So I think it’ll be really good.” 

Additional tenure-line faculty hires affiliated with Latina and Latino Studies and Asian American Studies are expected to follow Rúa and Nguyen. Over time, other programs that focus on ethnic studies may join the council as well. 

“Once these new people are on the ground, we will build the conversation from there and see where else we can go with this,” Cadava said.

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