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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, May 27, 2024

Tufts offers first Southeast Asian history course in two decades

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East Hall on the is pictured on March 20, 2021.

While perusing SIS this fall, you’ll find HIST80: Introduction to the History of Southeast Asia. Taught by Professor Mesrob Vartavarian, the course examines the region’s geography and socio-political development, early European colonization, Western-led globalization and more. However, what the details do not reveal is that HIST80 is the first Southeast Asian history course offered at Tufts in approximately 25 years.

David Proctor, a distinguished senior lecturer in the history and classical studies departments and coordinator of the History Department’s undergraduate course offerings, shared the difficulties in facilitating a specialized course on the region. 

“When you're trying to focus on all the regions around the world, it is not always easy to make sure every region gets the coverage that it should have,” Proctor said. 

Proctor explained that a lack of staffing led to minimal coverage of Southeast Asian history in the department’s course offerings. However, in recent years, an increase in staffing allowed for more complete coverage of Asia, leading to the creation of the Introduction to the History of Southeast Asia course. 

“I think, largely it's been the fact that we just have not had faculty who have specialized in that region. … Over the last couple of decades, we really haven't had any faculty that focused on [Southeast Asia],” Proctor said. “As we moved into this semester, because of a lot of extenuating factors, … we had an opportunity to expand the number of part-time [faculty] positions, and it seemed like a great opportunity to offer a course focusing on a region that we just haven't been able, [because of] staffing, to offer in previous years.”

Tom Guan, a senior enrolled in HIST80, discussed his interest in Southeast Asia. 

“I know a lot of people who have been interested in studying the region, but there is not a course or a professor who specializes in it. So I was really happy when Professor Vartavarian was hired and when I saw that this course was being taught.”

Guan spoke highly of Vartavarian and the course.

“I do like Professor Vartavarian, he has this encyclopedic knowledge, and he's very articulate. Even though it's a lower level course, he teaches it very rigorously and doesn't treat us like people who take lower level courses,” he said. “I hope it continues to be offered.”

Vartavarian is a lecturer in the history department whose education spans UCLA and Cambridge. He recently spent time as a research fellow at the Harvard Asia Center. Vartavarian recounted his education and the path that led him to Tufts. 

“I myself had very good teachers. I was lucky … [that] Jeff Robinson at UCLA is one of my mentors, [and] I spent 18 months at Cornell, which is one of the very few leading centers of Southeast Asian studies in the [world],” Vartavarian said. “I’m happy to bring [Southeast Asian studies] into a small New England university.” 

Vartavarian highlighted the importance of teaching Southeast Asian studies.

“[Southeast Asia] is a vast region, maybe about 600 million people at this point. … More and more [Asian Americans] are coming from Southeast Asia,” Vartavarian said. “We [have been] seeing this since the mid 70s, with South Vietnamese fleeing to the United States, and after the collapse of South Vietnam, Cambodians coming in … and, of course, Filipinos having been a presence in the United States since the 1930s and 40s, and now becoming one of the largest components of the Asian American [demographic]. [By teaching Southeast Asian history] not only will we be filling a gap, but we'll also be servicing a community which is growing.” 

Yiyun further explained the importance of the subject in the context of the Tufts community.  

“[Southeast Asian studies] would benefit a lot of students, especially considering that we actually have a lot of activism surrounding Southeast Asia on this campus,” Guan said. “I know that last month, there was an Open Mic for Myanmar event. … And there's been decades-long activism against the Marcos regime in the Philippines on campus.” 

Notably, the tradition of painting the Tufts cannon dates back to 1977, when student-led protests began inoppositionto political corruption and human rights violations under the Marcos regime.

Proctor elaborated upon Guan’s remarks, reflecting on how other classes have driven students’ interest in Southeast Asia.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve really gotten a sense that students, having been exposed to this region through other classes, really had developed a real interest in digging deeper into that region. And that's really what this semester is about, to give those students that opportunity and also to gauge what additional interest there might be,” Proctor said.

In spring 2023, Vartavarian will teach a higher-level course on mass political violence in modern Southeast Asia. 

“[The lack of Southeast Asian studies] is a general issue, I have to say. It’s something you find in universities all over. There is East Asian Studies and there's South Asian Studies, and Southeast Asia has really fallen through that gaping hole. This is a national, I think, oversight,” Vartavarian said. “I think it would behoove Tufts to start small, naturally, but gradually fill that neglected region.”