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"Strangers" of the Academy: Asian Women Scholars in Higher Education

reviewed by Melissa L. Kwon & Vichet Chhuon - July 05, 2007

coverTitle: "Strangers" of the Academy: Asian Women Scholars in Higher Education
Author(s): Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Guofang Li
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1579221211 , Pages: 304, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

In “Strangers” of the Academy: Asian Women Scholars in Higher Education, Guofang Li and Gulbahar H. Beckett pull together a valuable collection of contemporary personal experiences shared by Asian women in academia. Issues related to language, representation, mentoring, disciplinary focus, tenure, and the model minority stereotype are candidly discussed through the eyes of Asian women scholars. The conflicts that these individuals face are presented as a double deficit in the academy: being Asian and being women. By encouraging a space for Asian women scholars to break the silence (Stanley, 2007), this book contributes a deeper understanding of the multiple identities that Asian women must negotiate in academia and the conflicts and resolve that result from their lived experiences.

The book consists of 15 chapters and is divided thematically into four sections. The first section, entitled “Asian female scholars in context,” provides background on Asian Pacific Americans in higher education, including their participation, persistence, challenges, and gender differences in academic field representation. For example, Hune’s chapter on the participation trends of Asian Pacific Americans (APA) in higher education argues that APA women are significantly less represented relative to their male peers as they move up through the academic pipeline, which results in their critical under representation in faculty and administrative positions. Moreover, she cited that in 1993, a mere 3 out of the 33 Asian Pacific American college presidents were female. Hune suggested that “APA women suffer from the masculine hegemony of higher education, which is less welcoming of women’s ways of being, knowing, doing, and leading” (p. 33). Thus, the White male culture that characterizes most institutions of higher education is likely to undervalue the contributions of Asian women in the academy.

Similarly, the second chapter by Lee highlights the persistent gender gap in the science, mathematics, and engineering fields. In short, these chapters by Hune and Lee call for more attention to be paid to how the interaction of race and gender shape inequalities in the academy. The last chapter of this section (Lin, Kubota, Motha, Wang, and Wong) discusses significant commonalities in the day to day experiences of Asian women faculty. This reflection is particularly interesting because it helps reveal how the expectations of Asian women faculty are often inappropriately guided by crude racial and gender stereotypes. Asian women scholars are often presumed to specialize in particular kinds of research and are expected to hold subtle and accommodating dispositions toward their colleagues. In turn, Asian women scholars risk being labeled “angry” or “sulky” when they do not conform to essentialized roles.  

In the book’s next section, “Teaching, mentoring, advising, and securing tenure,” Asian women scholars discuss their experiences related to teaching in a second language, relationships with mentors, multiple roles as Asian women scholars, and denial of tenure. Part two begins with a discussion about the barriers associated with teaching in a second language and students’ rejection of their Asian female teachers. Liang (Chapter 2) highlights the experiences of three academics and notes how “institutionalized racial and gender inequalities” were the critical roots of their “professional peripheralization” (p. 91). Samimy in the subsequent chapter offers some ways to combat this marginalization. She emphasizes the important role that supportive mentoring relationships played in her socialization into the academy. This Asian woman scholar found it necessary to renegotiate her identity and prioritize her various roles (i.e., mother, scholar, mentor) instead of trying to do everything. This section also included a chapter by one of the book’s co-editors (Li) who explored the within-group racism and sexism in her experiences as a faculty member. Specifically, Li shares her experiences of being discriminated against by her own graduate students, which she attributes to her relative youth, gender, race, and being a non-native speaker. All of these identities tend to be marginalized in Western Academia.  

Section two concludes with reflections by scholars (Loo and Ho) whose stories speak to the significant barriers that exist in the professional advancement of Asian women in academia. They intimately describe how these two identities make it problematic for Asian women to achieve tenure and promotion, and this generates psychological stress for these scholars. The personal experiences of Asian female academics struggling to gain a merit increase and tenure are shared, attributing at least part of their struggles to gender and racial discrimination. This discrimination is often cloaked in criticisms related to research credibility and insufficient publication performance. These narratives resonate with other works that take issue with this frequently cited reason for the denial of promotion and tenure of scholars of color (Stanley, 2007). Scholars elsewhere have argued that little empirical evidence exists to support the claim that differences in publication performance actually exist between minority and majority faculty (Allen, Epps, Guillory, Suh, & Bonous-Hammarth, 2000). As a result of their negative experiences in the academy, these Asian women find themselves more strongly identifying with being both Asian and female. Furthermore, they have become actively involved in the social-political mobilization for justice in academia.

