When 14 students and two professors traveled to Washington, D.C., this spring to learn about the 1942 executive order that allowed forced internment of Japanese Americans, the exhibit at the National Museum of American History seemed especially timely.
For one thing, Professor Franklin Odo said, “I don’t have to tell anybody what an executive order is anymore”—students hear about them on the news every day.
Jingwen Zhang ’18 sees justifications for wartime internment echoed in current efforts to place legal restrictions on Muslim immigrants to the United States, many of whom come from Asia. When she took Odo’s course “World War II and Japanese Americans” in 2016, the class traveled to Yale to see a different exhibit on Japanese American internment.
These field trips are examples of how Odo and a fellow professor, Robert Hayashi, are accelerating the evolution of American studies at Amherst, giving students a more nuanced, inclusive understanding of American history, culture and law.
Hayashi, an associate professor of American studies, brought in Odo as a visiting John J. McCloy Professor in 2015. This was shortly before the Amherst Uprising and its campuswide discussions of race and belonging. “Asian American students,” Odo says, “were among those who saw the need for Amherst College to address issues of race.”
So he helps to address them in his courses. In addition to “World War II and Japanese Americans,” he teaches “Race and Public History/Memory,” focusing on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—“the first time in our history,” he says, “that we defined a national/ethnic/racial group as unwelcome to enter as immigrants”—and on the 1893 U.S.-inspired overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
At Zhang’s request, Odo also led a special topics course in which five students delved into topics in Asian/Pacific American studies.
The College has now extended Odo’s professorship for three more years. This fall he will co-teach a new course with Lecturer Wendy Bergoffen (who is married to Hayashi) on the intersections of Asian American and Jewish American experience.
Such courses reflect a national trend of incorporating into American studies work that was previously done in ethnic studies departments. More broadly, Amherst’s American studies department—founded in 1948 as one of the first in the country—has become increasingly inclusive of issues of race, ethnicity and transnationalism.
Hayashi says his own position came about because students wanted more courses on Asian Americans. Since his arrival in 2008, he has developed, among other offerings, “Reading Asian American” and the First-Year Seminar “Making Asians: Asian American in Literature and Law.”
Today, students including Emily Ye ’20 are helping to lead the effort for more such courses, and for the hiring of a tenure-track professor who specializes in Asian American studies.
“In elementary, middle and high school history curriculums, Asian Americans are largely glossed over—I recall there being one sentence in my U.S. history textbook about Japanese internment,” says Ye, who grew up in San Antonio. While Hayashi’s and Odo’s students come from many different backgrounds, Ye is among those who find their courses personally resonant: college has been her first opportunity “to be deeply exposed to the history of people who are just like me—Asian American.”