By Bryan Betts, Editor-in-Chief
Last month, the Faculty Senate unanimously approved revisions to the Asian Studies major that, among other changes, gives students the option to forgo language study. The Senate also approved the Asian Studies department’s proposal to create two new majors in Chinese Studies and Japanese Studies targeted at students who desire to focus exclusively on the language and culture of these countries.
Taken together, the changes attest to the growth of Asian Studies at Furman and the department’s recognition of differences in what students are seeking from the study of Asia, a region whose continuing rise in global prominence has attracted a rush of student interest in recent years.
History and Asian Studies professor Savita Nair, who helped draft the proposal for the revised major, said the department decided to drop the language requirement in recognition of an increase in the number of students desiring a cultural familiarity with Asia for their future profession—in many cases international business or law—but who are not seeking the language skills needed to live and work in an Asian country.
Nair said many of these students would take Asian Studies courses for elective credit but avoided the major because of the language requirement.
“The faculty highly support the study of language training in the study of Asia,” Nair said. “However, some felt we needed to have the flexibility for students who maybe don’t want the language focus.”
The new country-specific majors in Chinese and Japanese Studies, on the other hand, address those students who prioritize language acquisition and want to focus exclusively on one country where in many cases they intend to live and work. The majors emphasize language study but also require students to take four non-language courses related to their chosen country.
“The new Japanese Studies and Chinese Studies majors give students the opportunity to really immerse themselves in the language, culture, and politics of a particular region,” Nair said.
The new majors were made possible because Furman already offered four years of study in both Japanese and Chinese. The proposal for the new majors emphasized that creating the majors would not require additional funding.
Under the old guidelines, the Asian Studies major requirements dictated that students maintain a disciplinary balance by enrolling in at least one course within each of four disciplinary categories. History and Asian Studies professor Lane Harris said the requirements were too complex and made it difficult for students to schedule courses.
The revised Asian Studies major does away with the disciplinary categories and introduces an advising component under which students must submit a proposed course of study when they declare. The flexibility introduced with the advising component will make it easier to double major with Asian Studies by allowing students to shape their course of study to match their other academic interests.
“The emphasis [is] on student initiative and student choice about what their education should consist of,” Harris said.
Harris said he expects that many current Asian Studies majors will switch to Chinese or Japanese Studies but that the overall number of students under the Asian Studies department will increase by 10 to 20% because of the ease with which students can double major. All three majors fall under the direction of the Asian Studies department.
Students who have already declared an Asian Studies major have the option of staying with the old guidelines or switching to one of the new or revised majors. Junior Asian Studies major Charlotte Holt said she intends to switch to Chinese Studies, having taken only China-related courses for the major up until this semester.
“It makes it easier in an interview to explain that you were Chinese Studies rather than Asian Studies with a focus on China,” said Holt.
Sophomore Asian Studies major Austin Charles said he intends to switch to the revised Asian Studies major despite having completed three semesters of Chinese language study because he would like to change his focus from China to South Asia. He suggested this would have been more difficult under the old guidelines due to the rigid disciplinary categories.
“You sort of had to know [your focus] right off the bat and there wasn’t really a whole lot of flexibility there,” Charles said. “They’ve added the flexibility and I think that’s going to be great for the major.”
An interesting and unexpected phenomenon to result from dropping the language requirement has been that a number of international students are considering declaring an Asian Studies major. Nair said these students often have an interest in seeing how their home country is studied from the perspective of foreign academics but obviously had no interest in fulfilling the language requirement for their native language.
Harris noted that there has been a nationwide debate within the discipline of Asian Studies over the role of language instruction. Furman, he said, is one of only “five or six schools that have a major like this.”
Nair noted that Furman has a long history of teaching about Asia going back to the 1960s and that Furman’s Asian Studies program is the “envy of other Asian Studies programs around the country, not just around the southeast.” She suggested that the new changes to the program placed Furman at the forefront of the discipline.
“I’ll speculate, but perhaps in another 30 years this move will be seen as ahead of its time,” she said.