New Faculty Profile: Robyn Rodriguez, Asian American Studies

Associate Professor of Asian American Studies Robyn Magalit Rodriguez joined the UC Davis faculty in Fall 2011. She came to us by way of Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she held her first faculty position, but Rodriguez is no stranger to the UC system. After growing up in the Bay Area, Rodriguez attended UC Santa Barbara and obtained her PhD in sociology from UC Berkeley. Her 2010 book Migrants for Export: How the Philippines Brokers Labor to the World (University of Minnesota Press) has recently won awards from the Association of American Geographers and the Association for Asian American Studies. Recently, she met with the Humanities Institute’s Erin Hendel to discuss her research interests as well as her perspectives on the relationship between scholarship, activism, and education.

How would you describe the intellectual trajectory that brought you to enroll in a PhD program and to pursue a career in Sociology and Asian American Studies?

I was a Sociology major at the University of California Santa Barbara and took courses in Asian American Studies. Two professors, Diane Fujino and John Foran, were instrumental in my intellectual formation. They took time to mentor me, and their influence was key in opening up the possibility of going in to a doctoral program.

As a daughter of immigrants and a student of color, I seldom got to encounter people whose experiences intersected with my own. When Diane Fujino walked into the classroom and started teaching Asian American feminism, I immediately thought, “I want to be her!”

John Foran is a faculty member in sociology who studies the sociology of development, social movements, and revolution. I was part of program for students of color that he mentored. We worked on portions of his research and spun it off into our own undergraduate theses. It was an amazing experience.

Early on, I was—and I continue to be—interested in issues of globalization and inequality. I studied development at UCSB, and that became my primary field in the graduate program in sociology at UC Berkeley. There, I developed an interest in the political economy of labor migration. This set of interests that began in my early twenties has sustained me for almost twenty years now.

My research is focused on the Philippines and labor migration. The Philippines is a particularly interesting site for understanding the issue, because it’s the number one labor exporting state in the world. It’s a place where the legacies of colonialism and neoliberal economic policy become fully articulated in a regime of what I call “labor brokerage.” I also pay attention to migrant labor’s political transnationalisms, focusing on the ways in which migrant workers fight back or resist. I have been tracking the transnational Philippine migrant labor movement for a long time, and I’m continuing to do so here in San Francisco.

Can you tell me about your book project on immigration and belonging in New Jersey?

I started my first faculty job in sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 2005. As a California girl, New Jersey was a whole new world. This was just a few years after 9/11, and some major shifts in immigration policy were occurring. I had done advocacy work surrounding deportation and detention in the Filipino immigrant community in the Bay Area when I was a graduate student, and I was interested in continuing to do that work. I’m very invested in being a public intellectual: I think of myself as a scholar-activist.

I got involved almost immediately with people doing work around immigrant detentions. Increased enforcement had forced ICE to contract with county jails to house detainees, and major abuses were taking place. Detainees were held on suspicion of being undocumented immigrants until their immigration cases could be overseen by a judge, which could take a very long time.

Alongside of these detentions, cities all around the state had campaigns attempting to introduce ordinances that would effectively prohibit the settlement of immigrants. Of course, this is urgent and disturbing for immigrant rights. As an immigration scholar, it’s particularly interesting that it was happening at a sub-national level. The introduction of border enforcement policies at the local level, to me, signals a lot of things that I am still working through. I have had to take a small break from the New Jersey project, but it is still ongoing.

In some ways, this is obviously a shift from your previous work on the Philippines, but there are definitely connections between them.

Fundamentally, these projects are about the ways in which globalization and neoliberalism have reconfigured states and citizenship. Both in the Philippines and in New Jersey, my work is driven by concerns about how the state and citizenship are shifting under these conditions, asking what it means for those who are defined as “foreign” or “other.”

Earlier, you mentioned that you see yourself as a scholar and an activist at the same time. Can you say more about that?

