Theorizing From The Flesh: Examining Ethnic Studies at Tufts

On March 28, 1969, the Tufts Observer published a story on the sit-ins, strikes, occupations of buildings, and rallies that were a part of the struggle for ethnic studies at a variety of universities across the US. At the time, students noted the need for university reform at Tufts, including the implementation of ethnic studies into the curricula. However, it took 45 years for these demands to be met through the creation of the Department of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD) Studies. The RCD department has served as the cornerstone of the university’s efforts to promote “social justice and cultural sovereignty” as the curricular home for discussions on contemporary and historical social inequalities. However, after examining the state of the curriculum in the area of ethnic studies, students have questioned the sincerity of Tufts’ statements.

There are several interdisciplinary tracks within the RCD department, including 3 majors: Africana Studies; American Studies; and Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora Studies. There are also 5 minors: Africana Studies; Asian American Studies; Latinx Studies; Colonialism Studies; and Native American and Indigenous Studies. Despite the wide scope of the department’s curriculum, there are only 12 full-time faculty within the department. 

The RCD department chooses to “theorize from the flesh,” a phrase originally coined by Chicana feminists that has since been adopted by scholars of ethnic studies. This intellectual framework conjoins theory and practice through an embodied politic of resistance that centers marginalized identities and history in discussion. For many students, classes within the RCD department are the only ones at Tufts that have promoted this framework of thinking. 

Max Whaley, a senior double majoring in American Studies and Environmental Studies, believes the diverse set of classes offered by the RCD department challenges the standard forms of knowledge production. “[The RCD department] counters the rest of the university and how things are taught… The classes I’ve taken in RCD have definitely made me think a lot more critically about my other major—environmental studies—and also the university as a whole,” said Whaley. 

Founded in 2019, the RCD department is a relatively new addition to Tufts. However, the history of ethnic studies as an academic discipline reaches back into the middle of the 20th century. In the US, the field of ethnic studies evolved out of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of students of color demanding that their education be less Eurocentric and more reflective of their histories. The fight for ethnic studies in the ‘60s and ‘70s was violent; students and faculty were brutalized by police during peaceful protests at schools like the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco State University. 

As a result of this student activism, colleges and universities around the nation have hosted a variety of ethnic studies programs focusing on the history of race in the US. The nation’s first formal College of Ethnic Studies was established at San Francisco State University in 1969. In the Northeast, Tufts’ peer institutions and NESCAC schools first introduced programs in the 20th century. For instance, Amherst College implemented a few classes in ethnic studies in 1948, and Colby College implemented an ethnic studies program in the late 1960s. Tufts has lagged behind in the implementation of ethnic studies, and only formally introduced it into the school’s curriculum in the summer of 2014.

Although students and faculty had been working tirelessly since 2011 to formalize the various ethnic studies programs at Tufts, it was not until 2014 that the university approved the creation of a Consortium for Race, Colonialism and Diaspora. As a consortium—an association of professors who were interested in promoting ethnic studies classes across Tufts’ curriculum—RCD consortium struggled with faculty turnover, being unable to hire professors and experiencing a variety of other structural issues associated with consortium status. However, the consortium structure did allow the RCD professors to spread across several existing departments and reach a large pool of students. 

This all changed when the Board of Trustees voted to allow RCD to become a department in November 2018. Shortly after, in the Spring of 2019, the department received a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the development of the department and the hiring of new faculty. “It’s important to note that the RCD effort emerged organically from the faculty—and students—who deserve the credit for its initiation and growth. The school’s administration has embraced the effort with support and resources,” said James Glaser, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. With these new resources, the RCD emerged in the 2019-2020 academic year as a fully functioning department. 

However, achieving department status has not completely relieved RCD of structural challenges. “There’s a lot of budgetary issues that go into founding a department because that money we got from the Mellon Foundation was only [enough] to cover [new] faculty salaries,” rather than other expenses associated with creating a department, said Adriana Zavala, Associate Professor in the RCD department. “[However,] the university put a lot of money into the project of creating a new department, and that doesn’t happen easily at universities,” continued Zavala. Additionally, the RCD department is “faced with figuring out who the next department chair will be [due to] a shortage of tenured faculty who can step up to do that work.” Since much of the faculty within the department is newly hired, Professor Lorgia García-Peña is the only professor among the core RCD faculty with tenure.

