Teaching About Race, Gender and Justice: Bridging the Digital Divide
Since 1994, Occidental College, an urban liberal arts college in Los Angeles, has offered, through its cultural studies program, a series of colloquia that are designed to teach writing and critical analysis in the context of the college's multicultural mission. All first-year students are required to take one of these interdisciplinary colloquia along with a companion seminar that, together, constitute one-half of a student's course load in their first semester.
In Fall 1997, "Race, Gender and Justice" (RGJ), the first colloquium to fully integrate Internet technologies, was offered to a quarter of the incoming class. In developing RGJ, we decided that a synthesis of critical thinking, writing, and Internet technology skills would provide our diverse student body with the critical expertise to communicate effectively in the post-industrial, post-affirmative action, information era.
Our decision to embrace teaching with technology is fueled by our concern about social justice, diversity, and the "digital divide." Studies have revealed that the interconnected nature of poverty and educational disenfranchisement sullies the "shining promise" of the Internet as the democratic leveler of the future. As college teachers, we are concerned by the disparity among college students in exposure and access to computers. In 1997, for example, 73 percent of white students nationwide owned personal computers, while only 32 percent of African American students did, according to Science magazine. This year's figures confirm this disturbing trend: there is a twenty percentage-point differential between access to computers for these two student groups. The implications of the "digital divide" spurred us to address issues of race, gender, and justice as we encouraged students to be critical about the way they might intervene in this on-line arena.
"Race, Gender and Justice" explores legal, cultural, and theoretical issues that affect how individuals and communities conceptualize justice in the United States. We begin by examining essays by authors who explicitly consider their own situated identities and who challenge the idea that the meaning of "justice" affects everyone equally. We also examine collective "justice statements," including the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party, the United States Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Platform of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Equal Rights.
We then explore the struggle over the meaning of rights, nationhood, and freedom during the post-Reconstruction Era, using Charles Chestnutt's The Marrow of Tradition and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation as our texts. Questions of national inheritance and legal, contractual, and cultural relationships provide the bridge to the third section of the course. We revisit notions of "equal protection under the law" and privacy that stem from interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment. We use Supreme Court cases such as Bowers v. Hardwick, Loving v. Virginia, and Hawaii's Baehr v. Lewin to examine the legal policing of private spheres in the area of marriage, race, gender, and sexuality.
Our final assignment requires students to create their own "epistemography," the term we coined to make clear the connection between narrative, autobiography, and epistemology. Students make these connections by examining artist Barbara Krueger's Love for Sale, a piece that poses questions about national "scripts" and who is included and excluded from them. We ask students to create a final paper/website that links to a page in which they use legal scholar Patricia Williams' work to contribute to their analysis.
Building on the web assignments developed by Randy Bass, editor of the American Studies Crossroads Project, we ask students to read their peers' papers and to then revise their websites/papers to include both references and links to students' pages from other RGJ seminars. These exercises allow students to recognize each other--and themselves--as producers of knowledge, rather than as passive consumers.
One of the most compelling features of the course is the way in which the content and the technological components interact. Students with different knowledge backgrounds and learning styles all benefit from the on-line forum that allows each to pose and respond to questions, to offer insights and information, and to make connections to outside readings and current events. These postings allow both students and teachers to communicate with others who are not necessarily in our small seminars. In teaching this course for the first time, we also discovered that students with distinct learning styles used different aspects of the technology to find their own entry routes to successful academic achievement in the course.
The preparation to teach the class was lengthy and extensive. None of us had much experience integrating an American cultural studies curriculum with new technologies. In addition to an American Social History Project grant for two team members, each of us was selected to be a recipient of a "teaching with technology" grant funded by the Mellon Foundation. This grant enabled the entire team to attend a two-week intensive course on teaching and learning with technology.
The students reported that the class was a spectacular success, with impact that was manifold. Their reaction was confirmed by the specific entry and exit surveys of the students that we conducted on numerous aspects of their computer and Internet skills. After completing the course, students' technology proficiency improved dramatically. Considering that the students in RGJ are from more diverse backgrounds than the incoming class as a whole, we were pleased to see that the "digital divide," on our campus at least, has been narrowed by our efforts. Another outcome is the large number of students who are now willing to be "technology mentors" to other students and faculty.
A secondary impact of the course was on the college as a whole. Many first-year students did not realize the innovative nature of this course. Thus, they left it with the expectation that their other academic experiences would similarly integrate such practices and would include discussions of how race, gender, and sexuality illuminate material taught in multiple disciplines. This student-generated pressure will have an impact on the curriculum of the college beyond this one course.
We share these experiences to offer just one example of how a truly interdisciplinary and integrated technology course in a liberal arts setting might look. As public policy that considers issues of power, race, and access is increasingly devalued in the headlong rush to the Year 2000, we are trying to re-direct our students' attention to those very issues that we believe are central to meaningful understandings of the rapidly changing world around us; our hope is that they will challenge divides of many kinds, and that the digital divide will be just their first step.
To see the full syllabus of "Race, Gender and Justice," including the websites created by students in the course as well as related web resources, visit http://abacus.oxy.edu/rgj.
This article originally appeared in a longer version as "Race, Gender and Justice at Occidental College," American Studies Association Newsletter (September, 1998). For more information about joining ASA, see http://www.press.jhu.edu/associations/asa/.
Sources: Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak, "Bridging the Racial Divide on the Internet," Science, Vol. 280, April 17, 1998.
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This sort of innovative course can be the basis for news stories that highlight the value of utilizing innovative new teaching techniques and of incorporating diversity into the curricula. Find a student who took the course a couple of years ago who is willing to talk to the media about the experience, and how it has affected her/his educational experience. Identify an employer who would be willing to comment on how this kind of education can help prepare students to succeed in the workforce. And then contact a local reporter to suggest a story on the course, offering a chance to: sit in on the class; examine the website constructed by select students who are taking the course now; and interview these various spokespeople.
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