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Miliann Kang

Miliann Kang serves as both an associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and the Director of Diversity Advancement for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. Discussing her approach to research and her work in the classroom, Professor Kang explains how her Midwestern upbringing, sociological background, and experience at other U.S. colleges and universities all inform her current practices.

You have worn many hats throughout your career, occupying different spaces and approaching ideas from the perspectives of different roles. Why have you approached your work this way?

I’m an interdisciplinary scholar, so that’s both my training and sensibility. My Ph.D. is actually in Sociology, so I was disciplined in Sociology, but I also always tried to engage with WGSS—Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies—and also ethnic studies, particularly Asian American studies. I’m sort of put together that way, I guess! It’s really hard for me just to see things from one lens, or one vantage point.

Part of that comes from my own experience, I think. My parents came from Korea as immigrants, and I was born in New York but grew up in the Midwest. I actually grew up in St. Louis, about ten minutes from Ferguson, but in a very, very white neighborhood. St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities; I was kind of always going back and forth between a very black and white binary—yet, being Asian, I think it fostered this kind of way of being in the world that’s always looking through different points of view.

So what specifically about your social science background led you to the Humanities?

I’m an ethnographer, which is about stories, so there’s a natural resonance with the humanities. It’s about lived experiences. It’s about intersections. The data that you’re collecting is oftentimes narratives, be those interviews, or be those narratives about what’s happening literally on the street.

I think that that’s what the humanities do, also. Not just sociology but different social science fields, like political science, anthropology—what they have been calling the “narrative turn”—are very much focused on trying to pull out the stories and meaning-making processes both that individuals have about their own lives and about their social worlds. I think that’s a natural fit with the humanities.

Do you find that the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies encapsulates this interdisciplinarity?

We have faculty here who are scientists, who are creative writers, who are historians. I’m a sociologist. Some people come from interdisciplinary WGSS programs or other kinds of programs, so I think our faculty very much bring that to our teaching and research, and our way of being in the world.

And the department is founded not just on interdisciplinarity but intersectionality. This is one of the oldest [WGSS] departments in the country, plus it was one of the earliest to really take seriously the idea that you can’t look at gender in isolation from race, class, nation, ability, sexuality—all of these other intersecting forms of difference.

I think there are WGSS programs that are interdisciplinary in the sense that they have people represented from many different disciplines. But I think all of us are really engaged in challenging disciplinary approaches and boundaries, going even beyond interdisciplinarity to what some people now are calling adisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity—trying to go beyond what these disciplinary boundaries are. Both in terms of doing research, but even in how you approach a problem, it is not saying, “this would be a sociological approach” or a “literary approach,” but trying to blow open any assumptions about a particular question or methodology or epistemology. We focus a lot on trying to shift how people are talking about things, as well as the actual knowledges that they produce.

You’ve taught at five different U.S. colleges and universities. Have these different environments affected your teaching style or how you approach research?

I taught at several liberal arts colleges before coming here, and I thought that’s really where I would end up, as opposed to a large, public research university. I really value that time, because I had the opportunity to develop as a teacher and to really learn from people who were master teachers. Liberal arts colleges are also producing important research; it’s not like people are just teachers, but the mission of the institution more foregrounds the teaching. So I felt honored and lucky to be part of those environments, but as I developed more as a scholar, I realized that I really wanted to be in a place that would support my research more actively.

This department, and the university as a whole, are kind of the best of both worlds. This is a very highly productive research institution, but there is also a strong commitment to teaching, and that’s valued, particularly in small departments—particularly in this department. I think that we really, really take teaching seriously and don’t see teaching and research as separate, necessarily. We’re always trying out new ideas with students, and our students are informing our research. We’re bringing our research into our teaching, so it’s a much more symbiotic relationship.

So what does UMass offer specifically, whether in terms of resources, location, population, or another commodity?

I think there are really brilliant, interesting faculty here who are really committed to students, really committed to the institution, to the community, and to all the bigger questions. It’s about not just their own research, but what it means to be in the academy right now, what kind of responsibility we have, particularly in a very contested, complicated political environment.  

How does your work attempt to unpack stereotypes?

I took a site, like a nail salon—something that you would walk by every day and might not think, “oh, this is a microcosm of society”—but if you go in, there were a lot of interesting things going on in terms of what we call the commodification of the body. They’re very intimate, embodied exchanges with people who are virtually strangers—and more and more, strangers from opposite sides of the world who speak different languages and are of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

How did people get here? What are some of the larger global forces that put one person on one side of the manicuring table serving someone else, who has a whole other set of forces that are putting them on that side of the manicuring table? I wanted to understand the nail salon as a site for globalization and for the growth of bodied services, for immigrant women’s labor, and particularly in these large urban areas.

But also, why is it that people hold onto ideas about race so stubbornly, even in the face of everyday interactions that are constantly challenging what those stereotypes or assumptions are? The dominant narrative about Asian Americans is that they’re the model minority. When I would be sitting with a woman who was getting her pedicure, in front of an Asian woman on her hands and knees doing this literally back-breaking work, that woman would still be sitting there saying, “Oh, Asians are all upwardly mobile and sending their kids to Ivy League colleges.”

But is that who you think is doing your feet right now? And what is the disconnect, that you can’t see that the discourse of the model minority does not apply to many Asian immigrants? This has always been a puzzle to me, about the disconnect between the micro and the macro levels, and why it’s so hard to shift different kinds of discourses. They’re so deeply embedded historically and structurally that even when people are countering very contrary information, they can’t seem to process it in a way that shifts these very sedimented ways of looking at the world.

How does this translate to your position as Director of Diversity Advancement for HFA?

This is a new position for me, as well as in most of the colleges throughout the university. There’s a version of this position in all the colleges now, and they operate differently. Some people focus more on faculty. Some people focus more on students. Some people focus more on recruitment and retention. Other people are focusing more on responding to issues as they come up.

My official title is Director of Diversity Advancement. There’s no formula for advancing diversity, or one vision, or one roadmap of how to get there. But I think it’s a combination of supporting individual faculty, creating policies that show a real commitment to increasing diversity in all its forms at the university, and really providing resources to do that. It’s one thing to say we want diversity, but then it’s another thing to create programs and fund them, and create positions and fund them.

I’m still kind of figuring it out now, but I think part of it just acknowledging that there are issues here. When a lot of people think about UMass in particular, Massachusetts in general, they think, ”This is the bluest of blue states. We don’t have problems with race.” But look: this is a predominantly white community in a mostly rural area, and it’s not the easiest place to live for people who don’t fit that dominant demographic. To even start that conversation is difficult.