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Sarah Yu '11: Our say in academics

During a reception for international students at the Faculty Club last month, Vice President for International Affairs, Matthew Gutmann, was questioned by concerned students about why the Watson Institute has not yet taken to starting programs on contemporary China and Southeast Asia.

I had to agree with the need for such a question — after a browse of the "People" page on the Watson Institute for International Studies website, I found that out of all the distinguished scholars and faculty members, there is only one professor each to list as a part of his or her "Areas of interest" China and Asia-Pacific. In fact, in my six semesters at Brown, I remember only one course with Southeast Asia in its title or description ever being offered, and a quick search of Mocha now shows that even this course is not in the curriculum at all this academic year.

I use the examples of contemporary China and Southeast Asia on the basis that these regions seem to be increasingly important in both a global academic perspective, and in that increasing numbers of Brown students have personal ties to them. With this background explaining the areas' growing significance to the Brown community and to academia, it is logical that subsequent increasing attention should be paid to ensure that more opportunities in these areas exist.

Also, for the purposes of students coming from international backgrounds, the University's keeping a diversity of regional academic foci in mind allows better facilitation of advising honors programs, student projects and initiatives, and rapport between faculty and students.

Gutmann replied very simply to this student's query: the lack of these specific programs can be attributed to the fact that students, even if interested, had never developed this interest to actively make them be a reality at Brown. He implies, I assume, that if one or more enthusiastic students decided to devote time in presenting their ideas for a brilliant plan to increase Watson's Asia capabilities, then the realization of desired East and Southeast Asia foci at Watson would become a priority for the faculty.

Gutmann's words should have left us with a sense of idealistic hope, a real liberal attitude towards how we, as students, can cause change in our own academic administration. This idea is possibly the best true way to declare ourselves as a liberal higher education institution, the highest achievement of students' initiatives.

Yet the idealism doesn't seem to cut it — there is still a nagging feeling in me that these concerns cannot possibly be so easily solved. Very few of us have attempted to undertake the task of setting up a formal academic program before, and those of us who have tried to fill the gaps between what we have been learning and what we would like to learn have most probably been redirected to the path of proposing an Independent Study Project of some kind.

The first subsequent question that should pop into a Brown student's head when facing this important task should be the question of who to talk to for such a project. Who do we talk to, if we believe that Brown should hire a new faculty member who specializes in an area not already represented, or if we have a suggestion to improve Brown's image and standing as a cosmopolitan research institution? Which administrator, dean or advisor should we approach if we want to get further than just being encouraged to take advantage of the independent study opportunities? Who is someone we perceive to have power, and at the same time, with whom we can feel comfortable enough to discuss these questions?

It is no doubt fantastic that students can take a class for course credit on virtually anything we want, and that we are encouraged to develop our own independent curricula. But these opportunities can by no means make up for students' suggestions that Brown can do more administratively. Without the initial steps and guidance that will lead students on a transparent and supported path to attempt to deal with such administrative questions, our liberal dreams cannot be realized.

Perhaps the solution can be to develop a more established system of communication about academic programs between students and faculty — a process of academic advising for faculty and administrators from students. Students can address deficiencies and suggest academic programs we would find beneficial to Brown and its community. An organized body could provide the messenger channel to those who make decisions and provide the necessary information and resources to students wanting to effect more meaningful change. Who knows, this might be the next revolutionary step to reaching our ultimate open curriculum.

Sarah Yu '11 is an international relations and history concentrator from Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at xia_yu at brown.edu.


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