Meet our Visiting Assistant Professor, Leland Tabares!



Leland Tabares is AAS's new visiting assistant professor, who is teaching AAS 120 and 200 this semester. In order to get to know him a little better, I conducted a brief virtual interview with Dr. Tabares to ask him about his teaching, research, and why he is at Illinois.


Let’s start with an introduction – who are you, and what classes are you teaching this semester?

Hi! My name is Leland Tabares, and I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian American Studies. This semester, I am teaching AAS 120: Introduction to Asian American Popular Culture and AAS 200: U.S. Race and Empire. My classes are not only designed to provide students with opportunities to explore Asian American literary and cultural histories, but also to allow for active engagements with a range of contemporary textual modes and cultural forms that circulate our everyday lives today. For this reason, we read novels, critical histories, short stories, and poetry alongside films, Hulu and Netflix series, YouTube videos, TikTok content, music, podcasts, sports, food, graphic novels, newspaper cartoons, zines, and video games.

What is your area of research? 

My research traces developments in our understanding of Asian Americanness as newer generations of Asian Americans access increasingly diverse industry professions across popular culture in the twenty-first century. As the meaning of labor, labor markets, and commodities shift in the global economy, Asian Americans enter professional fields that redefine their relations to institutionalized American ideologies while exposing the mechanisms that regulate their inclusion. My book project, Professionalizing Asian America: Race and Labor in the Twenty-First Century, treats professionalization as a critical concept that reveals the institutional norms that govern access to contemporary industry professions and demonstrates how the processes that manage such norms operate dynamically as evolving ideological formations that racialize minorities even as they become represented in twenty-first-century workspaces. I argue that professionalization provides a framework for realizing the ideological, institutional, and cultural logics that regulate Asian Americanness; identifies emergent racial formations amid changing labor markets; and accounts for generational differences through professionalism.

How does this translate into the classes you are teaching?

My research on Asian Americans’ expanding participation in twenty-first-century industries gives me opportunities to showcase Asian American representation across popular culture in my classes. For example, we learn about how Asian American celebrity chefs and restaurateurs are redefining the restaurant industry and Asian-inspired foodways; we analyze Asian American social media influencers on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to see how institutional evolutions on these platforms impact how Asian Americans perform their identities and communicate themselves to viewers; we look at sports cultures, like basketball, to see how Asian American athletes are racialized on the court and in documentaries; and we read Asian American feminist zines to understand how Asian American artists manifest coalitions through their artwork. In addition, I assign writing projects that give students opportunities to write about their own interests in media industries and popular culture. So, in many ways, I am always learning alongside my students!

Why did you choose to teach at Illinois? What are your first impressions of the university?

I chose to come to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because it has a wonderful intellectual community of brilliant scholars, educators, mentors, and students. The Department of Asian American Studies is a vital part of this community, especially as its interdisciplinary programming touches so many different areas of the university. I am pleased to be working alongside a distinguished group of scholars who have expertise in a range of disciplinary perspectives and who have made important contributions to the broader field of Asian American Studies. It is also really nice to be teaching in an Asian American Studies department. Students might not realize this, but it is quite rare to find universities with a Department of Asian American Studies! The fact that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has cultivated such a strong intellectual community serves as a testament to all the faculty, staff, and students here who have made this department possible and who carry on its tradition of academic excellence.

Do you have any current research or publications in the works?

Yes, I am actually working on three projects at the moment! First, I am working on a piece from my book that reads contemporary cookbook narratives by Asian American celebrity chefs and restaurateurs to demonstrate how institutional developments in the modern restaurant industry enculturate new kinds of professionalism and foodways that radically revise cultural conceptions of Asian Americanness. The second project analyzes novels, films, and television series about Asian American students who stray from so-called model minority professional tracks to identify emergent modes of institutional and social belonging for newer generations of Asian Americans. Finally, I am in the process of publishing a piece (it should be out very soon!) that reads Asian American dystopic fiction alongside our current social and political climate. In it, I discuss how Asian American dystopic fiction imagines the viability and efficacy of resistance, solidarity, and care amid systemic inequality, racial injustice, data surveillance, and global crises. Specifically, I explore how black fugitivity, coalitional care, and sports together create a multidimensional network of anti-racist solidarities.