A Theme for a Troubled Academic Year

Shampa Biswas describes why her college focused on race, violence and health as an organizing framework throughout 2020-21 and highlights some of the important educational benefits.

September 24, 2021
 
 
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In May 2020, just as colleges and universities were wrapping up the academic year, George Floyd’s murder set off a national -- and eventually global -- racial reckoning that was long overdue. Almost immediately, it became clear to many that it was also time for academic institutions to take stock of their own histories of racial discrimination and contributions to racial justice. Most institutions, including ones that had remained notoriously silent during past incidents of police violence against Black people, issued statements of concern. Some colleges and universities eagerly embraced the liberal impulse to disseminate reading lists of books written by Black authors. More substantively, other institutions committed to cluster hires in areas related to Black studies.

At my institution, Whitman College, a group of faculty, staff and students, the majority of whom were women of color, decided that real understanding of the issues would only occur if our community gave sustained and serious intellectual attention to grappling with the key questions that were animating this moment. That led us to adopt the theme of Race, Violence and Health as an organizing frame for the entire 2020-21 academic year. As colleges and universities around the country continue to focus on these issues in the new academic year, I'd like to offer our experiences with such a theme and highlight some of its important benefits.

Creating a Shared Intellectual Community

Highlighting but also expanding beyond the focus on police violence and the COVID-19 pandemic, our aim was to invite an exploration of the three signifiers -- race, violence and health -- in conjunction in order to study the varied forms through which the violence of systemic racism manifests to damage the lives of marginalized communities. How, we asked ourselves, has racial violence shaped our histories and communities? And what effects has it had on the health and well-being of minoritized groups?

In a year during which many of us were scattered and isolated across time and space, our attempt helped generate and sustain shared conversations across various disciplines and programs during a historic moment of significant pedagogic import. More important, it made it possible for us to offer a wide-ranging set of events and activities that will, we hope, sustain our work on racial justice for years to come.

I want to highlight two ways that adopting a theme to organize our intellectual community helped us fulfill our educational mission more fully. First, it enabled us to demonstrate the power of a well-rounded liberal arts education to help make sense of some of the most vexing and urgent questions of our time. Second, it connected curricular and co-curricular areas of the college in a shared campuswide enterprise centered on rigorous academic work.

Lectures, Classes and Other Academic Offerings

Given the wide variety of shiny services that higher education institutions now offer -- leadership workshops, antibias trainings, extended retreats and the like -- it is sometimes easy to forget that the most substantive work at our institutions happens in our classrooms. Despite the lateness of the theme’s adoption, faculty members from varied disciplines such as art history, dance, religion, sociology and many others adapted their courses to add a substantial component relating to race, violence and health. This was enhanced by virtual talks that distinguished academic and nonacademic speakers delivered, many of which were integrated into classes.

  • An introductory biology class reorganized the physiology unit to include readings on the increased risks of COVID-19 for racial minorities. It also required students to engage with a talk by Sonia Shah, renowned author of The Pandemic, which tracked the history of contagions from cholera to COVID-19 around axes of inequalities.
  • A conversation with recent Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong on the racial disparities of the pandemic’s spread was integrated into multiple classes in the sciences and the social sciences.
  • Students from a macroeconomics class heard from Lisa Cook, a frequent contributor to the podcast Planet Money and member of the Biden administration’s transition team, on the ways that racial biases in access to economic opportunities perpetuate cycles of victimization.
  • Classes in history and politics integrated the writings of recent MacArthur “genius” award winner Natalia Molina as well as her talk on the trope of disease in the racialization of Mexican immigrants.
  • A week after the presidential election, former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry educated us on the ways that police protests, pandemic effects and the mobilization of Black voters had shaped elections past and present.
  • Three students conducted a public interview with Democratic senator Patty Murray of Washington on a report released by her office on racism and inequality in the U.S. health-care system during the pandemic.
  • Computer science faculty collaborated with library staff to invite Safiya Noble to discuss her pathbreaking work on the ways racial biases in internet search algorithms impact the very basis of knowledge production.

These are just a few examples of the most diverse series of speakers the college has ever hosted. (Many talks are still available on our website.) They also demonstrate the variety of ways that faculty members revamped their courses around the theme.

Faculty in many departments awarded extra credit for attending lectures by such visiting speakers. Some created writing assignments that required reflection on the lectures. Some reported that students brought material from the lectures and other classes that enhanced discussions of the theme in their own course.

People throughout the campus embraced the theme in all sorts of creative ways. A music professor invited the entire Whitman community to attend a session of his class devoted to Joel Thompson’s piece for men’s chorus and orchestra, “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” composed to honor the lives of seven unarmed Black men killed by police or vigilantes. Another colleague in the English department invited Felicia Chavez to lead an antiracist creative writing workshop. Some departments and programs initiated internal conversations on decolonizing their curriculum and diversifying their disciplines, efforts that might lead to new academic programs and different hiring practices. We also devoted several sessions of our annual undergraduate conference to student work related to the theme.

This collegewide integration of the theme into the curriculum and curricular planning made it possible for offerings in one area to build on or enhance contributions from others. It also exposed students to the complexities in the study of race and racialization across multiple registers and from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

Co-Curricular Programs

The organizing committee for administering the yearlong theme was not only composed of faculty members from all three academic divisions of the college, but also a group of dedicated staff from different areas across campus and three active students. Their efforts made it possible for the theme to be integrated into areas that otherwise can remain disconnected from the curriculum. The Intercultural Center, the Community Engaged Learning and Research Initiative, and student leaders and activists created various reflective projects that asked students to consider the ways their lives and worlds were shaped by racial violence and racial well-being. The museum, gallery and library staff collaborated to teach our community about the many resources available in our collections related to race, violence and health. In addition, our off-campus studies program helped arrange student internships related to the theme, and our Student Engagement Center made students consider the import of racial justice work in future careers.

Finally, in a year of virtual programming, we were also able to engage alumni and families of students in ways not always possible before -- including organizing a conversation of current student leaders of the Black Students Union with Black alumni from 1979, 2001 and 2017 on the racial climate of the college over the years.

Related Stories

For most of us in academe, the 2020-21 academic year was perhaps the most difficult one our institutions have faced. Yet belying the characterization of universities as slow-moving bureaucratic behemoths resistant to innovation and adaptation to a fast-paced world, the successful implementation of the Race, Violence and Health theme is testament to what the energy, commitment and creativity of a team of dedicated faculty, staff and students are able to accomplish even under very trying circumstances. Our accomplishments demonstrate the effectiveness of a common yearlong theme in crafting an intellectual community around a topic of significant educational relevance. That organizing annual theme gave Whitman College a meaningful way to help our students and community make intellectual sense of a transformational historic moment.

To continue the endeavor to pull together around a shared concern that faces us all, the college has adopted the theme Climate Justice, Climate Reckonings for this coming academic year. We invite you to check out our offerings and join us in those events that are held virtually. We also encourage you to consider adopting a theme of relevance to your own institutions and communities.

Bio

Shampa Biswas is the Judge and Mrs. Timothy A. Paul Chair of Political Science and professor of politics and chair of the division of social sciences at Whitman College.

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