Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2006


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Rethinking the study of race

Rethinking the study of race
David Kim, director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. Photo by Harold Shapiro.

David Kyuman Kim, director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, has a new vision for CC.

By Barbara Nagy

Thirty-five years ago, racial and ethnic studies programs were proliferating on campuses across the United States. Conventional courses of study largely ignored the experiences of minority groups, and students were angry.

They also were energized. They pushed colleges and universities for programs that accounted for the history and lives of women, racial and ethnic groups, gays and lesbians, the working and the poor. Administrators responded with new programs that focused on the American experience of marginalized groups.

That never happened at Connecticut College, with the notable exception of the Gender and Women´s Studies program.

David Kyuman Kim isn´t sure why, and he believes that on a certain level, the reason doesn´t matter. Kim, the inaugural director of the College´s new Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE), isn´t interested in “catching up” with other colleges by creating what they already have. He plans to leapfrog over them. “Rather than bemoan this history, we´ve said, ´Let´s do something genuinely different and new,´” says Kim.

Kim wants Connecticut College to weave issues of race and ethnicity through the entire academic program. How can students make sense of those issues, he asks, unless they see them in context? He wants to create a program that will be a model for other colleges. He wants the College to be nothing less than a national leader and sees the center as a magnet that could draw prospective students.

“The comparative study of race and ethnicity is not an add-on,” says Kim. “To take seriously the study of race and ethnicity is to rethink the liberal arts curriculum, from top to bottom.” CCSRE is unique among small liberal arts colleges. “We´ve effectively put ourselves at the forefront of the national dialogue on the meaning of the liberal arts by creating the center,” he says.

The College´s faculty and the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the center in the spring of 2005, and Kim was named its director in June. An assistant professor of religious studies, he came to the College in 2003. He has taught at Brown University and holds a master´s of divinity and a doctorate in theology from the Harvard Divinity School. His new book, Melancholic Freedom: Regenerating Agency and the Revolution of the Spirit is under contract with Oxford University Press for publication in 2007.

Kim is passionate about the material he teaches and committed to his students. “He really encourages students to think for themselves,” says Anne Confer ´06, a religious studies major. “He makes difficult texts and thinkers accessible in ways that make sense,” she says, but without dumbing down the material. “He seems to get to the root of each person´s point in class and has the uncanny skill of leading us toward our own answers instead of placing them in front of us,” says Taylor Katz ´08.

Next fall CCSRE will move with the Department of Gender and Women´s Studies to a renovated house owned by the College at 740 Williams Street. For now, Kim is working from a tiny third-floor office in the Blaustein Humanities Center, nestled between the French department and his religious studies colleagues.

From there he organized a spring lecture series with thought-provoking and controversial speakers like activist and legal scholar Kathleen Cleaver, political theorist Romand Coles and Rebecca Hamilton of the Genocide Intervention Network. Kim also organized a major symposium that brought Cornel West, one of America´s leading intellectuals on issues of public life, to campus in April. The symposium also featured nationally known figures like MacArthur fellow and Industrial Areas Foundation leader Ernesto Cortes, Jr., literary critic Stanley Aronowitz, and African American studies scholar Farah Griffin. This spring Kim also taught the center´s first course, an ambitious gateway offering titled “Theorizing Race and Ethnicity.”

CCSRE will work with various departments, programs and centers at the College to develop a multidisciplinary curriculum. Kim also hopes to bring postdoctoral fellows and artists-in-residence to the center, create a faculty research residency program, and sponsor colloquia, teaching workshops and summer institutes. He is working with the Office of College Advancement on grants that will provide planning funds and gifts to endow CCSRE´s operations.

In 2003, a Presidential Commission on a Pluralistic Community recommended that a new center should serve as the College´s “intellectual home” for studying issues of race and ethnicity. Now the faculty is discussing a related recommendation — that a “diversity component” be included in the College´s general education.

