Breanna Dioni enters through a set of double doors, scanning the room for an empty seat. A few moments pass as she unpacks her materials before the professor picks up where she left off last week — identity, black womanhood, post-reconstruction.
Dioni’s arsenal of experience in Afro-American studies classrooms has mostly desensitized her to the piercing gaze of white eyes on her black body, demanding her intellectual labor. Still, her focus slips from underneath her fingertips, which graze a syllabus outlining her story with chapter titles and page numbers of others.
It is a story she already knows, written in the scars from her ancestors on the palms of her hands.
Chin resting in the palms of his white hands, Tommy Valtin-Erwin leans forward on his desk, absorbing his professor’s every word. This class has flipped his world around, and forever changed the way he understands how people move through their lives. Six semesters into his African cultural studies major, he is grateful for a course which investigates racism not as a history but a component of the present.
He believes many white people were put off with the title of this course, etched across his syllabus — “The Problem of Whiteness.” He is not one of them.
The study of difference and power. This is the ethnic studies classroom.
Given the history of non-white people in the U.S. and at UW, the need for ethnic studies curriculum is clear for many.
But how to best administer such coursework at a predominantly white university can test the mind of the educator. And how to navigate the ethnic studies classroom as a student rather than the subject matter plagues the heart of the underrepresented student.
A painful history
In spring 1987, students at the University of Wisconsin, donning blackface, arrived to a “Fiji Island” party. A large caricature of a black island “native” greeted them on the Phi Gamma Delta lawn, with distorted lips and a bone through his nose.
The event was later cited in an October 1988 New York Times report detailing a different incident at another UW fraternity — a “slave auction” — which added one more link to a string of events that “stirred racial unrest” on campus.
In the fall of 1989, 92 percent of undergraduate students were white. As discussions of race relations at universities drew the national eye to Bascom Hill, this cohort of students became the first to greet the UW ethnic studies requirement, developed by the L&S Curriculum Committee to “better prepare students for life and careers in an increasingly multicultural U.S. environment, add breadth and depth to the university curriculum and improve the campus climate.”
UW committee to review ethnic studies courses, identify classes that no longer qualifyUniversity of Wisconsin College of Letters and Science is reviewing its ethnic studies requirement, which experts say could improve campus climate Read…
One decade later, complaints about the efficacy of ESR courses prompted the creation of operational guidelines by a review committee to better inform the process of reviewing courses proposed to carry the ethnic studies designation. The most recent review of courses was completed in 2003-04.
But the study of difference and power does not exist in a vacuum. Thirteen years of an evolving, increasingly turbulent campus climate and a nation grappling with immense socio-political race-related movements have landed with great impact on the ethnic studies classroom.
In 2016, the University Academic Planning Council initiated the second ESR review to confirm ESR courses still met the requirements and inform an effective teaching methodology. The review has produced nearly 20 recommendations.
But much about the ESR — its implementation, its impact and the vocabulary used — remains nuanced and complex, for students and faculty alike.
The four learning outcomes of the ESR are awareness of history’s impact on the present, ability to recognize and question assumptions, consciousness of self and other and effective participation in a multicultural society. With over 200 courses fitting the requirement, the objectives must be broadly stated, Elaine Klein, associate dean for academic planning, said.
During the 2016-17 review, 225 ESR courses submitted their syllabi to renew their ESR designation. Sixteen syllabi were denied, leaving 209 courses.
Despite the wide course array, three courses account for 32 percent of all ESR enrollments: Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity, Problems of American Racial/Ethnic Minorities and Population Problems. Though Cultural Anthropology produced nine of the 16 syllabi that did not receive renewed designation, it alone accounts for 17 percent of enrollment.
Sophomore Mahad Siad, currently enrolled in Cultural Anthropology, said his identity as a black man is especially salient to him in this course. Most students in his discussion section openly admit to taking it to meet the ESR, not because they care.
Siad’s observation is replicated in the data. Nearly eighty percent of graduates take only one ethnic studies course, and administrators, faculty and students challenge the notion that this is adequate.
Though it’s good that students complete their ESR within their first four semesters, Shannon Sparks, professor of American Indian studies and the chair of the ethnic studies subcommittee, notes the consequences of many students stopping there.
“While students learn an immense amount in their ethnic studies course, it’s not enough time for that kind of interpersonal transformation that we are looking for,” Sparks said.
A white design
It was her belief in the purpose of the ESR, compounded by reservations about how courses are taught and received, that motivated junior Anisa Yudawanti to serve as a student member on the ethnic studies subcommittee in 2016-17.
