The Importance of Place and History: The Studies in Race Requirement at Temple University
Temple's proud history and institutional mission are world-renowned. Recognizing that the health of our society and democracy depends on making educational opportunities for all people, Temple has served as a gateway of opportunity throughout its history for people from modest or disadvantaged circumstances. Known as a major urban educational center, the university has had a longstanding commitment to provide educational opportunities for those who are from or reside in Philadelphia.
Too few colleges and universities systematically survey students about aspects of their curricular requirements. At Temple, campus leaders conducted focus groups in 1997 to gauge the impact of the requirement on Temple students. As part of these focus groups, students were asked questions about the content of their Studies in Race courses, their classroom experiences, their views on race and racism, and the necessity of the requirement.
Students at Temple seem to strongly support the requirement and see its importance in their education. Many students felt that the course enabled them to better take advantage of Temple's own diversitya feature that draws many students to Temple. As one student put it, "The Race course helps a multicultural school be a multicultural school." Another commented that, "Temple is diverse and has no choice but to offer these courses to help with race relations." Students see the course as vital to facilitating cross-racial interaction and cultural awareness.
When asked about what was most valuable about these classes, the opportunity to discuss racial issues in a diverse group of students and share experiences as they learn about racial issues was cited often. Compared to other courses they had at Temple, students reported that Studies in Race courses allowed for more sharing of multiple points of view. As one student put it, "In the Race course there was more room for opinion. There was group discussion in every class." Another commented, "It was a class I looked forward to going to because of the discussions. Students learned from each other, not just the professor."
Many curriculum committees spend much of their time discussing the nature and parameters of the content of diversity courses, but pedagogical style and skill may be just as important to the success of diversity courses. Students I interviewed for this story stressed again and again that the most successful professors teaching these courses were those who were comfortable with the tensions that inevitably arise in such classesthose that were able to manage heated discussions, but who didn't shy away from controversy.
One of the most important outcomes of these courses identified by students extended beyond the specific knowledge gained in the courses. For many students, the course equipped them with skills that enabled them to discuss issues of race and racism. They reported feeling more comfortable talking about race, especially in diverse groups of their peers. This outcome, however, depended heavily on how open professors were to allowing heated discussions to occur and how well they managed the discussions when they did occur.
Challenges and New Directions
One area of concern that arose in the focus groups and in my own interviews with students related to the ongoing need for faculty development and coordination, and a perceived over-emphasis on "Black-White" issues. Like many diversity requirements across the country, students at Temple can choose from a wide array of courses to fulfill their requirement. Students suggested that the goals for the requirement weren't necessarily made clear or achieved in all sections of the course. They also believed that some faculty members were significantly better prepared to teach these kinds of courses than others.
Many students in Temple's focus groups described an emphasis on Black/White issues in Studies in Race courses. For some, this was a significant weakness of the requirement and was particularly difficult for students from racial/ethnic backgrounds other than white or African American. Other students didn't consider this a negative aspect of the course, but felt it was justified given the history of the nation, limitations of a one-semester course, and the nature of Temple's campus and neighboring community.
One of the challenges Temple faces as it moves forward with a curricular review of its entire general education program is how issues of diversity beyond race and beyond Black/White issues are addressed in the curriculum. Temple is also examining how Studies in Race courses relate to other required courses including a course on Intellectual Heritage, an International Studies or Foreign Language requirement, and an American Culture requirement.
On the Frontier
One area of curricular growth at Temple seems especially promising for the future. Temple is expanding the curricular opportunities it has for students to be engaged in service learning activities. Following the trend nationally, Temple is working to use its own neighboring communities to develop learning opportunities often connected to diversity content in the curriculum. One especially promising program is coordinated by Temple's Center for Intergenerational Learning. The SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders) program links college students with older immigrants and refugees seeking to learn English and navigate the complex path to U.S. citizenship. Students in a variety of classes at Temple, including many Studies in Race courses, take advantage of the opportunity to participate in this program and earn credit for their participation.
It is clear that Temple's history, mission, and especially its location in inner city Philadelphia have shaped its approach to diversity. The richness of its diverse campus and surrounding community provide it with ample opportunities to offer its students valuable experiential learning opportunities. Students are actively seeking these opportunities and see the value of learning in diverse environments more than ever. These kinds of learning experiences will clearly benefit Temple's students as they help chart the future of our diverse nation.
For more information about Temple University's Studies in Race requirement, see www.temple.edu.
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