Students engage in multicultural literacy
This JanPlan students were offered the opportunity to enroll in a course that explored a variety of forms of diversity, entitled Multicultural Literacy. Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard, Associate Professor of Psychology Tarja Raag, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Spanish Betty Sasaki and Professor and Director of Education Mark Tappan each led a class section that consisted of 20 students and three teaching assistants.
According to the course description, “The purpose of this course is to provide you with knowledge and skills that will enable you to interact effectively with others across multiple dimensions of difference, and to live and work productively in multicultural contexts.”
The motivation for this course originally stemmed from the racist acts that occurred during Cinco de Mayo in April 2008. In the wake of this incident, a class was offered the following fall to provide support for students of color.
Professor and Department Chair of Art Bevin Engman wondered what could be done to shift the focus to Colby students in general, and considered the prospect of an intensive first-year requirement that would expose students to dimensions of difference and foster understanding and community.
Engman shared the idea with Tappan, and in the fall of 2008 a group formed to discuss how to bring this proposal into fruition. Engman, Howard, Raag, Sasaki and Tappan were joined by Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology and Coordinator of Multicultural Student Programs and Support and Dean of Students Joseph Atkins, Professor of Russian Julie de Sherbinin with support from Associate Dean of Faculty Michael Donihue.
After a close analysis of the courses that satisfied the diversity requirement, the group discovered that many of them did not fulfill the goals set out by the initial requirement. Student representatives of the Student Government Association (SGA), Pugh Community Board (PCB), Students Organized for Black and Hispanic Unity (SOBHU), The Bridge, the Feminist Alliance and members of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) supported the initiative to reconceptualize the diversity requirement.
Howard developed a proposal that year for a JanPlan course that would address issues of diversity, and Tappan taught a pilot version of the course, based on Howard’s original plan, last year. Howard, Sasaki, Raag and Tappan collaborated this fall to make changes to the syllabus for this year’s JanPlan.
The course had units on ability, gender, race, religion, sexuality and social class. The assignments included an autobiographical narrative, a cultural analysis and an institutional/organizational analysis and action plan.
For the autobiographical narrative, students wrote about the ways in which they have experienced privilege and how they have benefitted from that privilege while others were disadvantaged by it.
Although the sections had the commonality of these assignments, each still provided a unique experience. Howard’s section, for example, learned through various activities. In a “Coming Out Stars” activity created by the Trevor Project—a national organization “focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth,” according to its website—Howard asked students to role play, being in the position of somebody about to “come-out” to friends and family members of varying degrees of openness.
Outside of class time, students were split up into groups of 10 for a weekly one-hour session with their teaching assistants. These discussions, a suggestion by Aleah Starr ’11, were modeled after those of Campus Conversations on Race (CCOR).
Students also attended a weekly lecture from a guest speaker: Professor of Education Lyn Brown gave a talk on the sexualization of girls and women in the media; Howard spoke on social class; Fatuma Hussein, Director of United Somali Women of Maine, gave a talk on religious oppression; and antiracist activist Tim Wise lectured about white privilege.
Each section was heavily discussion-based. “We had some amazing, honest, authentic discussions,” Raag said. “On the first day of classes, I said that I had only one expectation: that everyone is sincere. And that expectation was met….Students would ask each other questions. They really wanted to get to know each other. It was a privilege to work with these students.”
“People were really opening up,” Howard said. “I took that as a sign that people are wanting to learn about these things and have these conversations. If we provide them with the right context and the right opportunity that’s safe, they’re going to do it….Learning this requires a personal experience: it’s putting yourself out there. I shared with them as much about me and my life as I was asking them to share about themselves. It allowed the students to get to know us [professors] and our strengths and weaknesses.”
Mya Allen ’14 agreed. “The class was really open. It was a good opportunity for people to dig deeper….It was more about understanding other people’s views and less about changing them,” she said. “I really faced my own prejudices. You don’t know just by looking at someone what they’re going through, and you don’t know who you could be offending.”
Jacqueline Robinson-Afoa ’14 agreed. “The class was eye-opening. Part of the reason the experience was so great was because of how diverse the group was,” she said. Robinson-Afoa signed up for CCOR as a result of this class to further her knowledge on these issues.
At the close of the course, the students concentrated on developing their own action plans for what they are going to do with this new awareness. In Raag’s section, 13 of the 20 students signed up to do an independent study in the spring. Allen, for example, is doing a three-credit independent study for which she and two other students are reading a book and watching two movies for each unit covered in class. At the end of each three-week long unit, she plans to write a report. In Howard’s class, half of the students decided to sign up for CCOR.
The conversation is now figuring out how to proceed. Students provided feedback at both the start and the end of the course, which the AAC is currently assessing.
“Data is being collected, and we want to make it as public as possible,” Howard said. This data will reveal what students gained from the class.
Kareem Kalil ’13 is doing analysis of this data in order to figure out what could be changed about the initiative in the future. There is talk of ultimately making this program a first-year requirement for students, in place of the diversity requirement.
“Colby could definitely use it,” Robinson-Afoa said. “It would be most productive with people who wouldn’t necessarily sign up for it.” “We had a brief conversation at the end about whether we’re literate now…and we ultimately decided ‘no,’ but that that may never be a possibility,” Raag said. “If you leave the class thinking you have the answers, that’s worse. It’s better to leave humbled.”