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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Conscious curriculum: The fight for expansion of UW’s Ethnic Studies Requirement

Students, faculty fight for expansion of three-credit requirement, but challenges persist
Sophia Scolman

When Rachelle Eilers took her first ethnic studies course in the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies program as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, she was “blown away.”

Eilers came to UW from Racine, Wisconsin, where, though she was surrounded by a diverse population, history was not talked about from the angle of diversity.

“There’s a diverse population there, but we were not taught anything surrounding diverse histories,” Eilers said. “So coming to UW was really my first exposure, despite being Afro-Latinx. I didn’t really have any exposure to my own history.”


Eilers earned a certificate in Chican@ and Latin@ Studies as an undergraduate student. Now, she is the senior advisor for the program — overseeing the 230 students declared in the certificate. This fall, Eilers will begin declaring interested students in the CLS major, which was approved in the spring.

Students in the CLS program enter a variety of career fields — from engineering, to nursing, to social work. The knowledge and skills students gain through CLS classes prepares them to be culturally informed and to work with diverse populations, Eilers said.

Since many courses offered by the CLS program fulfill UW’s current Ethnic Studies Requirement, which aims to help students foster an understanding and appreciation of diversity, students outside of the program can also enroll in CLS courses. Eilers said 20-25% of students in introductory-level CLS courses are declared in the certificate. This number rises in upper-level CLS courses, where the majority of students — about 75-80% — are declared in the certificate.

Ethnic studies is important in helping students learn to value their own cultural identity, while also understanding and appreciating the identities of those around them, according to the National Education Association.

But UW’s ESR only accounts for three credits of a student’s 120-credit degree, and advocates have long pressed for the expansion of the requirement, or that some of the topics taught in ethnic studies courses be woven into curricula across campus.

“I just wish I would have experienced more or sooner, rather than having to take advantage of an ethnic studies class [at UW] to cover some of that content,” Eilers said.

A harrowing history

The ESR at UW formed in response to racist incidents on and around the UW campus.

In May 1987, students arrived in blackface to a “Fiji Island” party, where a large caricature of a “native” Black man with distorted lips and a bone through his nose greeted them on the Phi Gamma Delta lawn.

The display drew outrage and a protest at the house. The Black Student Union issued a statement denouncing this as racist and demanding UW take action to prevent such behavior from recurring. Despite their demands, this event was later cited in an October 1988 New York Times report that detailed another incident involving a UW fraternity who “stirred racial unrest” on campus — a “slave auction.”

BSU and several other organizations, including the Pacific and Asian Women’s Alliance, the Chicano Graduate Student Organization and Union Puertorriqueña, formed the Minority Coalition in June 1987.

The following month, then-acting vice chancellor Phillip Certain appointed a Steering Committee on Minority Affairs composed of faculty, students and academic staff from areas across campus. Both graduate and undergraduate members of the Minority Coalition were appointed to the Steering Committee.

Chaired by undergraduate student Charles Holley, the Committee issued what became known as the “Holley Report” on Dec. 1, 1987. The report included several recommendations — among them, the development of an ethnic studies requirement and ethnic studies programs.

“[t]he University must implement a mandatory six credit ethnic studies course requirement; and create and develop various Ethnic Studies Programs,” the report said. “These measures will recognize the contributions of ethnic minorities of American society and promote cross-cultural understanding and respect among the entire student body.”

April 18, 1988, the L&S Faculty Senate adopted a three-credit ESR 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.”

While UW was thrust into the national spotlight following the New York Times report, a staggering 92 percent of undergraduate students were white in the fall of 1989. This requirement went into effect for all students entering L&S for the first semester of the 1989-90 academic year.

Other UW schools and colleges adopted the L&S ESR in years that followed, and a three-credit ESR for all incoming freshmen and transfer students was approved in May 1994.

In 2002, an Ethnic Studies Review Committee made recommendations surrounding ethnic studies courses, which were then turned into actionable items by an Ethnic Studies Implementation Committee beginning in 2003. Now, an Ethnic Studies Subcommittee with a rotating chairperson conducts reviews of ethnic studies courses — ensuring they meet guidelines and expectations for the ESR.

Defining the ESR

UW’s current ESR has four learning outcomes that are ultimately aimed at fostering an understanding and appreciation of diversity. Unlike other general education requirements, the ESR cannot be fulfilled with advanced standing credits from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. The ESR must be fulfilled with a course taken in residence at UW.

In addition to fulfilling the ESR in residence, students must also complete an OurWisconsin module, which consists of an online inclusion course, follow-up survey and in-person programming opportunities, according to UW Student Affairs.

The four learning outcomes of the ESR are that students will: “articulate how the past has affected present day circumstances regarding race and racial inequities in the U.S., recognize and question cultural assumptions and knowledge claims as they relate to race and ethnicity, demonstrate self-awareness and empathy toward the cultural perspectives and worldview of others, and apply course concepts to their lives outside the classroom by respectfully participating in our multicultural society.”

