The University of Rochester is about to get a healthy dose of East Asian culture — and that isn’t a reference to orange chicken at Panda Express. Beginning as early as next Fall, the College of Arts and Sciences will be adding a new major in East Asian studies to its long repertoire of programs.
This new program is part of a strategic planning initiative in the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering which started in the fall of 2006.
“[We’re] trying to figure out ways to broaden [our] connection with the world outside the U.S.,” Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Joanna Olmsted said. “I think that part of our obligation as an educational institution is to try and provide background so that people understand what’s going on in the world.”
As part of the initiative, the University introduced a major in International Relations in 2008. There is also talk about delving into studies in Africa and the African American Diaspora, as well as the area around the Mediterranean, although there are no official plans to introduce these programs in the immediate future.
Discussion and planning for the East Asian studies program began a couple of years ago, but couldn’t be hashed out completely until a faculty had been hired.
“I wouldn’t point to any single person who brought it up,” Olmsted said. “I think it was a sense amongst the faculty … as we started our strategic planning process several years ago that this was an area we needed to make sure we had a robust presence in.”
Osburg cited China’s growing presence in the contemporary world has sufficient grounds for the country to be studied more in depth.
“I hope that it’ll… help students to… understand the ways in which their own lives and interests are interconnected with people in East Asia,” he said. “The health of our economy… or maybe ill-health, is intimately linked with the economy of China … your future retirement and your parent’s future retirement — they’re linked. Those institutional investors, they’ve placed their bets on China — that’s where the growth [is] right now.”
Student interest in the area is anything but low.
“It’s always been possible to do an independent, interdisciplinary major in areas of East Asian studies,” Olmsted noted. “But this is going to be something that’s going … to make it possible for students to do it on a less individualized basis and really take it as a major.”
“I think the University sensed there was a lot of student interest … [but there weren’t many] resources to meet [it],” Osburg added.
The process of creating a new major is governed largely by determining how the University can work with resources that are already available to it. As of now, UR has hired four faculty members into this new program — Elya Zhang and Daphon Ho of the Department of History, John Osburg of the Anthropology Department and William Schaefer of Modern Languages and Cultures — and is still searching for additional hires.
“We don’t have an expert in every period of history for every country in East Asia,” Osburg said. “We … have to design it around the interests and resources the faculty has as it exists and hope that as we add more faculty with an interest in East Asia we can expand [the] major accordingly.”
This diverse mix of departments, though, appears to be an asset to the new program in that they will be able to each bring their own expertise to the major. It is a similar situation to the Film and Media Studies program, where faculty members come from vastly different departments, from English to linguistics.
“[We’re] going to have some students who are interested in primarily language and literature and other students who are more interested in politics and economics, and I think we can accommodate all types of students,” Osburg observed.
These initiatives are almost always faculty driven. Those who have the required expertise work together, considering which courses will be core classes and which ones will be electives. After a plan has been sketched out, the proposal is reviewed by the college curriculum committee and ultimately approved by the faculty council as the last stage of its development.
In addition to having existing courses count toward requirements (such as Osburg’s “Chinese Society After Mao,”) many new ones will also be created.
East Asia is carving out a place for itself in the contemporary world, and these developments are clear even in Rochester.
“[China] is the future of all business … and political relations,” Zachary Feldmann, a senior who created his own major in Chinese Studies in addition to one in Political Science, said. “Anyone who’s paying attention will tell you that China is the place to do business and to sort of focus one’s career … if you’re interested in foreign affairs, China. If you’re interested in foreign economics, China.”
Feldmann is optimistic that the new East Asian studies major will encourage UR students to study the culture.
“The popularity of the Chinese program is pretty big at the beginning level,” he said. “Most people who try Chinese don’t get past the second or third level because it gets too hard — maybe if there was an incentive they would stick with it longer.”
He is also optimistic that it will entice more faculty to teach at UR.
“Hopefully [it] will draw in more teachers and professors, and hopefully that’ll raise the quality of the language program,” he said. “Right now we only have one teacher who’s teaching all the classes for [Chinese] language. We have another, but she only teaches the beginning class.”
There will be a language requirement within the major as a well as a history component, plus a number of electives to choose from. The program itself will focus on China, Japan and South Korea. There is still ongoing discussion, though, on whether or not the program should take more of an arts and literature track versus a history and society one.
It appears that it will be a possibility for older students to complete the major in time for graduation, provided they are not starting from scratch.
“The key issue will be language,” Osburg said. “If you’ve done some East Asian language training, but you haven’t done any history or literature … it certainly won’t be a problem. If you haven’t done any language at all, and you’re starting as a junior, I think it’s possible, but you’ll really have to cram in the courses for the major.”
The University plans to let students know about the major through as many channels as possible.
“I think this is an area where word of mouth works very well, but we also will make sure that it’s up on the websites and so forth, so people are aware that it’s in the works,” Olmsted said.
Goldin is a member of
the class of 2013.