“I think that ethnic studies courses are especially difficult and taxing for students of color,” Yudawanti said. “In my own experience, I am one of the only people of color in the room. And I struggle to find the balance between wanting to … call out offensive things my white peers are saying, and not wanting to be seen as the representative for all people of color.”
Seventy-five percent of undergraduates at UW identify as white, meaning students of color can be few and far between in every classroom on campus.
UW junior Zawadi Carroll notes microaggressions in ethnic studies classrooms are often unaddressed by the professor. As a black student, she feels the onus put on minority students to use their lived experiences as tools to educate white students.
“They really do rely on students of color, even when we just want to sit there and be students,” Carroll said. “I feel so bad for the black women in black women’s studies classes, because they don’t learn much.”
Carroll is one of many students who challenges the ESR framework. The fourth ESR learning objective, “effective participation in a multicultural society,” states that the courses should teach students “to participate in a multicultural society more effectively, respectfully and meaningfully.”
But minority students, by virtue of their identity, have no choice but to participate in a multicultural society. This outcome hardly applies, leading students like Carroll, Yudawanti and Dioni to question whether the ESR intends to serve their own educational needs.
“I was hoping to get into these classrooms where I was critically analyzing … but then I get to class and I’m like, why am I still recycling information? I don’t feel like I’m being challenged,” Dioni said of her experience as an Afro-American studies major. “I wanted to apply and nuance my knowledge. But it felt like I was constantly arguing when I wanted to learn.”
At UW, students from places with no ethnic diversity and little background knowledge share space with students of color, and it is a challenge to teach students with a broad range of knowledge with one brush, Sparks said.
In theory, general education requirements must align with the capability of the greatest number of students, so the committee crafts learning objectives with the needs of the majority of students in mind.
But taking an ethnic studies course specifically curated for white people is disturbing, Carroll said.
“It’s traumatic — [we] have to come to class every day to convince other students that we are human beings,” Carroll said.
Even from his perspective as a white student, Valtin-Erwin said the structure of the courses and the vocabulary used in the requirements are problematic. Valtin-Erwin, who has taken a dozen or more ethnic studies courses, said they seem to be structured to serve white students.
“The ESR is designed to benefit white people and their ability to function in a world where they’re not the only people in the world,” Valtin-Erwin said.
Resistance and resentment
Valtin-Erwin and Sparks are two of many who believe this framework is difficult to break away from in Wisconsin, a place where it can feel like white people are the only people in the world.
“I teach students that are like, ‘UW is such a diverse place,’” Sparks said. “No, it’s not — it’s the least diverse place I’ve ever been in my life. This is a state with horrific disparities across the board, some of the worst in the nation, and campus climate issues are reflective of larger issues.”
According to the ethnic studies subcommittee survey of ESR faculty, 65 percent of respondents noted a major challenge is students lacking racial/ethnic vocabulary.
As a teaching assistant for Masterpieces of African-American Literature, Meredith Nnoka also has observed resistances to learn in her students. Nnoka, who moves through a white institution as a minority student and a teacher, deeply appreciates the ESR, but acknowledges the problematic situations that arise in the classroom.
“I can sense it. A lot of students question why they’re here,” Nnoka said. “‘I’m not racist, why do I need to be here?’ If something charged or controversial is said, people fall silent.”
These controversial moments are not inconvenient byproducts of the courses, but written into the second learning objective: “to challenge students to question their own assumptions and preconceived notions on these topics.”
There is no greater violence than to deny people a place in the human story. That is what was normative before ethnic studies.Christy Clark-Pujara, professor of Afro-American Studies
But while the experience of challenging problematic beliefs on race and ethnicity may be enlightening for white students, the students and faculty of color sharing the space tend to bear the burden of hostility along that journey.
Christy Clark-Pujara, professor of Introduction to African-American History, notices resistance from students in the form of body language, questions asked and evaluations.
“You’re teaching a course that a good chunk of students don’t want to take, teaching them a history they haven’t heard that is in opposition to a master narrative that they believe to be true,” Clark-Pujara said.
Troubles with teaching
For Dioni, a troubling aspect of the ESR is not what students want to learn about non-white people, but who should be teaching it.
While taking Black Women in America, Dioni grew tired of being graded on knowledge of her own lived experience by a white professor.
“It felt really easy for me to be silenced in that class,” Dioni said. “The testimonies of black people deserve to be taught by black people. And if we look at [ethnic studies] departments that are chaired and led by white people, what does it say to the students? Even when you go into a field to learn more about black people, there’s still someone white who is better at teaching it than you.”
The Afro-American studies department is one of those chaired by a white person. But Dioni said this is unsurprising. Among the 2,000 faculty, just shy of 21 percent are minorities. 2.5 percent are black.