There are over 200 courses available on UW’s campus at a variety of levels on a variety of topics that fulfill the ESR. Courses that fulfill the requirement are primarily focused on race and racism in the U.S., according to Lori Lopez, former committee chair of the Ethnic Studies Subcommittee and professor in the Communication Arts, Asian American Studies and Gender & Women’s Studies departments.

Ethnic studies courses should look at the experiences of persistently marginalized communities, Lopez said. This includes courses offered by the American Indian & Indigenous Studies, African American Studies, Chican@ & Latin@ Studies and Asian American Studies departments, along with courses outside of these departments that also fulfill the four learning outcomes.

“It has to involve critical thinking skills to help students think about their own positionality, to help students think about their place in our multicultural society — things like that,” Lopez said.

But despite the wide array of courses, a 2016-17 Ethnic Studies Subcommittee review found three courses account for 32% of all ESR course enrollments — Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity (Anthropology 104), Sociology of Race & Ethnicity in the United States (Sociology 134) and Population Problems (Sociology 170).

The ESR is expected to be fulfilled within a student’s first 60 undergraduate credits at UW, according to UW General Education Requirements, and a 2011 review found over half of students were fulfilling the requirement in their first four semesters.

Because of this, undergraduate advisor for International Studies Molly Donnellen said many students are encouraged to fulfill the requirement early on in their time on campus.

“It’s a requirement everybody’s going to need and there are a wide number of courses that are available to meet the requirement,” Donnellen said. “It’s usually a pretty safe recommendation in those first semesters if course access is tight.”

As a result, Donnellen said when most students come to her to declare a major, they have already fulfilled the ESR. And as an advisor of students majoring in international studies, most of the courses students take are focused on non-American topics — leaving little overlap with ethnic studies courses.

But Donnellen’s office is down the hallway from the Chican@ & Latin@ Studies, Asian American Studies and American Indian & Indigenous Studies department offices. Being in such close proximity, she has become familiar with the courses offered in these departments, in addition to the visiting lecturers they bring in and the community building efforts they support.

“In a sense, witnessing that every single day and knowing most students are coming to us with that kind of checked off and pretty much out of their realm is like ‘There’s this great thing going on, you should go check it out — and it’s going to be a valuable experience for you,’” Donnellen said.

PhD student in the School of Education Tony DelaRosa has experience teaching and researching on ethnic studies courses and the effectiveness of them in classrooms.

With UW’s three-credit ESR, DelaRosa said it is likely students treat this material and requirement as a “transactional experience” or a “one-and-done.”

“Once they take a course, their mind — one-and-done,” DelaRosa said. “So they move forward saying ‘You know, I don’t need this anymore’ … After that, what happens next? … You can only really build awareness of the content in the classroom and then maybe practice respecting each other in the classroom. But really, the work happens outside the classroom. That really requires long accountability.”

Donnellen also noted the importance of long-term learning as it pertains to ethnic studies, stating that while there are benefits and logical reasons to students fulfilling their ESR early on in their time on campus, a requirement that pushes students to continue thinking about these topics may allow students to delve deeper into the topics covered in these courses and may be beneficial.

“When you think about students, individual growth and learning, as young scholars and as people, you learn how to think more critically or you learn how to understand information in a different way,” Donnellen said. “You’re taking in a lot of that really substantive and important information at a time when you’re still figuring out how to learn. There is a great benefit to that, but there’s also maybe some lost opportunity in being able to dig into those issues at a more advanced level, or have a second requirement that allows you to continue that thought process and learning.”

An ongoing fight

Students and faculty have long recognized the importance of ethnic studies and have advocated for the expansion of the requirement.

The Ethnic Studies Review Committee of 2016-17, chaired by Lopez, recommended the increase of the undergraduate ESR from three credits to six credits, to include at least one upper-division ESR course.

“From the very origins of this requirement, it was always pitched as if it should be two classes, six credits,” Lopez said. “…But we had to build up the course array so that there would be enough ESR courses so that students could graduate on time if they took two of them or took more than one.”

With the approval of courses to fulfill the ESR in multiple departments across campus, the course array became more than sufficient, according to Lopez.

“There are so many ESR courses all across campus, and we have enough empty seats in them,” Lopez said. “We could encourage [students] to take more than one [ESR course] easily.”

In March 2021, the Associated Students of Madison released a letter endorsing the increase in the ESR, citing acts of hate on the UW campus and UW’s responsibility to provide students with the knowledge to be informed and empathetic individuals.

ASM Equity and Inclusion Committee Chair Emmett Lockwood said in an email statement to The Badger Herald that ASM still endorses this expansion.

Following the release of this letter, Lopez worked with students to have conversations across campus with deans, academic advisors and the faculty teaching ethnic studies courses.

“We went around to every single school and college and talked to either the dean or the person who runs their undergraduate education and had conversations about if they would work to expand the ESR and got mixed responses,” Lopez said. “Some deans thought that would be great for their college and some thought it would be really hard for them.”

But Lopez described the process of changing general education requirements as bureaucratic.

“A small change to the general education requirements has a big effect on every single student, times to graduation and stuff like that,” Lopez said. “A couple of the schools and colleges that feel their curriculum is so tight that students absolutely do not have room for one more class before they graduate are kind of an obstacle.”

