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Ethnic studies requirement under review to improve campus climate

Image By: Madeline Heim and Madeline Heim

In light of recent racially charged hate and bias incidents at UW-Madison, the ethnic studies requirement has come under review this semester to ensure all of its courses are aligned with the learning outcomes of the university.

Improving campus climate has become a central goal of the subcommittee that will evaluate the courses; UW-Madison continues to garner national attention from last semester’s campus activism termed #TheRealUW, anti-Semitic messages found in the dorms in September and the more recent controversial costume at the Oct. 29 football game.

“These incidents definitely give all ethnic studies instructors a sense of urgency,” said Cindy Cheng, an associate professor in UW-Madison’s Department of History and chair of the ethnic studies subcommittee. “They also show the value of these types of classes for students.”

Cheng explained that the primary purpose of the courses under the ethnic studies requirement is to understand race relations.

“We challenge students to embrace one’s differences, but strive to lessen the inequalities based on those differences,” she said.

The last time the ethnic studies requirement was revised was more than a decade ago, in 2003, according to Elaine Klein, the university general education director and an associate dean in the College of Letters & Science.

Klein said she hopes ethnic studies courses will encourage more collaborative problem-solving skills, especially in regard to addressing topics of race.

“It gives students a safe space to learn from each other as well as from the instructor,” Klein said. “It is better that students can talk and ask questions about these tough issues in a structured environment as opposed to on the internet.”

Jaylen Windham, a student who was active in #TheRealUW movement, explained that though topical problem-solving might be a goal of these courses, it is not a reality.

“Sometimes with these classes it seems like they are just trying to make students feel comfortable instead of acknowledging that racism is a real issue today,” she said.

Learning outcomes address topics of race

In 2010, at the request of the provost, representatives of the 29 different departments comprising the requirement formed the subcommittee. Together they decided upon the learning outcomes that all of the ethnic studies courses are required to meet.

The four main learning goals included emphasizing history’s impact on the present, encouraging students to recognize and question assumptions and building students’ awareness of themselves in relation to others, as well as stimulating participation in a multicultural society.

Both Klein and Cheng agreed that these learning goals are the best guidelines to ensure that the curriculums are inclusive and the best way to address the topic of race.

In Cheng’s course, Asian American History: Processes of Movement and Dislocation, she emphasizes the awareness of the impact of history on the present, one of the learning goals.

“We are trying to retell U.S. history from a different perspective,” she said.

Tim Yu, another UW-Madison professor and a member of the subcommittee, is in the process of redesigning the ethnic studies course, Comparative Ethnic and Indigenous Studies, for the upcoming semester to better fit the learning outcomes.

“The class will now give more of a sense of history from a range of different perspectives in order to better understand race and multicultural societies,” Yu explained.

Cheng said she wants to ensure that within these courses, marginalized groups who have been underrepresented in the retellings of history are now “central characters.”

“Students of color do not see their backgrounds reflected in curriculums or textbooks,” she said. “We want them to know that they are a part of history and that their experiences matter.”

UW-Madison sophomore Brittany Fremder said the ethnic studies course she took, which focused on American Indian immigration, allowed her to consider these different perspectives that Cheng mentioned.

“It helped me understand the underlying issues in societies and see why people feel the way they do about racial issues,” she said.

But Windham questioned whether ethnic students courses would have such an effect on all students. She said that many students fail to accept the facts presented to them in these classes.

“People will be stuck in their own ways,” she said. “When shown statistics, they call the numbers biased instead of acknowledging the real problems.”

Immediate, long-term goals for success

Klein explained that a long-term goal of the subcommittee is to fit more courses under ethnic studies.

“It will hopefully promote positive attitude change for students,” Klein explained. “They will be able to take classes they care about while still getting the requirement done.”

Cheng said that while the primary goal of the committee is to improve campus climate, eventually she hopes this long-term goal will be achieved as well.

“There is definitely lots of advocacy to see such changes, but it will require hiring more faculty who have expertise in ethnic studies, which means more funding,” she said.

Unlike the other general education requirements at UW-Madison, students cannot test out of ethnic studies. Since there aren’t standardized tests to demonstrate students’ understanding of ethnic studies, Klein explained that these courses also give students necessary tools to understand more complex topics.

“We need to change the narrative. Students need to stop looking at the requirement as checking a box and more as building a tool kit,” she said. “These courses are designed to create better scholars and citizens in order for them to live more fulfilling lives.”

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