UW junior Jordan Owen credits her professor for her experience in Settlement and National Belonging. As a biracial Japanese-American, learning her history from a woman of color she identified with made the classroom a space to explore her heritage. Owen said the faculty should have the lived experience of the identity they are teaching.
“We can get into the whole debate about who is more qualified in the academic sense, but we can’t downplay the significance of representation — professors representing the material they teach,” Owen said.
But among faculty, not all share Dioni’s and Owen’s perspective. Clark-Pujara believes courses must be judged by lectures, materials and readings. Successfully understanding and writing about the experience of others does not necessitate having experience, she said.
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Any professor trying to teach an experience that is not their own, as though it is firsthand, is problematic, Nnoka said. But she said there is “there is nothing wrong with a white professor teaching history.”
Still, white professors must take note of their identity when leading an ethnic studies course, just as all educators in any subject should consider their privileges, Clark said, which can help prevent missteps.
Yudawanti recalls a syllabus from a professor seeking ESR designation. It included a self-guided walking tour of south Madison, which troubled her.
“If you reflect on the history of south Madison neighborhoods where immigrant families have been historically marginalized, it is irresponsible to tell groups of students to just wander around … like they’re at a zoo,” Yudawanti said.
This underscores the need for an ethnic studies review committee, Yudawanti said. After voicing her concerns, members expressed agreement with holding instructors accountable and teaching them to enter communities with respect and responsibility, the way the ESR aims to teach students.
Impact on campus
When sophomore Liz Haberland-Ervin draws on her experience in an ethnic studies course, she recalls it being tainted by feelings of dehumanization. But when asked whether the ESR should be eliminated, there was pause in her voice.
“If the school were to take away the ESR, 75 percent of students wouldn’t have to, at least once, acknowledge the histories of people of color,” Haberland-Ervin said.
For Clark-Pujara, teaching ethnic studies courses is an overwhelming positive. Through the semester, she witnesses hostility fade away, as students come to understand the history of non-white people is American history, central to who they are.
Beyond anecdotal evidence, the data also suggests a change in attitudes before and after the completion of their ESR, Klein said. And ESR faculty overwhelmingly choose these courses because of a confidence in their transformative potential. Still, many seek a more holistic approach.
“With any requirement, expecting transformation in a three-credit course experience is just too much to put on the faculty teaching,”Elaine Klein, associate dean for academic planning
While the ESR is necessary, Clark-Pujara said, it is also insufficient. One class over a college career will not address issues of inequality in today’s society.
According to the ESS survey of ESR faculty, a clear majority believe increasing the ESR to two courses would be extremely valuable or have quite a bit of value.
Sixty-nine percent of instructors rated lack of diversity in the classroom the most frequent challenge faced by ESR courses. This figure jumps to 82 percent among women of color faculty. While this is difficult to solve at the academic planning level, Klein and Sparks speculated the second largest challenge — students lacking racial/ethnic vocabulary — could be lessened if students had more than just basic introduction.
But expanding the ESR will give rise to obstacles.
“Limited classes, limited instructors for these classes and ultimately limited funding in general are huge reasons why this would be difficult,” Yudawanti said.
Klein stressed the already strenuous, comprehensive process of giving courses the ESR designation with just a 3-credit requirement. The review found ESR classes already struggle to find sufficient faculty and TA’s. And Haberland-Ervin and Owen worry about increased resentment from students having to take more credits.
As the ESS appoints a task force to assess implications of a 6-credit requirement, Owen says ethnic studies courses could make small but meaningful improvements, such as viewing this requirement in a historical context.
“In the class, we talked about the history of ethnic studies in institutions. That was essential — every class should discuss the meaning of ethnic studies, and why it matters,” she said.
Eventually, the university aims to infuse diversity across the curriculum, and the ESR is a step toward this future. But for the time being, a distinct program remains critical.
Still, at a predominantly white institution, classrooms meant for non-white histories can lead to tense dynamics landing squarely on students of color — and cases of the latter demand review, Carroll said.
One thing remains sure — the ESR is going nowhere. Armed with the recommendations of the 2017 review, the University General Education Committee plans to implement the first wave of new criteria by fall 2019. While the guidelines may need work before becoming productive learning experiences for all, the existence of an ethnic studies program is remarkable for the UW campus.
“Ideally, those of us who teach the experiences of non-white people would love to be out of a job — if we actually had holistic histories,” Clark-Pujara said. “It’s a response to non-white people being ignored, marginalized and written out of existence in the academy. There is no greater violence than to deny people a place in the human story. That is what was normative before ethnic studies.”