Implementing increased ethnic studies credit requirements in individual schools and colleges might be more feasible, according to Lopez.

Lopez said the University Academic Planning Council has begun working on analyzing the expansion of the ESR and considering what policies may be best to recommend. This group will then propose a recommendation to the provost.

Lockwood said the Ethnic Studies Subcommittee, currently chaired by Professor Jerome Camal, has and is continuing to work with officials across campus to increase the number of courses offered.

“The Ethnic Studies Subcommittee has previously and is continuing to work with university officials at the school/college level to increase the number of ethnic studies courses offered in each college and to establish actionable timelines for the expansion of the ESR credit requirements, because as of Summer 2023, the College of Letters and Sciences, according to information given to ASM by the Secretary of the Faculty, was the only school/college offering ethnic studies courses,” Lockwood said.

Troubles with teaching

Lockwood said he understands expanding the ESR is not an automatic fix for racism and other forms of oppression on campus — or that one semester of an ethnic studies course and an OurWisconsin module is not enough to ensure an accepting, safe and inclusive campus.

“We heard last year in our Student Council meeting that students have been harmed by microaggressions and other racist acts even in ethnic studies courses, and far too often students of color are expected to provide a ‘learning experience’ for their white peers,” Lockwood said.

DelaRosa, who is Asian American, said he has been put in positions where he has been asked to provide this “learning experience” for his peers, but that professors should survey their students beforehand, to ensure this is something they are comfortable doing.

This may include going over the topics covered in the course and offering students who understand these topics and could help share knowledge the opportunity to share — consensually.

“We don’t just assume that Asian Americans like myself are going to share Asian American experiences,” DelaRosa said. “I might know more about Latinx narratives, I might know more about Black narratives. That survey component is super important for professors.”

And when students do choose to share their narratives in the classroom, DelaRosa said it is important to affirm them and their identities.

“Once you’re looking and you have multicultural narratives, you can use those and you can learn from them, depending on what they’re willing to share with you,” DelaRosa said. “And you want to affirm that. Ethnic studies is also about affirming identities in the classroom. You’re going to want to build your own narratives, your own knowledge of those identities.”

DelaRosa said it is important for instructors to not view their curriculum as stagnant, allowing students to participate in the learning process if they feel comfortable with it.

This pedagogy, known as culturally responsive teaching, enables students to understand their role as change agents in society, according to a 2016 study from Queens College. Culturally responsive teaching encourages students to become more involved in society — when students are able to relate to the lived experiences of others, they may feel more engaged with society at large.

“Half your curriculum walks in the door,” DelaRosa said. “Your curriculum is actually your student’s lived experiences … It’s important to understand students as curriculum too.”

When analyzing ethnic studies courses, DelaRosa said it is important to also analyze the training instructors receive — ensuring they are equipped with the knowledge, the mindset and the pedagogical experience to teach ethnic studies in a critical way, ensuring students benefit significantly from these courses.

DelaRosa’s book, “Teaching the Invisible Race” will be released in October and is designed to be a guide for instructors on how to teach Asian American studies in a pro-Asian American way. Teaching ethnic studies effectively begins with instructors, and DelaRosa encourages instructors not to wait for policy changes to begin teaching in a culturally informed way.

Because of the emphasis on how topics in ethnic studies courses are taught, Lockwood said in the expansion of the ESR, the resources that are provided to faculty and TAs who teach these courses are also reviewed.

“In our expansion of the ESR we are also looking at how courses get made into ethnic studies courses, what additional resources and communities of practice are provided to the faculty and TAs who teach these courses and how we can work towards ensuring that students do not experience incidents of hate and bias in ethnic studies courses,” Lockwood said.

Moving forward

Despite the current obstacles with expanding the ESR, individual advisors, like Donnellen, have taken to encouraging students to take ethnic studies courses beyond their three-credit requirement.

Though the students Donnellen works with have often already fulfilled their ESR, she encourages them to take more ethnic studies classes throughout their undergraduate journey.

“I hear a lot from students that they don’t want to ‘waste’ credits, or they don’t want to take credits just for the sake of taking credit,” Donnellen said. “They want it to count towards a certificate, another major and add some kind of attribute.”

When students approach Donnellen with this situation, she will explore the idea of taking more ethnic studies courses with them — whether it be for a certificate, additional major or to learn more about a community.

“That’s when I’ll broach with students this idea of ‘Oh, you took a CLS course for your ESR, you could chat with them and see what’s going on over there,’” Donnellen said.

Since certificates range between 12 to 18 credits, and introductory level ESR courses often count towards those certificates, obtaining a certificate from a department that offers ethnic studies courses is attainable for many of Donnellen’s students.

And not only do students earn an additional certificate or major, but they also gain a greater understanding of their place in the world — which is especially important for international studies majors, Donnellen said.

“We talk about our students being global citizens, but I think these ESR courses do play a really important role in helping our students understand their place in the world,” Donnellen said. “Or, at least the complexities of how to navigate being an American abroad, coming from a Western education, or how to better understand your own identity, your own background and how that can build some cultural humility and your cultural skills too. I think it very much is relevant to the major even if it’s a different academic program.”

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