Academically speaking, one of the relatively few universal undergraduate experiences at the University of Wisconsin is an ethnic studies course. It’s a graduation requirement that serves as a sort of common ground for the student body — a common ground that is constantly evolving.
As the UW prepares its new diversity plan, Associated Students of Madison has formed a Diversity Committee that will hold a roundtable and open mic night to talk about the history of ethnic studies, learn about students’ experiences with ethnic studies courses and hear thoughts on the future of the requirement. The ASM Diversity Committee plans to pass student recommendations onto the UW Campus Diversity and Climate Committee. The roundtable event is scheduled to take place at Union South Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.
You’ll find a spectrum of opinions on the ethnic studies requirement. For instance, many people feel that ethnic studies courses address a fairly narrow definition of what it means to be “ethnic,” focusing heavily on the Civil Rights movement and immigration while ignoring other aspects of cultural identity. Others argue ethnic studies credit is assigned rather arbitrarily, and one student might fulfill the requirement with Black Music, another with Introduction to Folklore. Personally, I think there is truth in both of these sentiments.
My experience with ethnic studies was mediocre when I took cultural anthropology during my freshman year. Of course, I enjoyed the texts we read about indigenous cultures on islands in the South Pacific Ocean, and they broadened my worldview. The class as a whole gave me an appreciation for the massive variance in human experience. On the other hand, we spent most of the semester formalizing common-sense notions of social interaction rather than discussing real issues of cultural identity, and much of the material was presented in an unnecessarily subjective (i.e. leftist academic) light.
What’s more, it was a large lecture of over 200 people — nobody would have noticed if I skipped lecture, and after a five minute presentation, a two page paper and a multiple-choice exam, I was over and done with my ethnic studies requirement. As an ethnic studies class, a cultural anthropology lecture left something to be desired. I got ethnic studies credit, but I didn’t feel like I had earned it.
Looking through the catalog at ethnic studies classes, I get the feeling an ethnic studies course is simply a class that deals in some way, shape or form with race, ethnicity or cultural identity, not an ethnic studies class in its own right. I get the feeling when the university instituted the requirement, rather than developing an ethnic studies curriculum, it flipped through the catalog and found courses that fell under the category of “ethnic.”
I think the university could do better. As one of the few university-wide requirements, these classes lie at the center of the UW undergraduate curriculum. As such, I expect a great deal of intentionality on the university’s behalf as it goes about developing ethnic studies courses. I want to see a commitment to excellence in these classes.
What if instead of large introductory lectures, ethnic studies classes were small seminars that involved a great deal of participation, delving deep into the subject of cultural identity in a way that stimulated discussion? Ethnicity is something deeply personal and intricately woven into the texture of our lives — it is in history, art, music and our identity as people — these classes should expand imaginations and encourage creative expression.
The bottom line is ethnic studies classes have the potential to be awesome, but at the moment many students feel lukewarm about them because the ethnic studies curriculum hasn’t responded to the interests of students. As the university develops its diversity plan, I hope it places an emphasis on creating an ethnic studies curriculum that addresses a more open-ended definition of what is meant by ethnicity with discussion-based courses that get students talking.
I am glad the UW has made ethnic studies a requirement. To me, it seems these courses serve the important purpose of broadening worldviews and providing an insight into what it means to be human. I hope the university takes these courses seriously, listens carefully to student recommendations and makes them a priority in its diversity plan. In years to come, I want ethnic studies to be something that gets students talking, not just another box on a checklist of academic requirements.
Charles Godfrey (email@example.com) is a junior majoring in physics and math.