LSA Race and Ethnicity requirement plays role in easing political divisions on campus

Monday, March 6, 2017 - 5:55pm

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Illustration by Noah Sherbin

LSA junior Ryan Gillcrist, academic affairs committee chair for LSA Student Government, has taken three Race and Ethnicity classes before this semester, but he said the one he is enrolled in right now feels a little different than the others.

“When I took classes first year and second year … I mainly thought about issues of racism and intolerance in the context of the courses themselves,” Gillcrist said. “But I think that, especially in this political climate, I’ve started to think of the classes more in the context of the present.”

The current national and campus climate in wake of actions by President Donald Trump which have draw focus on issues relating to race and ethnicity. Both this semester and last, the University of Michigan has faced racist and anti-Semitic posters across campus and emails sent to students in multiple academic programs. Before,  anti-Muslim chalkings covered the Diag.

In response to these issues, many students and faculty think the LSA Race and Ethnicity requirement — which has its roots in helping to solve similar situations — plays an important role in easing political tensions on campus this semester.

“I wonder what would’ve been going on if this was happening a year later.”

Created in 1990 in response to demands from the student group Black Action Movement III, the Race and Ethnicity requirement has long been used to address complex social issues at the University. Since its conception, all LSA students have been required to take at least one R&E class before graduating, although many, like Gillcrist, end up taking several.

The requirement was reviewed for the second time in its history during the 2015-2016 school year. The review committee, led by Angela Dillard, LSA associate dean of undergraduate education, took a critical look at the requirement and the way it contributes to students’ education. The committee made several recommendations, including smaller discussion sections for large R&E lectures.

“We periodically review all our degree requirements,” Dillard said. “For years, R&E has kind of been on the list of things to do. I had a huge interest in it, and the time seemed right.”

The review of the requirement occurred in the earliest days of the presidential campaign, before the University community knew how the outcome of the election would impact issues of race and ethnicity on campus. However, review committee member Holly Peters-Golden — who teaches Introduction to Anthropology 101, one of the most popular classes students take to fulfill the requirement — does not believe the committee would have changed its recommendations if it could have foreseen the impact of the election.

“I really don’t think that was on our radar screen when we were doing this,” Peters-Golden said. “I wonder what would’ve been going on if this was happening a year later. But we didn’t need this particular election to get those of us on the committee to think about how there are all sorts of things going on. One of the things that is important in 101 is to look at the fact that these issues are not new issues.”

“You’re not asking them to agree or disagree with it, but simply understand it.”

Aside from the presentation of issues surrounding race and ethnicity, some think the reason R&E classes can help ease tension is the platform for discussion they provide.

American Culture Prof. Matthew Countryman is on leave this school year, but he has regularly taught R&E classes in the past. According to Countryman, each R&E class has two aspects: first, the introduction to information, and second, a discussion about how that information relates to the students’ lives.

“There’s some information about what race is and what it isn’t, what the role that it’s played historically in American society, and the intellectual condition of racial inquiry,” Countryman said. “You’re not asking them to agree or disagree with it, but simply understand it. The second aspect is to then have students share with each other their own ideas and perspectives and hear from people other than themselves to understand how … differences in identity shape different experiences within the U.S. and our culture.”

Countryman said the discussions do not always come naturally to his students, but once they’ve made it past the initial awkwardness, he and his students find them rewarding.

“In all the classes, when it goes well it’s really the most exciting teaching I do,” he said. “Race is sort of the ultimate taboo. Students are nervous to talk … (But) when they feel like there’s an environment where there isn’t a wrong thing to say, but rather the opportunity to share with one another, there’s a real desire to understand and to think about what it means to grow up in Detroit versus the U.P. versus southern California.”

In addition to helping students learn to better understand their classmates, LSA senior Marjai Kamara, who also served on the R&E review committee, thinks part of the reason R&E can have so much impact on the University community is the way it utilizes the safe space of the classroom.

“Most people have been in school for a long time and they know how classes navigate,” she said. “I think it’s a relatively OK, safe-ish space for people, so hopefully engaging with those ideas and things in a classroom can be a good place to start thinking and engaging with them in the first place.”

“By itself, the requirement doesn’t do anything but put people in seats.”

Others are broaching the political topics of R&E classes in a subtler way. American Studies Prof. Sandra Gunning has taught American Culture 201 for years, but, like Gillcrist, found herself approaching the class in a different way this semester.

“I find myself since the election being even more cautious,” Gunning said. “In other American culture courses with majority white students, people are like ‘my friend who supports Trump is feeling victimized,’ so I don’t want people to feel alienated in any way. Before, I would play news clips to explain something, but now I don’t even bother with that. We still see clips but I try to find other examples from just basic culture. And I have never used the word ‘Trump’ —  I don’t intend to.”  

Gunning feels the point of her class — and of the requirement — is to present students with information about race and ethnicity and let them come to their own conclusions. She focuses on teaching the issues rather than the positions anyone holds about them.

“If taught properly and if taught self-consciously, where you make it clear that it’s not a brainwashing session … it can help students think more clearly and with more information about whatever the hot-button issues are,” she said. “For example, I was teaching (about how racial categories are a cultural construction) and one of the (Graduate Student Instructors) reported that they had a student say ‘I’m not ready yet to let go of those racial categories.’ To me, that means the course succeeded. I don’t need to have them say ‘yes, you’re right,’ I just need to have them think about it.”

Still others see the role of the requirement as much more of a starting point. Because R&E classes are required of all LSA students, not everyone comes to them with the same mindset.

Countryman stressed the role of the R&E requirement as a portal to other conversations and actions, rather than a complete solution.

“By itself, the requirement doesn’t do anything but put people in seats,” Countryman said. “But it gives us the opportunity to create educational spaces that allow for a more in-depth exploration of these issues than the comments section of the newspaper or wherever else.”

“There are absolutely connections people can make.”

Faculty involved in Race and Ethnicity classes recognizes they are not perfect, and still have a long way to go. According to Dillard, the recommendations made by the review committee are still in the process of being implemented, but budgetary constraints prevent some of them from happening.

“Trying to decrease the (discussion) section sizes is enormously expensive, and we don’t know how in the world we can pay for it across the board,” Dillard said. “So we’re running a few experiments in American culture and trying to figure out how to do that on a budget.”

Other people would like more resources to help students and teachers digest the sometimes unpleasant topics these classes include, or stricter guidelines on what the classes should cover. While Dillard said no one wanted to abolish the requirement at the time of the review, she also conceded that changes will need to be made.

Through his position as an officer in LSA SG, Gillcrist has tackled many of the issues surrounding R&E firsthand. But to him, regardless of the changes to come — or the changes in the ways people approach their topics —  the role of R&E classes in this political climate remains important and constant.

“There are a lot of students who haven’t seen certain perspectives before, and I think that through the R&E requirement, they’re able to,” he said. “I think that there are absolutely connections people can make, and see how people in the past have addressed issues related to intolerance.”