Could we make Yale declare a major in comic books if we spent enough time marching in front of President Levin’s house?” So wonders Alex Zubatov, PC ‘97, in a Feb. 14, 1997, column for the Herald. Entitled “Creation of an all-about-me-major,” the piece was a response to Yale’s creation of the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) major. Later in the article, Zubatov refers to an “ethnic studies gestapo,” and calls those protesting for an ethnic studies program “spoiled kids.”
Such an article now seems offensive—indeed, the language is so over-the-top, one might even assume that it’s a parody. (It’s not.) But what about ER&M’s creation spurred such a reaction? And do these hostile feelings persist today?
ER&M was created as a “secondary” major, meaning that students could only major in the program if they paired it with another—in other words, if they double-majored. But on Feb. 2, 2012, Yale College’s Committee on Majors unanimously voted to make ER&M a permanent, stand-alone major. Although many of Yale’s more established departments, such as history or political science, may consider race in their courses, ER&M, the University’s closest analog to the ethnic studies departments found at other schools, puts race at the core of its studies. The major is by definition interdisciplinary, working through a variety of departments to gain a better understanding of race and ethnicity, and serving as a hub for these studies at Yale, both inside and outside the classroom.
Both students and faculty feel that ER&M’s promotion to stand-alone status is a recognition of its legitimacy, and that this will secure an institutional place for the study of traditionally underrepresented populations. ”For me, [ER&M] is part of that larger history of people struggling to get representation in the academy,” Eb Saldaña, ES ‘14, an ER&M major, explained. That fight, according to students and professors around for the program’s founding, was remarkably un-dramatic. But the question of whether its status as a primary major is the be-all-end-all in the quest for representation remains. I checked in on ER&M in the first semester after its conversion to see what tangible developments have been made, and what steps still lie ahead for this course of study at Yale. Today’s students and faculty who are passionate about ethnic studies are picking up where the founders of the major left off, and it seems fair to say the quest to broaden the diversity of voices in the classroom, though long-term, is as crucial at this moment as ever.
Established in 1998, ER&M came long after the establishment of ethnic studies departments in peer institutions across the country. The field of ethnic studies traces its history to California’s Bay Area in the year 1969. In that place, at that time, a group of students was increasingly frustrated by the lack of institutional representation of people of color at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. Their growing anger and outrage led to the formation of the Third World Liberation Front, a protest movement that demanded classes focusing on the previously unheard struggles and stories of people of color. In response to their calls, UC Berkeley founded the nation’s first ethnic studies department. The success at Berkeley sparked a trend of student groups across the country protesting for similar programs.
But Yale’s own formation of an ethnic studies program, as well as those of many other East Coast schools, wouldn’t take shape for nearly 30 years. Yale students in the ’90s were given few opportunities to pursue this field. Although the University offered some courses that covered topics like Mexican-American or Native American studies, these were all staffed by part-time, untenured faculty, who taught the courses on an ad hoc basis. There was no institutional framework in place for students interested in pursuing research in ethnic studies, professor Alicia Schmidt-Camacho, current DUS of ER&M, said. “If you were a student wanting to look at the electoral politics of Latinos in political science, where would you find the expertise to supervise such a research project?” Such a student would have been faced with a lack of resources and relevant courses and faculty—and would most likely have been unable to complete the project.
Yale was not alone in its lack of an ethnic studies program; indeed, this field had never taken hold among Ivy League schools in the way it had at West Coast universities. However, the ’90s saw East Coast students grow increasingly dismayed over the lack of ethnic studies at their universities. In turn, students began to call upon their schools to add courses and professors in fields such as Asian-American and Native American studies. Often times, these protests could be dramatic. In 1995, a group of 17 Princeton students organized a 35-hour sit-in at the university president’s office; at Columbia, students organized a hunger strike.
Around this same time, Yale students also began to organize and advocate for expanded offerings in the field of ethnic studies, though their protests never reached quite the same intensity as protests elsewhere. According to professor Michael Denning, GRD ’84, the first chair of the ER&M program, calls for ethnic studies-type offerings came in two waves. The first, at the beginning of the ’90s, were demands for more specific majors, like Asian-American or Latino studies departments. It wasn’t until the latter part of the decade that the disparate groups came together under a group they called Coalition for Diversity, and called for a singular ethnic studies program—what Denning refers to as the “second wave” of student interest. These students campaigned heavily, distributing journals and political magazines, and organized a conference of solidarity for their protesting peers at other universities.
