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Princeton hires first professor of Asian-American history

Beth Lew-Williams, who will join the University next year, will become the first professor in Asian-American history.  She will teach a course called “Asian-American History” in the spring of 2015.

Lew-Williams is currently an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University.

Her appointment follows the University’s 2013-14 hiring of its first professor in Latino history, Rosina Lozano.

History department chair William Jordan said he sought scholars in both Latino and Asian-American history to fill what he saw as glaring gaps in the history department’s curriculum. Other factors leading to the creation of Lew-Williams’s position included the influence of English professor Anne Cheng, who has taught several Asian-American studies courses and pushed for an Asian-American Studies program at the University; interest of Asian-American students and alumni also contributed to the creation of the position.

Cheng declined to comment.

Lew-Williams explained that she hopes to introduce a diverse group of students to Asian-American history as a rigorous and intellectual enterprise, noting that her course will explore questions about identity, how immigration law has shaped race relations in the United States and how Asians’ long history in America continues to influence racial categories and racial stereotypes today.

Lew-Williams, a descendant of 19th century Chinese immigrants, said that, as with many Asian-American scholars, her interest began from personal experience, including a childhood with little classroom exposure to Chinese-American history.

She also noted that students often possess no knowledge of the United States’ role in portraying Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners until they take her classes.

“They start to understand that the way the U.S. government has acted is one of the reasons that Asian-Americans continue to be marginalized in society today,” Lew-Williams said.

Lew-Williams said she would like to teach classes on immigration and border-making after her spring course ends. In terms of Asian-American history, she described a potential course on the “yellow peril” that would investigate why the American imagination portrays Asians as threatening.

Lozano said she would love to teach a broader migration and immigration course with Lew-Williams, as well as with professors of African-American history, saying students can learn much from understanding how the groups’ experiences interact.

Program in American Studies director and history professor Hendrik Hartog noted that both Lew-Williams’ and Lozano’s courses will count as electives toward the Certificate in American Studies, adding that their fields help explore the boundaries of America.

“[Students of Latino and Asian-American history] will gain a certain kind of critical perspective on a history which is sometimes framed as if it’s only about dead white men,” he explained.

Hartog added that he hopes the University will hire at least one senior faculty member in Asian-American studies over the next year and expand the effort to other humanities and social science fields.

Asian American Students Association President Evan Kratzer ’16 said that while AASA did not specifically push for a professor in Asian American history, the creation of the position will further the club’s mission.

“We’re definitely of the opinion that a history faculty hire would be critical for creating a program [in Asian-American studies] just because a lot of the research that’s done in this field is focused around history, and the historical background is important just for the fact of influencing or being the necessary background information for other research in the field,” he said.

Kratzer added that Lew-Williams’s work will benefit AASA’s cause over the coming years.

“Having another faculty member who is continuously on campus and who is an outlet for discussions on Asian-American studies, or who produces research, is a great way of being able to show what the field has to offer and what the potential is for Asian-American studies to grow at the University,” he said.

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