The third section “Gaining voice, forming identity,” addresses the marginalization, model minority stereotype, immigrant experience, and safe spaces available for Asian women scholars. Asher’s discussion about the intersection of race, class, gender, culture, and location centers upon her experiences in the Deep South where race relations tend to reflect a Black and White binary that excludes Asians. She deconstructs the model minority stereotype by showing how it promotes conformity, racism, and oppression as well as leaves individuals voiceless. Furthering this theme, Shrake’s essay in the next chapter deconstructs the notion of “masking,” a practice where Asian women avoid confrontation by conforming to the model minority and Asian female gender stereotypes. She warns against falling into the trap of masking that subordinates Asian women. In a related way, Pangsapa (Chapter 10) identifies Women’s Studies departments as a space where Asian women scholars can find comfort within Western academia. The last two chapters of this section by Guo, and Becket and Zhang, respectively, explore how cross-cultural experiences can be viewed as an asset instead of a deficit within academia. Being able to identify with students’ immigrant experiences as well as creating interactive lessons based on their own cross-cultural backgrounds is used as an advantage in their teaching.

The concluding section is entitled “Building bridges, building the future,” and provides lessons learned from Asian women scholars including cross-cultural mentoring, defining one’s multiple identities, and viewing cross-cultural experiences as an asset. In Chapters 13 (Zong) and 14 (Rong and Preissle), the authors argue that the cultural backgrounds that they bring to the table as Chinese and American scholars provided them with unique perspectives which they use to their advantage in teaching, research, and mentoring. Rong and Preissle share how their relationship has evolved from student-advisor to close and mutually respecting colleagues. Each has benefited from the other’s unique cultural understandings. Finally, Lin’s concluding chapter describes how the incorporation of both Eastern and Western concepts in her teaching have positively impacted her students in tremendous ways, including helping students to identify and analyze inequalities related to gender, class, economics, politics, and social structures. She suggests that since Asian women have multiple identities, they must find their own voice within those identities and incorporate it into their work to instill genuine diversity in the academy.

Overall, the contributors to this book shed light on the varied challenges faced by Asian women in academia. The voices of these women contribute a great deal to understanding and beg rectifying the inequities that plague a White and male dominated academy. The book provides individual level solutions for Asian females within the academy. Unfortunately, this places the burden on the Asian women solely to cope with the discrimination that is imposed on them. It is important for the authors to acknowledge that there are societal, institutional, and individual factors that contribute to their marginalization in the academy. We would have appreciated a discussion addressing these other dimensions and providing concrete suggestions for Asian women faculty when interacting on these levels, instead of merely suggesting how they individually can reframe their own actions and thinking. How might the experiences highlighted in this collection translate into changes in institutional culture and practice?  Nevertheless, this volume represents an outlet for beginning discussions about the unique experiences of Asian women scholars. These discussions will result in further understanding of the contributions of Asian women scholars and help alleviate the hardships that they currently face in the academy. While this book would ostensibly be a valuable resource for those interested in the unique experiences of Asian women scholars, we believe that the volume would also be of interest to those seeking to understand more broadly the experiences of women of color in the academy.


Stanley, C.A. (2007). Coloring the academic landscape: Faculty of color breaking the silence in predominately White colleges and universities. American Educational Research Journal, 43(4), 701-736.

Allen, W.R., Epps, E.G., Guillory, E.A., Suh, S.A., & Bonous-Hammarth, M. (2000). The Black academic: Faculty status among African-Americans in U.S. higher education. Journal of Negro Education, 69, 112-127.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14546, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:22:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Melissa Kwon
    University of California
    E-mail Author
    MELISSA L. KWON is a doctoral candidate in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on college student leadership and the assessment of English language learners.
  • Vichet Chhuon
    University of California
    E-mail Author
    VICHET CHHUON is a doctoral candidate in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include immigrant schooling, Asian American education, and achievement motivation.
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