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One of the most popular classes that fulfills the Race and Ethnicity requirement, Cultural Anthropology 101, or Introduction to Anthropology, is moving away from its previous honors discussion course to pilot a new section similar to the Program on Intergroup Relations this upcoming winter semester.

Last spring, students filed their grievances toward the previously altered Race and Ethnicity requirement, highlighting that major lectures including Cultural Anthropology 101 and History 101 merely graze over these topics and make “vague connections to race and ethnicity rather than a structured focus.” The problem, they reported, was the size of these classes hindered the students’ ability to cultivate effective and critical discussions. Students sought a more consolidated class where race and ethnicity was the main thread.

LSA sophomore Hannah Walsh said she found this problem to be present within her race and ethnicity course, History 105, Introduction to Religion.

“I was really excited to learn more about different religions, cultures and different parts of the world and how everyone thinks and acts differently — which is what the requirement is for,” Walsh said. “Yet, I learned about Christianity, cults and other random vague terms that did not fit one religion or another. It was all very abstract; I came out knowing how to define sacred and profane but not even learning the slightest bit of history about Buddhism or Islam.”

With these problems in mind, Stephanie Hicks, a lecturer within the Program of Intergroup Relations, reached out to Cultural Anthropology prof. Jason De Leon to find a way to foster more centralized discussion and to provide a more dialogic experience within their courses.

“IGR is unique because it allows students to learn in different ways as it isn’t a traditional lecture course,” Hicks said. “Students get to engage with experimental learning, they get to take part in various activities, they get to focus on their own learning experiences — so I think there is a real possibility to help the students understand the concepts they’re learning in Anthro in a really different way.”

Taking into consideration the current political climate, De Leon—who won a coveted MacArthur genius grant last year for his research on immigration— believes the new discussion section will not only be more beneficial toward students looking to create connections between race and ethnicity and anthropology, but will also help the University as a whole in its attempt to create a more inclusive and diverse community.  

“In general, I think more sustained and official venues that can provide students an opportunity to discuss issues od (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) are always needed, especially in this current political climate,” De Leon wrote in an email to The Daily. “The University of Michigan is committed to improving student and staff exposure to these issues and this new course addition is but one of many steps needed to reach their goals of having a student body that reflects the demographics of the country as a whole and one that is prepared for understanding why diversity and inclusion is important and how we can best foster positive social change.”

This collaboration of IGR and Race and Ethnicity requirement classes is the first of its kind. Lecturer Thomas Chivens, who teaches sections of Cultural Anthropology 101, believes this synthesis will function successfully because of Anthropology’s wide scope of topics.

“It’s an interdisciplinary program but at the level of pedagogy,” Chivens said. “(At the University,) we blend history and sociology, or we’ll bring together political science and social studies, but this is really kind of different. It brings this kind of dialogic pedagogy that has been developed to whatever is appropriate into the sections. IGR, specifically, works really well with the themes of our class, in terms of the topics we are addressing such as origins and the routes of social inequality, the production of cultural differences, where social identities come from, and then weave that into these identity categories like kinship, gender and religion.”

Anthropology is a multifaceted topic of study. It has four sub-disciplines: archaeological, biological, cultural and linguistic anthropology. Because of this, some students, like LSA sophomore Joey Carpenter, are apprehensive about the discussion section, as it seems topics of social justice and social identity do not necessarily correlate with the holistic nature of anthropology itself.

“I don’t think that such a focused discussion is the best idea mainly because the class is so comprehensive,” Carpenter said. “The mandatory discussions already open conversations about the topics as they are introduced in lecture throughout the semester. The class covered everything from evolution and archaeology to debunking the societal concept of gender.”

However, Chivens makes note of this potential issue. Though this section will attempt to centralize discussions of race and ethnicity, it will still function as a standard discussion section. Moreover, there will be 27 or so conventional discussion sections if the IGR section does not interest students.

“Stephanie and I will develop some discussion point pieces,” Chivens said. “It’s complimentary to IGR, but it’s not one and the same. At the end of the day it’s still an Anthro 101 discussion group. We have to be fair to the students, it has to be kind of a hybrid as they’re still going to want to do exam review. Plus, there are other topics that don’t exactly fit into race and ethnicity, like the origins of agriculture. This is a pilot, so we can adjust, we can take what works and develop it. We can take what doesn’t work and reflect on it. But overall, I’m excited to see how it goes.”

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