diversity digest
Spring 02
next story
previous story
home
previous issue
archives
search
institution profiles
feedback
recommended resources
diversity web

Engaging the Complexity of U.S. Diversity: University of California at Berkeley
University of California at Berkeley By Jack Meacham, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, University at Buffalo


EMBRACING A UNIQUE AND GROUNDBREAKING APPROACH TO TEACHING ABOUT DIVERSITY, SUPPORTERS OF THE AMERICAN CULTURES REQUIREMENT AND THE AMERICAN CULTURES CENTER HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL IN MAKING THE ARGUMENT TO THE ADMINISTRATION THAT THESE ARE "THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN" AT UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT BERKELEY. BUT AS WITH MOST DIVERSITY CURRICULAR TRANSFORMATIONS, THE ROAD TO SUCH SUCCESS WAS FILLED WITH BUMPS AND TURNS. THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE REQUIREMENT WAS CHALLENGING BECAUSE OF THE DEPTH AND COMPLEXITY OF THE COURSE CONTENT.

University of California at Berkeley
Photo: Peg Skorpinski
The American Cultures requirement, directed by the American Cultures Center, calls for students to complete one of many courses designed to focus on themes or issues in United States history, society, or culture; address theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in American society; take substantial account of groups drawn from at least three of the following: African Americans, indigenous peoples of the United States, Asian Americans, Chicano/Latino Americans, and European Americans; and be integrative and comparative in that students study each group in the larger context of American society, history, or culture. In 1989, the Academic Senate of the University of California at Berkeley passed a resolution (227 in favor, 194 against) requiring all students who enter the university in fall 1993, or later to complete an American Cultures course. Following the Academic Senate's approval of the American Cultures course requirement, the American Cultures Center was quickly established, with a director, an associate director, an administrative assistant, and a quarter-time librarian as well as a budget for faculty development.

Faculty Development Seminars

In establishing that American Cultures courses must integrate and compare three of five groups, Berkeley's Academic Senate had approved a graduation requirement that no one was prepared to teach. An extensive program of faculty development was clearly essential and so a Center for the Teaching and Study of American Cultures was quickly established to coordinate a series of summer seminars. Most faculty were knowledgeable about only one of these five groups and so the focus in the early seminars was primarily upon content and less upon pedagogy.

Striving to integrate and compare at least three of the five groups challenged and broadened many faculty whose prior research and teaching had been focused on only one. One faculty member says, in looking back, "I was so narrow." Another reports, "My focus had been on white-black issues of race. Including many different experiences and dimensions of social life increased the complexity of my research and changed my conception of race." Now, this faculty member continues, "my understanding is more of a jumbled weave than these five groups, so it has challenged me to broaden my notion of diversity."

An unexpected outcome of the seminars was the impact upon the participants, who report being inspired by the intellectual climate and the opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas that would later have a marked impact on their teaching and on their research programs. These faculty had volunteered for the seminars expecting merely to prepare to teach a required course. Instead, they found that they were remarkably enriched intellectually by being with colleagues with whom they had never had a conversation. The seminar experience was intellectually transformative in how the faculty thought about themselves, their research, and their teaching. Since the mid-1990s, the format of the seminars has evolved so that approximately half the time is spent on content and half on pedagogy.

Since 1991 more than 400 American Cultures courses have been developed in more than 45 academic disciplines, with the majority offered within African-American Studies, Comparative Literature, English, Ethnic Studies, and History. These courses vary greatly in their enrollments, including seminars with enrollments of 15 and the largest course, "Introduction to the history of the US: from the Civil War to the present," enrolling 750 students. More than half of the American Cultures courses are taught by graduate student instructors; a slightly larger proportion—at least 60%—of the American Cultures student enrollment is taught by faculty.

Integration and Comparison

The American Cultures courses are integrative and comparative and include an emphasis on how the diversity of America's constituent cultural traditions has shaped and continues to shape American identity and experience and on how the interaction of various peoples and cultures has produced one people with a common culture. What do these broad goals mean in the concrete practice of teaching together with students in American Cultures classrooms?

One faculty member emphasizes the need for instructors "to mediate between the larger social categories and the lived experiences of people, that is, to have students understand the link between the social relationships that are larger than the life of the individual and the individual." If the instructor errs in one direction, the individual is silenced; if the instructor errs in the other direction, the analysis of social processes is lost. "The art is to keep enough of the social complexities so that people can find themselves in a reasonable way." Integration and comparison is also ensured by the American Cultures Committee's insistence that course syllabi must include the voices of various groups and, in particular, how various people have integrated their understanding of their own experience into the majority experience.


AMERICAN CULTURAL REQUIREMENTS AT BERKELEY

A Berkeley faculty committee determines which courses satisfy the requirement. Faculty members from many departments teach American cultures courses, but all courses have a common framework. The courses focus on themes or issues in United States history, society, or culture; address theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in American society; take substantial account of groups drawn from at least three of the following: African Americans, indigenous peoples of the United States, Asian Americans, Chicano/Latino Americans, and European Americans; and are integrative and comparative in that students study each group in the larger context of American society, history, or culture.

Courses focus upon how the diversity of America's constituent cultural traditions have shaped and continue to shape American identity and experience. It is not an ethnic studies requirement, nor a Third World cultures requirement, nor an adjusted Western civilization requirement, nor a course on racism. It is a new approach that responds directly to the problem encountered in numerous disciplines of how better to present the diversity of American experience to the diversity of American students whom we now educate.

Student Learning Outcomes

During my visit, I raised the question of what the students are expected to learn and how the students are expected to change with a group of three American Cultures instructors and two undergraduate students who had completed American Cultures courses. A primary learning outcome for students in American Cultures courses is to understand that race and ethnicity are social constructs. American Cultures instructors believe that understanding this is "a huge breakthrough" for students. A student reports that "Understanding that race itself is a social construct blew me away and changed the whole direction of my education."

Many instructors look for changes in students' writing, from early to later in the course, that show they are thinking more about what they are saying and as evidence that students are becoming more open-minded and thinking more critically. A student, commenting on what other students get from American Cultures courses, says: "Even if the faculty can't get through, they at least make the students aware that there is a conflict between what the students have assumed and what others believe. Many students leave the American Cultures courses understanding that there are people out there who have other viewpoints and they need to acknowledge that even if they don't agree with them."

Berkeley does recognize the need for a formal assessment of this dynamic program. There has been relatively little attention to assessment of whether any student learning outcomes are being attained and of whether the teaching in the American Cultures courses is effective. However, assessment of the American Cultures courses has included routine administration of an end-of-semester questionnaire that asks students, among other questions, "What has been the impact of this course for you?" There is some student concern that the structure of the American Cultures course requirement actually promotes stereotypical labeling of groups, fosters the continued racializing of these groups, and perpetuates notions of racial categories that are not legitimate. Notwithstanding such feedback, at least two-thirds of the students appear to approve of the American Cultures requirement. Among the students' written comments: "This class opened many windows for me. I thought I knew about cultures, but after taking this class I know I need to learn more." "People assume they know about others when really they do not. I think American Cultures courses are necessary and vital to a liberal education."

Further information about the American Cultures requirement, including a listing of courses and the texts of key documents, is available at http://amercult.berkeley.edu.


back to top