Following the recent denial of tenure to Assistant Professor of English Stephen Sohn, a petition calling on Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 and Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences Richard Saller to reconsider the School’s decision has garnered over 1,400 signatures — including those of several prominent Asian-American authors and scholars — to date.
The petition, created by Debra Pacio ’15, argues for granting Sohn tenure on several grounds, including the potentially deleterious impact of the loss of a minority faculty member in the humanities.
“With his imminent departure, Stanford will lose one of its already-few Asian American Studies professors, and we will continue having barely any tenured Asian-American faculty members in the humanities,” wrote Annabeth Leow ’16 in an email urging people to sign the Change.org petition.
The petition also voices concern over the future of student research and education at Stanford in Asian American Studies.
“People who have commented on the petition are really big people in Asian American Studies,” said Sunli Kim ’15. “Which is why a lot of us are like ‘I don’t think he would have been evaluated as an Asian-American scholar’ because clearly based on all of the support he is getting from the scholarly field and the literature world he would have probably passed — so it must have been as an American-ist and then what are the implications then?”
Students also singled out Sohn’s unique contribution to the department. Beyond drawing in Asian American literature to English classes on other topics — a body of work often not studied in classes concerning narrative theory — Sohn often focuses on the intersections between Asian American Studies and other academic disciplines.
“If you look at the kind of classes professor Sohn is teaching they demonstrate his familiarity with so many different fields — he’s taught a seminar on trauma theory — so he is very familiar with the psychoanalysis of trauma,” Leow said. “He’s taught a class on gender and sexuality in Asian-American literature so there’s that queer and feminist theory going on. He’s taught on transnational Asia Pacific and transnationalism and cosmopolitanism and diaspora studies are also a different field.”
In a public Facebook post that has since been shared widely with the petition, Thanh Nguyen ’14 M.A. ’14, one of Sohn’s advisees, challenged the University’s decision by alleging that he was evaluated purely for his scholarship on more traditional British and American literary canon.
“Does the School of H&S expect one of our few Asian-American professors at Stanford to ‘play the game’ and write thousands of pages about dead white men, whose literary value does not need any more boosting?” Nguyen wrote.
A shrinking department
For many of Professor Sohn’s supporters, his failure to obtain tenure sheds light on the struggling Asian American Studies department, which has few students and fewer professors.
The denial follows on the heels of last year’s department town hall meeting, at which the department discussed the future of the major with students, faculty and alumni.
The Asian American Studies department has two core faculty members — Professor of Comparative Literature David Palumbo-Liu and Professor of History Gordon Chang M.A. ’72 Ph.D. ’87 — who sustain the program alongside Professor of Education Anthony Antonio M.S. ’92, the program chair.
According to Kim, the department held a meeting last year to address how the major and minor programs were decreasing in popularity because students weren’t fully aware of the program’s offerings.
“There’s also this cycle that happens where because there are such few faculty at a time that are able to teach so many classes in a year — like, it’s a lot of work — it’s really difficult to take the required amount of classes and match up those schedules according to what you need in order to graduate with that major or minor,” Kim said.
Many students noted that the department might need a more dependable rhythm of classes if it hopes to continue. Kim envisioned a worst-case scenario in which the department’s scholarship eventually dies off at Stanford because of its lack of visibility.
“Fewer students take [Asian American Studies classes] and therefore fewer classes are offered and it just becomes a vicious circle where eventually in the end there will be neither of either group — either professors or students,” Kim said.
Students of ethnic studies often encounter challenges meeting course requirements because of the specificity required of their majors. For example, as a major in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) major, one can take classes that are listed under CSRE or classes that are listed under these four other majors in the CSRE department. However, if a student is majoring in a specific subset, like Asian American Studies or Chicano/Latino Studies, the majority of the required classes must be listed within those specializations.
“If you look at the course list that is sent out at the start of every quarter there is a lot less choice because there are a lot fewer classes offered,” Leow said.
One potential solution involves creating more classes that are cross-listed across multiple specializations. Sohn’s dismissal further deepens the issue given that many of his classes were cross-listed, and — according to Kim — few other professors have courses that touch on issues that would merit their cross-listing with Asian American studies.
Another potential solution calls on the department to hire more professors. Currently, the Asian American Studies department relies heavily on professors from other universities to teach classes here at Stanford.
“We’ve really been depending in a lot of Asian American or Asian Studies focused classes on taking professors from other schools and other campuses to Stanford rather than creating them here,” Kim said.
With the shrinking department, the diminishing number of resources for students in the field is concerning as well.
Both Leow and Kim had hoped to have Sohn serve as a thesis advisor in the future, and like several others are seeking new advisors. However, these students have found few professors that share their research interests and fewer that have time available to dedicate to new students.
“So you’re losing out on these students who could have gone on to produce more work that will not be produced, so it’s not just one person or a few people. It becomes cumulative,” Leow said.
While the lack of resources for students has broader implications for the future of the field, Sohn’s denial of tenure is especially concerning given the small number of professors remaining in the department, according to students.
“When your two tenured faculty professors have been here for so long, there’s no replenishment of talent going on in the department,” Leow said. “If you’re not putting more people on that tenure line into the tenured faculty, where is this replacement going to come from?”
Without tenure, Sohn is only guaranteed to remain at Stanford for another year.
Contact Alex Zivkovic at aleksa ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.