“Race and Gender” Enrollment Spotlights Ethnic Studies Crisis

by Alejandra Padín-Dujon

On January 25th, American Studies and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) associate professor Birgit Rasmussen posted to her Facebook wall: “Craziest shopping period ever is drawing to a close.” Rasmussen—whose impending departure from Yale College comes in the midst of an exodus of ethnic studies faculty—teaches “Race and Gender in American Lit,” the most popular course this semester.

Student interest in “Race and Gender” reached a crisis point during shopping period when as many as 622 students scrambled to secure spots in a limited number of writing sections, encountering technical difficulties from the Registrar’s Office as they did so.

Why the commotion? Yale alum and ER&M major Javier Cienfuegos ’15 credits the Next Yale movement. “Many students had no idea [race and gender] were issues they needed to be educated about,” he says. “Now that students know they have this gap in knowledge, they want to learn.”

Others, like sophomore Yuni Chang, point to Professor Rasmussen’s personal appeal: “She never fails to show up for her students, especially women of color,” says Chang. “She’s just an incredible person.”

Logistical complications, the work of Next Yale, and Rasmussen’s tremendous popularity play into the “Race and Gender” saga. However, by themselves, they paint a picture that is dangerously incomplete. To place too much emphasis on failed logistics is to ignore that enrollment in “Race and Gender” reflects the ongoing fight for ethnic studies at Yale. To cast the shopping frenzy solely as an aftershock of Next Yale’s work is to continue a problematic journalistic tradition in which POC student activism and intellectual tastes garner attention simply because they disrupt the mainstream, while their substance is ignored.

In other words, “Race and Gender” isn’t just breaking news—it’s a course with a message, and that message matters.

Junior Ava Tomasula y García explains:

“I used to be an English major. But in my English classes […] a text’s racism or sexism would be bracketed and moved to the side so that the class could move on to the “real ideas” of the poem—as if ‘what matters’ were lying untouched underneath all that surface contamination. For me, studying literature and language is a way to decode power structures—yet these politics were missing from too many of my classes.”

In light of the course’s tremendous popularity and academic merit, it comes as no surprise that Professor Rasmussen’s impending departure has provoked mass confusion and outrage. Many see it as an indictment of Yale’s tenure process and evidence of the administration’s hostility to ethnic studies. Indeed, Rasmussen never even went up for tenure—despite a unanimous vote of confidence from senior American Studies faculty in 2013, the Humanities Tenure Appointments and Promotions Committee refused to promote her to a slightly higher (still untenured) position along the tenure track. Her appeal was overturned.

On Facebook, Rasmussen has been vocal about her frustration with the university’s lack of support for ethnic studies. “The courses in our major are filled to capacity and beyond,” she wrote on 20 January 2016. “When do we get the faculty lines and tenure promotions to match our groundbreaking work?”

Is universal matriculation in “Race and Gender” the key to decolonizing the academy? Probably not. And yet the outpouring of student commitment to ethnic studies this semester must be cause for hope. In the words of the professor herself:

“At the end of some very intense days fielding hundreds of student emails, I have to think this means something: I have 18 Ethnicity, Race, and Migration majors in my final seminar, [and] 622 students […] hung on for dear life to a class called ‘Race and Gender in American Lit’ where [several student-poets] will share with us the magic of Spoken Word as we finish a semester-long journey that begins now.”

Clearly the path to adequate institutional support for ethnic studies at Yale will be long and fraught. From all of us at DOWN, we thank Professor Birgit Rasmussen for her tireless commitment and contribution.