Kim´s dream for Connecticut College to be at the forefront of study on race and ethnicity is not as far-fetched as it might sound. The College, with no entrenched programs and no outdated approaches to rethink, is free to create whatever it wants. In addition, there is widespread debate today about the continuing relevance of programs that have focused primarily on American racial and ethnic groups. They have tended to be limited in scope, viewing one racial or ethnic group in isolation from others. Many of these programs were created in response to student interests, and the commitment to them by administrators can be spotty.

Kim doesn´t want to approach issues from one perspective, be it Latino/a, Asian American, Native American or African American. Instead, his focus is multi-disciplinary, multi-topical and multicultural. Race and ethnic studies are moving away from their focus on American racial history and culture and toward the study of international and transnational connections, themes and trends. This view can be “cosmopolitan” — in search of global commonalities that tie all humans together.

It doesn´t make sense anymore to consider local issues in isolation, says Frances Hoffmann, dean of the faculty. Because of forces like immigration, communication and the globalization of capitalism, local issues truly are global or transnational. They transcend the boundaries of individual countries or regions. The local and the global, Hoffmann says, are mutually reinforcing. “On college campuses, two previously distinctive intellectual movements, one aimed at internationalizing the curriculum, the other at understanding the experience of women and minority groups in the U.S., are increasingly intersecting in exciting ways,” Hoffmann says. “CCSRE will make these connections.”

Kim knows the danger in taking an approach that is too broad. “You don´t want to be so comprehensive that you end up studying nothing,” he says. But he added that at a liberal arts college, the student body is diverse, interests are many and the curriculum should purposefully push students to think broadly about themes and across disciplines. At a time when the purpose and design of the liberal arts curriculum is being rethought nationally, this could be a way for the College to set itself apart from its peers, perhaps in conjunction with its other academic centers, Kim says.

Kim is encouraged by response to the gateway course. Some 45 students signed up for the class; enrollment was supposed to be capped at 30. “These issues affect everybody, whether they realize it or not, and in an atmosphere like Conn this should be brought to the forefront,” says Mihal Lia Freinquel ´06, a student in the class.

The 200-level course has attracted students from freshmen to seniors, many as a result of referrals from other professors. Kim broke the class into small groups that are researching the connection between race and gender, religion, popular culture, sexuality, class distinctions, globalization, hate speech, affirmative action and cosmopolitanism. Each group is developing a bibliography, themes, research areas and questions, with the understanding that the center might choose one of their projects for future research.

Taylor Katz ´08 says the course has a unique sense of purpose. “[The center] is way overdue on our campus,” Katz says. “I have learned how to dissect cultural assumptions and see how desperately the climate in our country must change. … By taking this class, students are forced to become aware of the barriers that divide us, and I believe that this increased awareness can lead to a more accepting and conversant campus community.”

Born in Seoul, Korea, Kim came to the United States as an infant in 1966 with his parents. The family left Korea´s political turmoil to seek a better life and arrived with just $75. They were among the first Koreans to obtain visas after passage of new immigration laws in 1965. The family settled in the Boston area, where Kim´s father, who spoke no English, re-established his career as a doctor after a second residency. Assimilation into U.S. culture wasn´t easy.

Kim attributes his interest in issues of race and ethnicity partly to his heritage and his identity — he was always a racial minority in predominantly white schools. He came of age during a time of greater awareness about pluralism in public life, in both good and bad ways. “Growing up as a first-generation Korean American in the ´70s involved constant choices between trying to assimilate to white, ´mainstream´ culture and affirming who I was as a Korean American,” Kim says.

While he has researched Asian American religious life for years, being director of CCSRE allows Kim to devote more of his time and energy to race and ethnic studies. That is the personal appeal of this new position for Kim. It allows him to synthesize multiple areas of his work — religion, race and ethnicity, philosophy and politics — into a coherent program of research and teaching. It´s all in one place, Kim says, and it´s a place that makes sense.

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