Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of FaultLines
By Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Founding Director of CRG, Professor of the Graduate School
Elaine H. Kim, Professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies retired as of June 30, 2015, after 44 years at UC Berkeley. I caught up with her to ask her to share with our readers some reflections on her career, how her scholarly interests evolved over time, her involvement in the creation and development of the field of Asian American Studies, and changes in her relationship with students.
ENG: Looking at your publications it strikes me that your concerns changed over time from Asian American literature to Asian American art and film. Were there distinct periods marking changes in your interests?
EHK: When I started out in the 1970s, I was interested in the relationship between U.S. imperialism in Asia and domestic racism toward Asians. In the 80s, I continued to be interested in the relationship between U.S. imperialism and domestic racism. I also started working in the local Korean community in opposing the U.S.-supported military dictatorships in South Korea. The Gwangju Uprising and subsequent military massacre of civilians in 1981 galvanized the diaspora communities because, although the press was censored in South Korea, we who lived outside South Korea were able know what happened. Also that was when South Koreans and some Korean Americans began questioning the old idea of American benevolence. People realized that the Republic of Korea military was under the control of the U.S., which condoned or looked the other way when the massacres took place.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s I became interested in the intersections of race and gender. Whereas so much of the writing about Asian and Asian American politics had been done by men, there were many discussions and writings by brilliant women of color proliferating at this time.
In the 2000s, I got a lot more interested in visual arts and visual culture. It’s not that I stopped being interested in what concerned me in previous decades, but that my interests agglutinated. I was forced to try to understand new complexities and contradictions.
ENG: Can you say a bit more about your work in the community?
EHK: Part of the mandate of the Third World Strike (that led to the creation of Ethnic Studies) was working in the community, but the Koreans didn’t
have much of a community in the 1970s. They didn’t start settling here in earnest until the early to mid- 1970s. But I did help set up the Korean Community Center (KCB) in 1977. After I got tenure in 1981, I thought it was time to repay my debts to the community, so I began working 40 hours a week at the Korean Community Center as a volunteer. I wrote grant proposals because I was the only native English speaker at the time and was good with writing proposals, so 1981-1988 – that’s what I did. I went to the university as little as possible, just to teach my classes, because during
this time I considered my job ‘just a job’ that yielded a paycheck to take care of the bills.
ENG: It sounds like you had two full-time jobs. I came to Cal in 1990, which was after ES (Ethnic Studies) had been moved into L&S (College of Letters & Science). It had morphed into a situation where it had to fit into the university paradigm in terms of periodic evaluations, with raises and promotions based on uniform academic criteria. Were things different before the move into L&S?
EHK: I worked as a lecturer from 1971 to 1974, when I became an Acting Assistant Professor. As a halftime lecturer, I taught six Reading and Composition (R&C) classes, two each quarter. At that time, it seemed that the ‘arts and culture’ stuff was supposed to be covered by the women while
the social science classes would be taught by the men. I was the one who designed the Asian American Studies Reading and Composition (1AB). I had
been a Teaching Assistant in the Subject A Department, which offered remedial English to students whose SAT achievement scores in English were
below 500. Because the course was considered remedial and not ‘at college level,’ students got no credit and had to pay $45 each time they took the
class (at that time, the tuition or fees were only $105 a quarter, so $45 was a lot), and they had to pass it to graduate. Sometimes they would take the class multiple times and the instructors would finally pass the Asian students with what they called ‘the oriental D’ so that they could graduate.
Most students of color were held for that requirement – bilingual Asian and Latino students and students who spoke black English or were deemed
deficient in ‘standard English.’ The program, which was called the Subject A Program, never had any TAs of color. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964
was passed, people were looking for ‘minorities’ to fill positions historically held only by white people. At the time, in 1968, I was one of only two students of color in the graduate English program, so I was selected from among 146 applicants to be a Subject A instructor.
In a faculty meeting, I heard a discussion about raising the passing score on the SAT’s English exam from 500 to 550. They openly talked about this as a strategy to get more teaching positions. I thought that was racist and unfair. I asked an Asian American professor what I should do, and he suggested I go to the L&S dean. We had no idea that the dean was a close friend with the Subject A director. So instead I got fired from my position. I remember the director’s husband saying to me, ‘you have a history of deviousness.’
ENG: What about your stint in campus administration?
EHK: In the early 1990s I started focusing more on my job at UC Berkeley. That was when I got an appointment at Chancellor Tien’s office overseeing
tenure cases, to make sure that faculty women and faculty of color were not being discriminated against in hiring and promotion. This job helped me
learn more about how the university works. I liked working for the Chancellor, whom I respect deeply. Later I took a position as an associate dean in the Graduate Division.
After that, during my final decade of working at Berkeley, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and working with my students. I was the one who designed Asian American Studies Reading and Composition (1AB) early on in my career and subsequently developed required and elective courses within Asian American Studies. But, I had been a cursory teacher. I didn’t really give myself to it. In the end, I did really give myself to it. Alas, by the time I finally woke up to how fabulous our students are, I was so damn old that they probably thought hearing my lectures was like listening to their grandmas. I only learned how to do Power-Point towards the end of my teaching!
ENG: So how do you feel about having spent your entire career in Ethnic Studies at Berkeley?
EHK: I have women of color friends teaching in other departments who complain about what they have to deal with. I am very grateful that I was able to have this job. I was lucky I was born a long time ago – if I applied for admission to the undergrad program now, I’m sure I would not get in.
ENG: As usual, you’re being way too modest. You helped to create an academic field from scratch, so that current students can start from a much higher level of knowledge and sophistication.
EHK: At Berkeley, unlike at places like Stanford, Northwestern, or Princeton, it was possible. There were allies along the way. There are a lot of things to complain about at Berkeley, but there was always a possibility of creating and nurturing new things. I really hope that we will be more courageous
than conforming, because creativity comes from courage. Of course creativity isn’t possible if the resources are pinched, which is what we are facing
now in this era of neo-liberalization of education.
ENG: How do you feel about retirement?
EHK: I feel satisfied. I’m still going to write a few articles and I want to help out with the fundraising for Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies.
But I would like to move now into new directions that might not have all that much to do with what I’ve done up till now.