Educational benefits of focusing on a theme throughout the year (reviews)
In May 2020, as colleges and universities wrapped up the academic year, the murder of George Floyd sparked a long overdue national – and ultimately global – racial calculation. Almost immediately, it became clear to many that it was also time for academic institutions to take stock of their own stories of racial discrimination and their contributions to racial justice. Most institutions, including those that have remained notoriously silent during past incidents of police violence against blacks, have issued statements of concern. Some colleges and universities eagerly embraced the liberal impulse to distribute reading lists of books written by black authors. More substantially, other institutions are committed to consolidating hires in fields related to black studies.
At my institution, Whitman College, a group of faculty, staff and students, the majority of whom were women of color, decided that a true understanding of the issues would only happen if our community gave sustained intellectual attention and serious about resolving key issues. that animated this moment. This led us to adopt the theme Race, Violence and Health as the organizational framework for the entire 2020-21 academic year. As colleges and universities across the country continue to focus on these issues in the new academic year, I would like to share our experiences with such a theme and highlight some of its important benefits.
Create a shared intellectual community
Highlighting but also going beyond the focus on police violence and the COVID-19 pandemic, our aim was to invite an exploration of the three signifiers – race, violence and health – in conjunction to study the various forms to through which the violence of systemic racism manifests itself to harm the lives of marginalized communities. How, we asked ourselves, has racial violence shaped our histories and our communities? And what effects has it had on the health and well-being of minority groups?
In a year in which many of us have been dispersed and isolated across time and space, our attempt has helped generate and maintain shared conversations across various disciplines and programs over the course of ‘a historical moment of significant educational importance. Most importantly, it has allowed us to offer a wide range of events and activities that we hope will support our work on racial justice for years to come.
I want to highlight two ways in which adopting a theme to organize our intellectual community has helped us to better fulfill our educational mission. First, it has allowed us to demonstrate the power of a well-rounded liberal arts education to help make sense of some of the most vexing and pressing issues of our time. Second, it bridged the college’s curriculum and extracurricular areas into a campus-wide shared enterprise centered on rigorous academic work.
Conferences, courses and other academic offers
Considering the wide variety of brilliant services that higher education institutions now offer – leadership workshops, anti-bacterial trainings, extended retreats and more – it is sometimes easy to forget that the most important work in our institutions takes place in our classrooms. Despite the delay in adopting the theme, teachers from various disciplines such as art history, dance, religion, sociology and many others have adapted their courses to add a substantial component relating to the subject. race, violence and health. This was reinforced by virtual lectures by distinguished academic and non-academic speakers, many of whom were incorporated into the classes.
- An introductory biology course revamped the physiology unit to include readings on the increased risks of COVID-19 for racial minorities. He also asked the students to participate in a lecture by Sonia Shah, renowned author of The pandemic, who traced the history of contagions from cholera to COVID-19 around axes of inequalities.
- A conversation with recent Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong about the racial disparities in the spread of the pandemic has been incorporated into several science and social science courses.
- Students in a macroeconomics class heard from Lisa Cook, a frequent contributor to the podcast silver planet and a member of the Biden administration’s transition team, on how racial bias in accessing economic opportunity perpetuates cycles of victimization.
- The history and politics classes incorporated the writings of recent MacArthur “genius” award winner Natalia Molina as well as her discourse on the trope of disease in the racialization of Mexican immigrants.
- A week after the presidential election, former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry shared with us how police protests, the effects of the pandemic, and the mobilization of black voters have shaped elections past and present.
- Three students conducted a public interview with Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington on a report released by her office on racism and inequalities in the U.S. health care system during the pandemic.
- Computer professors collaborated with library staff to invite Safiya Noble to discuss her groundbreaking work on how racial bias in internet search algorithms impact the very basis of knowledge production.
These are just a few examples of the most diverse speaker series the college has ever hosted. (Many lectures are still available on our website.) They also demonstrate the variety of ways faculty members have reorganized their classes around the theme.
Professors in many departments were awarded additional credits for attending lectures given by these guest lecturers. Some created writing assignments that required thinking about the lectures. Some reported that students brought material from lectures and other courses that enhanced discussions on the topic in their own course.
People across campus have embraced the theme in all kinds of creative ways. A music teacher invited the entire Whitman community to attend a class session devoted to Joel Thompson’s piece for male choir and orchestra, “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” composed to honor the life of seven unarmed black men killed by police or vigilantes. Another colleague from the English department invited Felicia Chavez to lead an anti-racist creative writing workshop. Some departments and programs have started internal conversations about decolonizing their curriculum and diversifying their disciplines, efforts that could lead to new academic programs and different hiring practices. We also devoted several sessions of our annual undergraduate conference to student work related to the theme.
This college-wide integration of the topic into the curriculum and curriculum planning has allowed offerings in one area to build upon or enhance the contributions of others. It also exposed students to the complexities of studying race and racialization in multiple registers and from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
The organizing committee responsible for administering the one-year theme was not only made up of faculty members from the college’s three academic divisions, but also a group of dedicated staff from different areas of the campus and three active students. Their efforts made it possible to mainstream the theme into areas that might otherwise remain disconnected from the program. The Intercultural Center, the Community Engaged Learning and Research Initiative, and student leaders and activists created various thought-provoking projects that asked students to reflect on how their lives and world were shaped by racial violence and racial well-being. . Museum, gallery and library staff have collaborated to educate our community about the many resources available in our collections related to race, violence and health. Additionally, our off-campus study program has helped organize thematic student placements, and our Student Engagement Center has inspired students to consider the importance of racial justice work in their future careers.
Finally, during a year of virtual programming, we were also able to engage alumni and student families in ways that were not always possible before, including hosting a conversation with the current student leaders of the Union of Black Students with Black Alumni from 1979, 2001, and 2017 on the College’s Racial Climate Over the Years.
For most of us in academia, the 2020-21 academic year has been perhaps the most difficult our institutions have faced. Yet denying the characterization of universities as slow bureaucratic juggernauts, resistant to innovation and adaptation to a rapidly changing world, the successful implementation of the Race, Violence and Health theme is a testament to what energy, the commitment and creativity of a team of passionate faculty, staff and students are capable of accomplishing even under very difficult circumstances. Our achievements demonstrate the effectiveness of a common theme throughout the year in building an intellectual community around a subject of significant educational importance. This annual organizing theme has given Whitman College a meaningful way to help our students and our community make intellectual sense at a historic moment of transformation.
To continue the effort to unite around a common concern that concerns us all, the college has adopted the theme Climate justice, Climate report for this coming academic year. We invite you to take a look at our offers and join us in these virtual events. We also encourage you to consider adopting a theme relevant to your own institutions and communities.