Although RCD has become an official department, some students have expressed a desire for RCD modes of thought to expand across the rest of Tufts’ curriculum. Carolina Olea Lezama, a senior who is double majoring in Political Science and American Studies, arrived at Tufts in 2018 before RCD was established as a department. 

“The US is a settler-colonial state that is built on inherently upholding white supremacy, but I think it’s important that we are learning how to dismantle that for ourselves in these classes,” said Olea Lezama. “A lot of people really need to have these conversations,” but, for many, classes within the RCD department “are the first [and only] time learning about these things,” said Olea Lezama. 

Historically, the work of anti-racist and counter-hegemonic education has relied on the unpaid labor of people of color—women of color have especially felt this burden. In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, Professor Courtney Sato, a Mellon Assistant Professor within the RCD department, wrote “with limited faculty it becomes harder to offer a variety of upper-level seminars or courses given the necessity of teaching introductory survey courses or required major core courses. I would especially be excited to grow our faculty and research offerings in the fields of Latinx and Asian American studies.” 

Institutions of higher-learning like Tufts have the responsibility to offer courses that reflect the histories of all their students. Professor Lorgia García-Peña, a Mellon Associate Professor within the RCD department, said “the work of ethnic studies is literally to fill the silences and gaps that all of the other fields have left,” thus these courses “really are the future if we truly want to have a university that is anti-racist and anti-colonial, which universities including Tufts are claiming to want to be.” 

Until the founding of the RCD department in 2019, there were few classes offered that reflected the histories and cultures of minority students. In this regard, Tufts, as an institution, has historically underserved minority students on campus. 

Even today, due to the new status of the department and the lack of university support, students feel that not enough classes are offered. “They should get more money and be able to reach more students given the immense amount of support other disciplines have at this university. All of the professors that I’ve taken classes with or interacted with are extremely overworked and overburdened. All professors are overworked but especially so in this department because of its specific situation,” said Whaley. 

Among faculty within the RCD department, which is largely composed of women of color, the same sentiment exists. It is a very new department, but it could receive more support from the administration and students. “Some of us are serving multiple departments, [and] some of us are new and trying to figure out what this landscape looks like…We’re having some growing pains and I can’t underscore the degree to which the pandemic has made things even more challenging,” said Zavala. 

However, Glaser maintained that the school offers enough of the intellectual framework adopted by the RCD department, as “departments and programs in the school have embraced examinations of their curriculum and their pedagogy through an anti-racist frame.” 

This disservice is even greater when considering the lack of faculty of color on campus; 71 percent of faculty are white compared to 4 percent who are Hispanic, 3 percent who are Black, and 11 percent who are Asian. This reduces mentoring opportunities for students of color from professional faculty that look like them and share similar life experiences. 

In a predominantly white institution like Tufts, those connections with RCD faculty are invaluable to students of color. “Just one semester of [Professor Lorgia García-Peña] being here, I feel like it’s been so good for my soul. That’s another thing that I’m really grateful for. I love that [professors in the RCD department] are here to teach and they’re also here for their students [of color],” said Olea Lezama.

Another way for the institution to support the RCD is through the establishment of an adequate department office space and increasing faculty hires. “Right now RCD is housed in the Humanities Center, but it would be ideal for the department to have a distinct space that’s conducive to long-term growth,” said Sato. “Additional future faculty hires would further strengthen the program. 

Finally, students can support the department by taking RCD courses and spreading the word about what RCD entails and the exciting teaching and research that the department can foster,” said Sato. For students interested in RCD courses, considering a minor or major is another way to support the growth of the department. Despite large numbers of students enrolling in RCD courses, without students declaring a minor or major it becomes very difficult for the department to prove student interest. “We believe in ethnic studies, and we know how important ethnic studies is to the training of liberal arts undergraduate students and the future of this country, but [if] students don’t get on board and major, that looks very bad to the senior administration because they’re committing resources,” said Zavala. 

As a field built from the bottom up, ethnic studies continues to be a way for students to engage in and counter white-centered educational hegemony. Co-Interim Chair of the RCD department Professor Heather Curtis wrote in a statement to the Tufts Observer that, going forward, she “expect[s] the department to add additional faculty in the coming years as we strive to strengthen our engagement with [and] across all of our areas of focus.” 

“There’s always the story of… ethnic studies as a field across the United States that is built from struggle. But we’ve also had successes.” A university commitment to expand ethnic studies means “Tufts can be a leader in this regard,” said Zavala.