Well, it was a tough week last week. As Americans took to the streets to express their fully justified rage at the persistent biases in policing that are visited upon communities of color, Western Connecticut State University struggled to respond. We had a few missteps, but the near term result is that we have agreed to change our mascot and there will be a demonstration, organized by our students, this week. But what about the long-term?
Last week, in response to students who wrote to me, I asked my faculty to reconsider the fall schedule. Already struggling to figure out what we will look like in response to COVID-19, I added representation to the mix. As students were grappling with the murder of George Floyd, they asked me why there were not more courses that represented the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences in our curriculum. Good question.
Of course, there is not a simple answer. When I reached out to faculty, and some of the departments that I thought had the most to contribute, two responses emerged.
Response 1: We address issues of race, gender, and equity in many of our classes. It is woven in.
I wish that were true. I took a few hours to read through our catalog and a few of the associated course outlines. Except for Social Work majors, where these issues are truly woven throughout the curriculum, discussions about equity (and therefore, race and gender) are not in the course descriptions. Here is a sample of what I found:
- Justice and Law Administration mentions race in one course description, has a gender focused class (women, of course), and one course about civil rights.
- The business degrees limit this conversation to the Marketing courses, with an emphasis on persuasion, and equal employment rules in management.
- Sociology has a Social Problems class, which gets at some of what we need to be talking about, and then a few on race and equity, and the issues facing Latin-Americans in particular.
- Anthropology always focuses on concepts that help us have good discussions about the constructs of race and culture, but their contexts are other countries, thus obscuring the relevance to our students’ lives.
- The health professions acknowledge that culture and community play a role in health care, so I guess that’s a win.
- There are a smattering of courses (Women’s Studies, Non-Western Cultures), with titles that tell the tale, but they are a small part of our offerings.
- The histories of music, literature, and art are mostly Euro-centric with a few exceptions sprinkled in, and most (not all) of our American History courses focus on slavery when they address diversity and equity at all.
Nope, we do not substantively address race, gender, and equity in our curriculum. If we do, it is communicated at such an abstraction that our students cannot find it. We need to rethink this woven-in strategy.
Response 2: When we choose to focus on particular groups – Women’s History, African-American History, LatinX History, and so on – we run the risk of reinforcing a marginalized status.
Yes, I agree. I hate the way we have to name these groups to make them visible. I wish that we were at a point in our curriculum development that it would be absurd to do this. In a world where our teachings fully represented the contributions and experiences of all groups in the arts, sciences, politics, and the rest, we would not feel the need to create these courses. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.
When students ask where the courses about their histories and experiences are, they are telling us that they do not see that representation. They are hungering for acknowledgement of their value. If their stories are not part of everything, and they are not, then they need the focused courses. Before we push away their request with the marginalization response, let us consider the balance of our offerings. Here are some examples of what I mean.
English has thirteen courses that are focused on literatures that skew white and European and four that obviously do not. I am being generous in this. I suspect the genre courses also skew white and European, but I do not know for sure. Throwing in one book by an author from an under-represented group does not count.
History has approximately twenty-five courses focused on histories that are distinctly white, European, and male. There are a cluster of Non-Western Culture courses, and a few courses that focus on civil rights and women’s histories, but proportionately they are small compared to the overwhelming number of traditional approaches to history.
In the rest of the arts and humanities disciplines, where these topics should flourish, the proportions do not improve. What we are doing is marginalizing the histories, literatures, arts, and philosophies of women, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, LatinX Americans, LGBTQIA, and so on, by limiting them to the precious few courses. In other words, if there were not so few of them, they would not be marginal. If we want equity in our curriculum, we should have many more classes that focus on particular histories and experiences. Then they would not be the exception, but instead, they would be the basis of a strong liberal arts education.
The most egregious example of the absence of serious diversity in our curriculum is the case of African-American Studies. This is a topic that you can find in our catalog. It contains exactly one dedicated course, The Black Experience in America. The rest of the courses are anthropology courses about Africa. There is a course in African-American Literature in the English department, but it is not listed here. Wow. Worse yet, The Black Experience in America has no home. It is scheduled by the History Department, but they claim no ownership of the material. It is taught by a long-time adjunct faculty member. Nope, no buy-in here at all. I am ashamed.
Now, I know some readers will find flaws in my logic here. If we weave it in, do we need the special courses? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Probably, but sometimes contradictory things can both be true. We need to weave equity into all that we do. We also need to be interested in the many histories and experiences that make up our communities.
We have a lot of work to do, and now that we are through the first level of our defense mechanisms, I would like to get on with it. I do not want to get mired in identifying problems associated with transitioning to curriculum that better reflects the diversity of human experiences. I want proposals that dig into every discipline (yes, STEM, you too) and make the changes we need to build an anti-racist university*.
*More on this topic next week. For now, I highly recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Anti-Racist.