Pawan Dhingra is the new president-elect of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), and in July he will also assume the role of 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, came out last year. A professor of American studies, he serves as a faculty and inclusion officer at Amherst and teaches courses in Asian American studies, inequality, immigration, race/racism, identity and culture.
You’ve written that the AAAS has been “an intellectual, political and personal life vest,” for you—and also that it hasn't always felt this way. When and how did that shift happen for you?
For a while 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 South Asian Americans used to go to AAAS meetings. That has changed in the past 10 years. It was affirming 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. Also, more people with similar interests as mine were showing up. It was a gradual change, but it became obvious this was a place living up to my expectations of it, and its expectations of itself.
How do the recent incidents of anti-Asian violence in the United States, especially the shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis, impact what’s on your mind as you step into this new role at the AAAS?
It clarifies how AAAS matters to the public outside of being a professional organization for academic research and advocacy for its constituents. There’s been a lot of outreach recently from organizations and journalists wanting more education on Asian Americans. The recent events have sharpened how AAAS should be more of a public presence. We have to wonder: Can we leverage our expertise as academics to be in service to the public? And that’s more of an issue now.
In what ways do you find the Asian American and Pacific Islander designation useful, and in what ways is it limiting?
People go back and forth on that, as do I. 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. In fact, many Asian immigrants settled in the Pacific islands and became part of the problems that impacted Pacific Islanders. So they’re not allies; this isn’t a community, and that makes the distinction within the term useful. And in addition to drawing attention to both groups, the term communicates how there are connections and overlaps at times.
We tend to think that once you get tenure you know everything, but that’s not true. You’re never a finished product.
Hyper Education is receiving quite a bit of media attention. What was it like to work on this book as a parent?
The book focuses on parents who put a priority on education, including education outside of school. When I started researching the book, my kids were the age of the children whose parents I was studying—people who were putting their kids into afterschool math centers and academic competitions. Researching hyper-education, I grew to understand it. This practice that at first seemed quite extreme and problematic started to make a lot of sense. However, while we actually had our kids in an afterschool math center, we pulled them out, because we couldn’t really answer the question of why we were doing it, except to say that it made sense to other people. I had a lot of free time as a child. I have vivid memories of biking around my neighborhood with nowhere to go, chasing the ice cream truck sound with quarters my grandmother gave me. Those moments spring out because they’re joyous. So much of childhood today is very scheduled, and that freedom to move around one’s neighborhood is missing for a lot of youth, because of their schedules. As I talked to parents and kids today—even the current students I’m teaching—I realized that this is sizably different. I spent time doing homework, but I also spent a lot of time on my bike, watching TV, bothering my family. I think that’s something that I can appreciate in a way that I wouldn’t have recognized as a privilege in contemporary childhood.
What was the most enjoyable part of writing this book?
It was piecing together what the story was that I wanted to tell. That's one thing I say to people who are writing books for the first time: 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 to writing a book.
Where are you headed next with your research?
One thing I’ve been trying to think about is what happens to hyper-educated youth once they get to college and beyond. I’ve done preliminary interviews on that. Another idea came 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 actually 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. These are intentionally equity-minded spaces, but what embedded assumptions, inequalities, misplaced priorities and stereotypes guide their work? I’m fascinated by that.
As you prepare to step into your role as associate provost and associate dean of the faculty at Amherst, are you hoping to model a kind of support that you received in the past? Or are you hoping 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 ways that continue growth. That can take the form of continuing mentoring, assisting faculty research or organizing conversations around book publishing. 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.
Diaz is a Nashville-based writer. Her work has appeared in Joyland, the Kenyon Review and The Adroit Journal, and also in Amherst magazine.