Denning recalls this student organizing as a unique moment in Yale’s history. “In my experience, it’s not that often that Yale undergraduates take an initiative in reshaping their collective education,” Denning said. “As individuals, people shape their own majors. But for the most part, people come here and accept the education that has been shaped for them….And I would say this was the one moment where there was a group of students who really wanted to think seriously about what the shape of their undergraduate education would be, how that might get changed, and how a different kind of curriculum would get set up. That was very exciting.”
Denning was one of a number of professors who were instrumental in the creation of the ER&M program. In response to student advocates, then-Dean of Yale College Richard Broadhead, BR ’68, GRD ’72, put together a faculty advisory committee to look into creating an ER&M major, on which Denning sat. In turn, the faculty advisory committee began a collaborative effort with the students to make an ethnic studies program a reality. But this effort took time—a lack of full-time staff meant the major couldn’t yet be created, and so the first goal was to turn previous part-time positions into full-time faculty positions.
Denning chalks up the time it took to create the ER&M program less to administrative opposition than to the “general inertia of an institution.” “Yale is one of those giant ocean liners—it doesn’t turn very quickly,” Denning said.
Then there was the matter of what the curriculum of the program should look like. Araceli Campos, MC ‘99, who was one of the first four ER&M majors and played a key part in the formation of the program, explained that both students and faculty wanted ER&M to be more than just an ethnic studies program, which is what led to the “migration” component. “Studies of migration, as a substantive study, were considered new,” Campos said. “That’s why the major became ER&M—because at the time, this was an almost revolutionary, innovative way of looking at the field of study.”
After years of discussion, once it was clear there were sufficient faculty and resources to support a course of study, ER&M became a major program—albeit a secondary one. It was unclear whether the program would be sustainable. But ER&M’s status was not unique: Yale’s former international studies major, which would later become the stand-alone Global Affairs major, could similarly only be taken as a second major.
Part of the formation of the major was the creation of a new course, “Introduction to Ethnicity, Race, and Migration,” which is still taught today. Denning co-taught the class with Patricia Pessar during ER&M’s first year, and he can still recall the energy surrounding the class, which, he adds, was probably the only time one of his classes made the Yale Daily News.
“It still feels like a different course than any other course that I’ve taught here,” Denning said. “So often you feel like you’re offering a certain syllabus and a certain course and people come essentially as customers or spectators. That was a group of students who came in saying, ‘This is the course that we’ve fought for.’ They may not have liked every bit of it, but they came in as participants, in a way that was really quite remarkable.”
Today’s ER&M program is quite a bit different from its early days in the late ’90s. Its growth took time. Though students had been requesting to make ER&M a stand-alone major since the beginning, Stephen Pitti, ES ‘91, current director of the ER&M program, was wary of changing the program too hastily. “We were concerned about our own ability to service the major with so few people who were tenured and stable, without a lot of staff support, without space,” Pitti said. “We were concerned not to promise something that we couldn’t actually offer.”
But by the time ER&M became a stand-alone program, what was once a fledgling program had become a full-grown major, replete with resources and course offerings. A variety of changes over the past decade had led to the program’s growth and development. The granting of tenure to several key faculty members, like Schmidt-Camacho, as well as the arrival of new faculty, like professors Ned Blackhawk and Birgit Rassmussen, meant that a stand-alone ER&M program was finally conceivable. In addition, the major was now housed in its own offices at 35 Broadway, and had also acquired a full-time administrative assistant.
Because of these gains in resources, ER&M faculty like Pitti felt the major was prepared for the challenges of being a stand-alone program. A proposal was submitted to the Committee on Majors for ER&M to change its status from that of a secondary to a stand-alone major, and the committee granted the request. ER&M’s conversion means that ethnic studies had now become a stable, permanent part of Yale. Indeed, this year marks ER&M’s first two professor hires, Albert Laguna and Dixa Ramirez, both of whom will be jointly-seated in the American Studies and ER&M departments.
Over the years, ER&M has served as a home for ethnic studies at Yale. Crucial to the development of this community has been ER&M’s postdoctoral program. The program, supported by the provost’s office, brings recent Ph.D.’s to campus to allow them to develop their scholarship. “The goal here is that we will also be contributing to development of faculty, both for hires at Yale, but also for larger fields in the larger institutions of higher education,” Camacho said. Indeed, ER&M’s postdoctoral program has already directly affected Yale’s community of professors: current assistant professor Zareena Grewal was hired after her time as an ER&M postdoc.
Although students may focus their studies on a particular region or ethnic group, a key aspect of the major is that students are constantly encouraged to think globally and comparatively. “Serious engagement with any of these fields or any of these populations takes you into a global frame of analysis very quickly,” Schmidt-Camacho said. Indeed, students’ studies may include immigrant migrations, diasporas, or the effects of global capitalism.
