The Evolving Ethnic Studies Classroom

Professors call for a broader view of their programs -- and consider how to reach "resistant" white students.
November 7, 2005

The influence of ethnic studies is hard to miss at the American Studies Association. Numerous sessions at the group's annual meeting deal with ethnic groups -- as well as with issues of class, gender and sexual orientation.

But when scholars at the meeting gathered in Washington Saturday to consider ethnic studies in the classroom, they talked about the need to rethink how their discipline fits into academe and how their courses reach students. Specifically, they called for more emphasis on teaching not one ethnic group, but on the way different groups interact and change one another. And they traded ideas on how to reach white students -- many of whom sign up for their courses and are then stunned and angry to have their assumptions challenged.

"Everything is the same and everything is different," said Gregory S. Jay, director of the Cultures and Communities Program at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. What's the same, he said, was the commitment of ethnic studies scholars to broaden the way the academy views the world. And he said that the "magnificent and growing" body of research was the field's most significant accomplishment.

Part of what has changed, Jay and others said, was how race is viewed and taught. Jay urged colleges to talk not about "ethnic studies" but "comparative ethnic studies" so that more emphasis would go toward looking at the way groups have interacted and at the fluid nature of race.

Too many ethnic courses have separated groups and looked at them out of context, he said. For example, he said, people teaching about African Americans today are becoming much more likely than a previous generation of professors to place that course within study of the African diaspora. The ethnic studies program at his university has put "comparative" in its name, and typically starts students off with a comparative course before they delve into any one specific group, he said.

Jay suggested as well that colleges reconsider offering courses titled "Images of" various ethnic groups unless the images are created by those groups. He said that too many such courses end up simply reviewing stereotypes and that the courses have the risk of "putting the oppression back in circulation." More broadly, Jay and others said that professors need to avoid letting students use ethnic studies to simply learn about "the other."

In service learning programs, for example, Jay said that colleges need to move away from what he jokingly called "the missionary position" of viewing their local community as a "problem to be solved." Rather, students need to learn to view the community as a "resource," he said.

AnaLouise Keating, an associate professor of women's studies at Texas Woman's University, says that a major challenge for her is getting students beyond a "monolithic, pseudoscientific" sense that racial categories are precise and unchanging. She wants students to realize that the status associated with various races is not unchanging -- and she wants to do this in a way that makes white students truly examine themselves, but not just engage in "non-productive, navel-gazing guilt."

One way she does this is through her reading selections for classes. For example, she teaches Kindred, by Octavia Butler, in part because the race of the protagonist, Dana, is unclear at the beginning of the novel, and the race of Dana's husband also surprises her student readers. Similarly, she teaches novels from the Harlem Renaissance that explored racial "passing" or the experience of middle- or upper-class black people.

Jay also said that he was using literature to fight the concept of unchanging racial categories. He recently started a course called "Fictions of the Color Line," featuring all authors of mixed race or ethnicity. He called it "liberating" to move beyond unitary definitions of race.

A new problem that ethnic studies professors say that they are confronting is the post-9/11 interest of students in learning about Muslims. The professors say that they welcome student interest in Muslim cultures (and all cultures), but worry that student interest in this area is reaching an extreme form of seeking to understand "the other."

Ama L. Amireh, associate professor of English at George Mason University, said that much of the interest stemmed from the idea of "know thy enemy," and not from a genuine desire to understand the people and ideas of the Middle East. She said that scholars and politicians who have talked of the "clash of civilizations" have encouraged this kind of thinking.

At its most distressing, Amireh said, people were picking up only bits of information about how to hurt Muslims. She noted that the U.S. soldiers responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib knew enough to know how to humiliate the prisoners, but not to understand them. Learning about other cultures needs to be more than "windows on another world that wants to kill us," she said.

Many American students who enroll in courses to study Muslims say that they know nothing about the various cultures they will be studying, but Amireh said that the problem wasn't ignorance, but that American students have so many misconceptions that they need to "unlearn" before they can learn anything. She uses documentaries showing images of Islam from Americna popular culture to show her students that they are "not a blank page" when it comes to Islam -- even if much of their information may not be accurate.

Amireh and others said that, post-9/11, professors of ethnic studies -- and not just those who focus on Islam -- have faced new political scrutiny that carries over to Fox News and the public. "There is real hostility," Amireh said.


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