University of Wisconsin College of Letters and Science is reviewing its ethnic studies requirement, which experts say could improve campus climate and create a more challenging experience for students.
The review is part of the new campus climate initiatives, which look to connect communities across campus. Elaine Klein, UW associate dean for academic planning, said the review process will be similar to a regular evaluation of courses within the ethnic studies requirement.
But the difference with this review is that it will also carefully examine each course syllabus to see if it is living up to the criteria the requirement defines for each course, Klein said.
The ethnic studies subcommittee of the general education committee will review these courses. Currently, there are 224 active ethnic studies courses, meaning they are available to be scheduled and are part of the course catalog. Of these, only 154 are actually being taught, Klein said.
“We will look at whether or not those courses have the capacity to deliver the learning outcomes that the faculty have identified for ethnic studies courses,” Klein said.
Klein said there is no concrete definition of what makes an ideal ethnic studies course. She said the committee is working toward ensuring that these courses introduce different and difficult concepts into students’ lives. The courses should challenge students and help them understand the role they play in the larger context of race, ethnicity and social justice.
Victor Jew, an Asian-American studies professor at UW, said the ethnic studies requirement is important because it helps students prepare for the “changing world.” But requiring students to take an ethnic studies class just to meet the three-credit general education requirement may not be a good strategy.
He said students need to see that these classes have a lot more substance to them and not take the requirement as a burden.
“There is so much that can be offered in ethnic studies classes, which are built around disciplinary and interdisciplinary processes,” Jew said. “Students should not see them as a burden or an onus.”
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Because of the wide range of courses offered, students can choose which ethnic studies class best fits their own needs and perspectives, Klein said. This way, students can also find a topic that they are really passionate about and further their knowledge in that area.
Jew said he has received messages from old students telling him about how taking an ethnic studies class in the Asian-American studies department helped them in their daily life.
One of his students moved to China and told Jew he found it easy to navigate his new life because of what he had learned in class. The student suggested UW take initiatives to make ethnic studies courses more prominent.
UW psychology professor Markus Brauer said in an email to The Badger Herald that familiarity with an outgroup, or group with a background different than one’s own, can reduce stereotyping and anxiety toward that group.
While no study has truly examined the impact an ethnic studies course can have on reducing prejudice towards an outgroup, taking such a class could increase students’ ability to take and understand someone else’s perspective, Brauer said. This could potentially improve campus climate in the long run.
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Courses that do not meet the requirements may be revised or removed altogether, Klein said. While the review process has not yet begun, Klein said the committee first looks for courses that have “drifted” from their original syllabi. Such courses would not appear to be teaching what they should be, which becomes an immediate red flag.
Aside from drifted courses, Klein said the review does not specify any other red flags for the ethnic studies requirement.
Klein said the review process will give faculty the opportunity to reflect on what they want the requirement to accomplish and how courses can be molded to do that. She said she is excited to hear what faculty teaching ethnic studies courses have to say about the courses.
“I know that [ethnic studies faculty] are deeply committed to helping students acquire this knowledge and obtain this type of literacy that will help them succeed in the world today,” Klein said.