Most all of the majors interviewed explained that they especially enjoy ER&M because of its focus on peoples whose stories, they found, had otherwise been missing from the classroom. Heidi Guzman, SY ’14, explained that ER&M offered a sort of alternate timeline to the one she had been taught in her high school classes. “Learning about minorities in high school was not a thing that happened,” Guzman said. “Being able to take [Intro ER&M] and learn that perspective was really important for me.” Courses in Yale’s more traditional departments might not fully address the experiences of minorities. “ER&M classes are designed to make [race and ethnicity] the center of the discussion, rather than a single lecture in a series of lectures,” Saldaña said. Often, too, ER&M provides students with a framework and vocabulary for making sense of racism in ways that they may not have previously been able to. As Saldaña put it, “ER&M turned on a switch for me that I have trouble turning off.”
In keeping with its origins, ER&M remains a very student-oriented major—something that majors cite as an advantage to the program. This is due in part to the way it’s structured. Unlike other major in which students may choose a concentration out of a fixed set of four or five tracks, students in ER&M have to design their own unique programs of study. These customized concentrations are extremely diverse in nature; in the past, they have ranged from “Comparative Refugee Studies” to “Commercial Globalization and Linguistic Adaptation.” Schmidt-Camacho notes that the ER&M major often changes and develops in response to these student projects and concentrations, with their diversity and range leading to new areas of study previously untouched by the ER&M curriculum.
Perhaps most importantly, what students really love about ER&M is its tight-knit community. Katie Aragon, TD ’14, felt that when she looked at other majors, she was brushed aside by the professors. But in ER&M, she found professors who she felt were supportive and would take care of her and her peers. Amaris Ogulin, DC ’15, agreed, noting that her relationship with her professors extends beyond the classroom: “I see my professors being activists and going into the community. I see them seeking the students that want to major in ER&M and creating strong relationships [with them].”
For many students, the study of ER&M also happens extracurricularly. Both Pitti and Schmidt-Camacho cite students’ involvement in the community, whether at Yale or in New Haven, as a strength of the program. There are official paths for facilitating this kind of engagement in the major: “Intro to ER&M” is one of several Yale courses which includes a Community-Based Learning (CBL) option, in which students, in lieu of doing a paper, complete a project with a local New Haven organization. Guzman, for instance, worked with New Haven group Junta for Progressive Action, helping them to develop, and ultimately implement, an English as a Second Language curriculum in New Haven schools.
ER&M courses often lead students to pursue other forms of activism beyond the CBL option, too. Alfonso Toro, TC ’15, found himself inspired to enact change in the community after taking an ER&M course titled “Latino/a Sexualities.” According to Toro, the class opened his mind to how the intersections of being Latino, identifying as LGBT, and coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds shape peoples’ perspectives. He had previously noticed a bit of a gap between Yale’s Latino and LGBT communities, and so he formed a student discussion group, De Colores, where students can discuss the intersection of these identities. Toro said he sees the recent LGBT Co-Op dance, which was co-sponsored by De Colores, as symbolic of two different Yale communities coming closer together. For Toro, the academic approach to a personal intersectionality was the motivator that pushed him to address the problems he saw in his actual social world.
ER&M’s conversion to being a stand-alone major did not mean an end to criticism. In a column titled “ER&M’s Got Problems,” published on Feb. 6, 2012 in the Yale Daily News, Nathaniel Zelinsky, DC ’13, who did not respond to an interview request for this article, offered a critique of the new major on a variety of fronts: that it attracts a certain student with a preconceived worldview; that it is simply the latest in an overabundance of majors; that it is part of a troubling trend of hyper-specializiation; and that students in the major would find a lack of ideological diversity among their classmates. Zelinsky’s chief criticism, however, was that he believes ER&M, like certain other departments—namely Judaic studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—conflates politics and academics: “Taught by liberal faculty who do not always separate their views from their teaching, these majors cheapen our community’s commitment to academic neutrality.”
Many ER&M students in the major recall columns like Zelinsky’s with frustration. “That was such a bad day for me,” Saldaña recalled. “Because I was just like, ‘Yay, I get to finally do what I want to do, academically.’ I was really excited to have that freedom, and people were bashing the major.”
Pitti strongly rejects that idea that ER&M encourages a singular political view, saying that his students represent the entirety of the political spectrum. “[ER&M] is a program that fosters disagreement and argument, and does what all programs and departments do, which is to provide a space for discussion and debate,” Pitti said. But some students say that they feel conceptions of ER&M as having a political slant extend throughout Yale’s student body. “Even my close friends who know what I study and do in the major are like, ‘Oh, but it’s super leftist,’” said Diana Enriquez, SY ’13, a former double major in ER&M who recently dropped it.
