The global studies department is aiming to “decolonize” the College of William and Mary one room at a time, starting with the opening of an AMES-APIA Library in Morton Hall earlier this month. Opened March 2, the repurposed seminar room aims to redefines the way students learn and provide a space dedicated to the programs of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Asian and Pacific Islander Studies.
The term “decolonization” was used frequently used throughout the event, referring to the department’s goal of combating Western academic norms.
“We are studying Asia from the way Asians perceive it or experience it as opposed to the way the West experiences it. That’s the whole point of decolonization,” professor Francis Tanglao-Aguas said.
Aguas has been a steadfast advocate for AMES and APIA, of which he is the program’s founding director.
Aguas was accompanied at the opening by other professors who have helped curate the library and expand the AMES and APIA programs. AMES Director and music, ethnomusicology and Middle Eastern studies professor Anne Rasmussen welcomed students and visitors into the space. Meanwhile, Chair of Middle Eastern studies Stephan Sheehi was responsible for designing the library’s aesthetic aspects.
“Stephan curated this,” Aguas said. “The mattresses and pillows are from Turkey. He ordered them directly from Turkey.”
The library itself breaks many Western conceptions of an academic space. The room is lined with decorative floor cushions and bolsters to offer flexible seating. In the back of the room is a display case with various artifacts, including a 3000-year-old inscribed Jordanian tablet. While precious artifacts can be found throughout the room, the many everyday objects present there seek to give the library a comfortable feel.
“There’s a small handful of pretty precious objects, but part of what we didn’t want to do was have an archive or a museum that is based on extraction and on the tradition of stealing things from other places to house them in the metropole to learn from them and elevate them to a dead object,” Sheehi said. “A lot of these were picked up along the life of the faculty. Some are pretty pedestrian, but what we do in my class is talk about them.”
“There’s a small handful of pretty precious objects, but part of what we didn’t want to do was have an archive or a museum that is based on extraction and on the tradition of stealing things from other places to house them in the metropole to learn from them and elevate them to a dead object.”
Rasmussen explained that the library aims to create a cozy atmosphere where students can take off their shoes and find a cushion to sit cross-legged on for their studying time.
“You pack the perimeter with students and the hall becomes filled with shoes and backpacks,” Rasmussen said. “Welcome to the AMES-APIA library: a living-learning laboratory of material culture and human communitas. This is really the vision of Stephen Sheehi who has been an instigator of the decolonizing humanities project. This is just a little slice — the biggest slice — of decolonizing Morton Hall.”
Sheehi explained how many objects from the life collections of the faculty of the College had fallen into his hands. He sought a space to display these objects and approached the Muscarelle Museum of Art and the Earl Gregg Swem Library during his search. After both turned him away, the idea for the library fell into place.
“It all started off with a handful of beans that I traded for a cow,” Sheehi said. “It was actually completely opportunistic.”
Aguas added that the library provides an opportunity for students and faculty to experience how academic space is formed in Asian communities.
“The other marvel to this room is that it repurposes movement,” Aguas said. “We are trying to introduce our students and the academic community to how space in most of Asia predicates respect and communitas. The taking off of the shoes. There’s a way to move and think differently that could possibly incite or inspire creativity that’s new.”
The space is already being used for classes, including a playwriting class taught by Aguas.
“I have to say, in my 25 years of teaching playwriting, it was some of the best writing our students have ever produced,” Aguas said.
While somewhat a grassroots effort, the library enjoyed administrative support from the global studies department and the Reves Center for International Studies.
Director of Global Studies Jennifer Bickham Mendez spoke on the the global studies department and the future of its place at the school.
“Global Studies is one of William and Mary’s best-kept secrets,” Mendez said. “Those of us who do the work in international and interdisciplinary programs know who the people are that are developing these kinds of programs and offering these kinds of courses. I think this is a great start that we have a space for AMES and APIA. The dream is making all of Morton the space for the rest of Global Studies.”
Rasmussen also stressed the value of Global Studies and their role in moving the College forward in a globalized world.
“I think a lot of the goals and aspirations of the University at large — particularly interdisciplinary and globalization and collaboration — have been happening among this faculty for as long as I’ve been here, and that’s more than two decades,” Rasmussen said. “When you hear about the goals and aspirations for the new strategic plan, tell those planners to come and talk to global studies.”
Ultimately, the event emphasized the importance of creating a space that serves students. APIA major David Fernandez ‘20 said there was a demonstrated need for a dedicated space for Asian-Americans at the College, especially given the existence of those spaces at other universities.
“I transferred from Virginia Tech and they actually had a whole space dedicated to Asian-Americans on campus,” Fernandez said. “That’s something we don’t have here at William and Mary. I’d like to see a centralized part of campus hold a room for Asian-Americans.”
“I transferred from Virginia Tech and they actually had a whole space dedicated to Asian-Americans on campus. That’s something we don’t have here at William and Mary. I’d like to see a centralized part of campus hold a room for Asian-Americans.”
Chris Ahrens ‘20 was optimistic about the progress that the library symbolizes.
“I really see the space kind of as a coming into its own of the AMES and APIA program,” Ahrens said. “I think that up until this point area studies as a whole has been marginalized in a lot of scholarship. The ability to generate a space that is specifically for the purpose of studying and emulating the cultures that are being worked on leads to a really fantastic forum for the program to flourish from here on out.”
“It’s a validation of the hard work of the generations of APIA students that have fought for the major,” Fernandez said. “It is a symbol of the hard work all of us have performed so that we can be one of the best APIA programs in the American South.”
Rasmussen and Aguas also discussed the opportunities that AMES and APIA offer, including the APIA major, which was first offered in 2019, the annual study abroad trip to Oman and Freeman Fellowship for Internships in South and East Asia.
“That is the expanse of this room,” Aguas said. “We go all over the world and we come back again in this circle. To me, that’s the beauty of a community like this.”