This is where my Asian American studies background kicks in. Asian American studies emerged out of student movements that were fundamentally rethinking access to education and raising questions about the politics of knowledge production: who is able to produce knowledge? for what purpose? Many of the demands for departments like this were demands for education and scholarship that was relevant to communities that have been long left out of the university. I was very much inspired by that tradition.

I’m one of only a few Filipino scholars who work on the Philippines, Filipino issues, or comparative racial studies. It matters that I’m here for that community. Even on this campus, I have discovered that there has been great anticipation for a Filipino studies faculty member in Asian American studies. Immediately after I was hired in the spring, students asked me to be the keynote speaker for the Filipino graduation in June. I hadn’t even moved in to my office. I have already been working very closely with a number of students. Many more want to work with me as interns, and registration for my winter course filled up very quickly. Apparently, there was a real need.

As a researcher, one develops a skill set that can be very important to communities. For example, I’m working on a participatory action research project for Filipino caregivers in the Bay Area. These caregivers face exploitation and abuse, because they often work outside of institutions, in home settings. I was asked to be part of a process of helping to equip them with the tools to do some basic research about themselves. There was a real need for this kind of intervention.

This is the kind of work that prompted me to go into the professorship to begin with. Being back here in Northern California has allowed me to come full circle in many ways. I grew up in the Bay Area. I started off being very inspired by Asian American faculty members to go into academia, and being able to come back to an Asian American studies department doing the kind of work that I’m now able to do has been really exciting.

I’ve been learning a lot about Asian/Pacific Islander (API) activism on campus, and I have enough material that I’ve been thinking about staging a political poster exhibit and symposium on API activism at UC Davis. I have made contacts with former Asian American Studies grads who have done phenomenal things after graduation, and I think it would be a great thing for the department. In this moment when students are looking for models and leadership, it would be quite valuable.

What are some of the courses you anticipate teaching?

In addition to teaching a course on the Filipino-American experience, I’m developing an education abroad course. It’s a multi-sited service-learning course on Filipino immigrant communities. Because Filipinos are such a globalized group of migrants, the course could provide an opportunity for students to see migration from a comparative as well as a global perspective. The course involves three sites at which students would work with community-based organizations or NGOs. The first two sites would be the United States and Hong Kong, which is another important destination for Filipino workers. The final site would be the Philippines. Traditional study-abroad programs–especially in the global south—can re-create a skewed understanding of the world. I think shifting a course in this way allows students to get different viewpoints that might disrupt that binary between first world/third world that gets potentially reified in study-abroad programs. We live in a global moment, and I think we need to start developing the institutional apparatuses to facilitate this kind of learning.


How does your research connect to your teaching?

I’ve always tried to be very present as a scholar in the classroom. Often, students don’t understand the nature of being at a research institution. They seem to think that faculty do research as a hobby, not as a primary responsibility. I try to make that explicit by asking them what it means to be at a Research 1 institution. I remind them that all of the people they encounter in the classroom are active researchers and scholars. We’re here because of our expertise in particular areas of research. I often tell students, “If you only go to class in your four years as an undergrad, you’re only taking advantage of one-third of your education.” I encourage them to take advantage of opportunities to do research with faculty and to take part in the lectures, conferences, and other events that faculty organize. I want them to recognize that it makes a difference to go to UC Davis as opposed to a four-year or six-year college, that the missions of these institutions are different from the mission of the UCs. I talk about my own research, and I try to help them recognize that their readings are part of a project of research and scholarly debate. Once you make all of this explicit, they have a different relationship to the material, to other faculty members, to understanding what it means to be in this institution.

Do you have any final comments about being here at UC Davis?

It’s not easy to come in to an institution in crisis, but it’s certainly exciting! I think that crisis always brings all sorts of creativity. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the response of my colleagues to the pepper spraying incident. It has been wonderful to know that I am in the company of scholars who would respond so quickly, thoughtfully and decisively in defense of public expression and in defense of students. It’s an ongoing process, and I look forward to building with my colleagues here. The students have been amazing. There’s a fine set of students here who are incredibly engaged. I don’t mind a little organizational chaos if I can trade it in for some really good colleagues and good students.