Many of the students interviewed felt that, if it’s true that ER&M is political, then that’s only because all academia is necessarily political. “I think people are very quick to assume that anything that’s related to identity-based groups is political,” Enriquez said. “And in some ways it will always be political. But I think ignoring the fact that majors like
Classics or economics are also pretty politically-loaded is just not correct.”
Guzman, meanwhile, feels that when dealing with the lives of historically oppressed peoples, certain viewpoints can be harmful. “I think you can’t be conservative when you’re talking about the lives of oppressed people,” Guzman said. “A conservative perspective is important to add to the discussion, but let’s not kid ourselves here, that’s not necessarily the kind of ideas you want to espouse when dealing with real people.”
Often times, too, students may perceive ethnic studies courses as being exclusively of interest to people of color. Katie Aragon, TD ’14, feels strongly that this is not the case, and that ER&M courses should be taken by all types of students. “It’s not one of those things where it’s, ‘Oh, all the ethnic minorities go to ER&M.’ It’s not meant to be exclusive,” Aragon said. Professor Ned Blackhawk, who specializes in Native American Studies, said that while the major does help serve a variety of traditionally under-represented social communities, it also attracts and fulfills the interests of all kinds of students, not simply Native American ones, or other students of color. And this, he said, is a “healthy sign of a vibrant academic program.”
More broadly, some take issue with the interdisciplinary mix of traditional departments—like literature, history, and anthropology—that constitutes the ER&M program. Indeed, a 2007 report by the Committee on Majors seemed to express this concern, noting that while a benefit of interdisciplinary majors is that they can offer intellectual breadth, “the basic training afforded by the specialized departmental disciplines can be skimped on.” Both professors and students in the ER&M major, however, feel that its interdisciplinary nature is a boon. Professor Albert Laguna, for instance, believes that the study of Latino peoples specifically is best done through an multidisciplinary lens. One can’t understand things like migration or the global flow of people simply through a historical perspective, he feels, but must take into account social and cultural factors as well. As such, ER&M courses, in order to answer questions like why Latinos are coming to the United States—which is a focus of Laguna’s class—might have to draw upon fields like anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, and literature. A single discipline, Laguna argues, will
Guzman, too, sees the interdisciplinary quality of the major as critical. The junior’s research for the Mellon Mays fellowship looks at how migration influences Dominican immigrants’ articulations of feminism. As such, her research draws on a variety of disparate fields. ER&M brings together professors from a variety of fields that Guzman can then consult. For Guzman, the program is a convenient synthesis of the otherwise disparate and hard-to-find academic resources necessary to enfranchise the people of her chosen interest. But for others in the major, the low volume of faculty and courses taught at Yale remains an issue—and one they believe ER&M is capable of solving.
Even its most vehement supporters admit that ER&M is still not perfect, and much growth in the program is still necessary. Professor Schmidt-Camacho explained that she is “constantly conscious that students are trying to find ways to meet intellectual interests that they can’t meet here yet.” Students and professors focus especially on the Asian-American and Native American offerings in their goals for improvement. As it stands, the growth of the ER&M major is a numbers game—sources expressed the need for more faculty, more courses, and more students to allow for a larger, more extensive program.
Especially with regards to Asian-American studies, class offerings are notably slim. Cathy Huang, MC ’15, a prospective double-major in the ER&M program, became interested last year in doing a research project on Asian-American history. Huang was disappointed by the lack of classes dealing with the Asian-American experience. “For me and some other students, the concern was that nobody who wanted to study Asian-American studies specifically would be able to formulate a list of classes which would give them something as comprehensive as African-American studies or Latino-American studies,” Huang said.
As far as course offerings go, Huang points to a single, regularly occurring class exclusively focused on Asian-American studies: Professor Mary Lui’s lecture, “Asian American History, 1800-Present.” Though the Bluebook has occasionally offered a seminar on Asian-American studies, students are otherwise left with survey courses that merely make mention of Asian-American culture and history. A search on Yale Bluebook returns zero undergraduate courses offered this semester that list Asian-American studies as their focus. By comparison, Latino studies boasts at least three fall 2012 courses, and African-American studies has an entire department’s worth of offerings (19).
Indeed, the uneven availability of courses on differing ethnicities reveals that ER&M still has much work to be done. Regardless of this room to grow, however, both students and professors still feel a great deal of pride and passion for the program. Ultimately, in the push for greater resources, it remains to be seen where ER&M stands on Yale’s list of priorities.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article quoted professor Howard Stern, whose comments have been removed because he felt misrepresented. We apologize to this source.