Professor of American Studies Pawan Dhingra is the new president-elect of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), and the new associate provost and associate dean of the faculty at Amherst. His book Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough (2020, New York University Press) is about the education arms race of after-school learning centers, spelling bees and math competitions.
You describe the AAAS as “an intellectual, political and personal life vest.” But that was not your early experience of the group. What changed?
People would say at conferences, “There’s not a lot of people like you here,” and that was supposed to be a compliment. But I felt really disheartened. First of all, I’m a social scientist at a largely humanities conference, and second of all, I’m South Asian American. Not many of us used to go to AAAS meetings. That has changed. When I was asked to be a mentor, it made me think: This is a place that sees me as belonging, so maybe I do belong.
How do incidents of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., especially the shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis, impact your role?
They clarify how AAAS matters to the public. There’s been a lot of outreach from organizations and journalists wanting more education on Asian Americans. We have to wonder: Can we leverage our expertise as academics to be in service to the public?
Do you find the “Asian American and Pacific Islander” designation useful or limiting?
I like that the term does not conflate Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences. Increasingly, as we attend to the Pacific Islands, we realize there’s much more of a conversation to be had about settler colonialism and U.S. empire than there is with certain Asian American questions around immigration, adjustment and racism. Many Asian immigrants settled in the Pacific Islands and became part of the problem. So they’re not allies; this isn’t a community, and that makes the distinction within the term useful.
What was most enjoyable about writing your book?
It was piecing together what the story was that I wanted to tell. A book is not everything you know about a topic; it’s the story you want to tell based on what you know. The other part I enjoyed was learning to write a book that people want to read as opposed to writing a book of things I want to say. Those are very different approaches.
“We tend to think that once you get tenure you know everything, but that’s not true.”
Where are you headed next with your research?
I’ve been trying to think about what happens to hyper-educated youth once they get to college and beyond. Another idea comes from my interviews with teachers, who were very well-meaning, sincere and committed, but who still did and said things that came from a place of implicit bias. Some institutions that we consider to be the most open-minded and progressive could sustain the same inequalities that we decry in the corporate boardroom or media. The public humanities—museums, libraries, art centers—are where adults continue their education. What embedded assumptions, inequalities, misplaced priorities and stereotypes guide their work? I’m fascinated by that.
As associate provost and associate dean at Amherst, do you hope to model a kind of support that you received in the past? Or do you hope to provide an experience that you lacked?
My goal is to continue the office’s work advocating for faculty. What that means is not just solving problems but also creating programs and opportunities that give support in proactive ways. In terms of my own growth, I think I would have benefited from more active mentoring when I was an assistant professor, and even an associate professor. We tend to think that once you get tenure you know everything, but that’s not true. You’re never a finished product.
Photograph by Tony Luong