Photo courtesy Dr. Diego Luis

Harris Rogers ‘21 (he/him/his)

One of Davidson’s newest visiting professors is already making his presence felt on campus. Dr. Diego Luis arrived at Davidson in the fall of 2020 under unusual circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic had transformed the dynamics of a Davidson classroom, creating a teaching environment that no one could have envisioned. Zoom sessions replaced in-person teaching. An at-home asynchronous lecture replaced a student’s daily walk to Chambers. Professors stopped coming to campus, obliged to remain safe in their nearby residences. 

Dr. Luis, like anyone, was not immune to these difficulties. He admittedly still has trouble navigating campus, a consequence of the times. However, despite these challenges, Dr. Luis and his students alike are enthusiastic about his arrival, the classes he’s teaching, and the unique research he’s undertaking.

Dr. Luis joins a select group of Asian, Asian American and Asian Diaspora scholars at Davidson. This group includes Dr. Sarah Waheed, Dr. Rosaline Kyo and Dr. Yurika Tamura, who teach across a variety of disciplines and majors at Davidson. Dr. Fuji Lozada, a specialist in Chinese Studies, is not actively teaching but instead currently serving as the Associate Dean of Faculty and the college’s Chief Diversity Officer. To this group, Dr. Luis adds an additional trans-national and trans-continental aspect to the courses offered to Davidson students interested in pursuing Asian Studies, allowing them to explore the connection between Asia and the Americas. 

 A recent recipient of his Ph.D in History from Brown University, Davidson is Dr. Luis’s first stop in his career as a professor. He teaches in both the Humanities program, also known as Humes, and the Latin American Studies and History departments. His inaugural class, taught in the fall, was titled “Asian Diasporas to Latin America, 16th century to the Present.” 

This semester, Dr. Luis is presiding over “Colonialism and Digital Media in Latin America and the Philippines.” According to Dr. Luis, “the premise of the course is that digital media — and we look at film, video games and social media — have been fundamental sites of confrontation about the memory of colonialism in the former Hispanic world.” Through this class and others, Dr. Luis hopes to raise questions about how we consider the history of colonialism in the Hispanic world, and the relationship between modern states and Indigenous communities and how they interact in the post-colonial period.

 Dr. Luis has also sought to incorporate in his classes cultural and artistic experiences for his students, especially with artists he is collaborating on projects with. These have included appearances by No-No Boy, a multimedia project created by Julian Saporiti that chronicles the Asian American experience through folk music, and Fernando Norat, a Puerto Rican illustrator.

Dr. Luis is also in the final stages of a book-length manuscript which he hopes to publish in the near future. The book focuses on the first movements of both free and enslaved Asians across the Pacific, by way of the Spanish Empire and what have been termed the “Manila galleons,” beginning in the 16th century. The book also focuses on the discourses on race, ethnicity, class and law generated by the arrival of the first Asian migrants to the Americas, and the stories of individuals involved in this migration. The research for this book took him around the world as he searched for primary sources in the archives of numerous countries. 

Despite employing a number of visiting professors, Davidson lacks any tenure-track faculty who specialize in Asian American Studies. The college also lacks a major dedicated to the field, albeit allowing the opportunity to create one through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Without tenure-track faculty, Davidson is not positioned to create a major that has seen increasing demand and interest from the student body. Some see this as a major gap in the broad curriculum promised by a liberal arts education. 

According to Yashita Kandhari ‘22, a member of the Asian American Initiative, the desire for an Asian American Studies major reflects not only the changing demographics of Davidson College and North Carolina, which have both seen increasing populations of Asian and Asian American residents, but also the importance of understanding Asian American history as an essential part of American history. According to Dr. Luis, “the diversity of the curriculum at the College should reflect the diversity of the study body, and the interests of the study body.” He added that, “Asian American studies are fundamental to this diversity.” Kandhari, who took Dr. Luis’s class last semester, sees him as a valuable part of this academic diversity and Davidson community, stating that “he’s really incredible at what he does.”

The Asian American Initiative is the predominant student group on campus advocating for an Asian American Studies major, and the creation of tenure-track positions for Asian American specialists at Davidson. According to the organization’s website, the Asian American initiative began formally in 2018 after the infamous Neo-Nazi doxxing incident that fall. AAI aims to build off the work of former and current student organizations, including ExpectAsian and the Asian Cultural Awareness Association, which advocated for greater awareness of Asian and Asian American issues on campus, and an expansion of the curriculum at Davidson to include more courses and professors devoted to Asian Studies. The current demand of AAI remains the establishment of an Asian American Studies major, contingent upon the extension of tenured positions for professors specializing in this area. In part, that activism helped bring Dr. Luis to campus, after AAI demanded the hiring of new specialists in Asian-American studies and investigated programs then seeking new professors.

Hate crimes targeted at Asians and Asian Americans have also increased dramatically over the past year, in part due to anti-Asian rhetoric inflamed by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16th, Robert Aaron Long opened fire at several massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian. All but one of the victims were women. However, Dr. Luis, his colleagues, and the members of AAI stress that anti-Asian racism did not begin, and does not end, with violent acts like those in Atlanta. 

Dr. Luis believes that, in addressing anti-Asian sentiment and understanding of Asian American history, “continuity is really the key” . He emphasized the need to “to create a community, a cohort, among the faculty that can support each other, that can develop a curriculum, that can develop a concentration, or at the very least a minor, and go from there.” 

While difficult to say when a formal Asian American studies major might become a reality, conversations are occurring that could prove to be first steps. According to Dr. Lozada, a meeting between faculty supportive of an Asian American Studies major and the college administration will likely occur in the near future, although a date is still to be determined. What is more certain is that for an Asian American Studies major to materialize at Davidson will require the tenured employment of specialists in that field. The school will need to hire more exceptional professors, like Dr. Luis, who focus explicitly on the Americas and the role Asian people have played in American history. Without them, our understanding of that history remains incomplete.