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

The Importance of Place and History: The Studies in Race Requirement at Temple University
By Debra Humphreys, Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs


Temple University
Photo: Peg Skorpinski
THE SAYING GOES THAT "ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL." WHILE MANY INSTITUTIONS PAY ATTENTION TO NATIONAL TRENDS, THIS SAME SENTIMENT COULD ALSO BE APPLIED TO CURRICULAR CHANGE EFFORTS. WHEN TEMPLE UNIVERSITY INSTITUTED ITS "STUDIES IN RACE" COURSE REQUIREMENT IN 1993, THE INITIAL IMPETUS WAS A STUDENT DEMONSTRATION SPARKED BY A RACIAL INCIDENT ON CAMPUS. MANY ON CAMPUS, HOWEVER, CAME TO BELIEVE THAT FOR MANY REASONS, IT MADE SENSE FOR TEMPLE TO FOCUS ITS DIVERSITY REQUIREMENT ON ISSUES OF RACE.

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.

Among the most racially diverse universities in the nation, Temple's student body of 31,000 is approximately 20 percent African American/Black, 10.2 percent Asian American, 3.4 percent Latino/a, .3 percent Native American, 57.7 percent White, and 8.3 percent other ethnicities. The university resides in a predominantly African American, poor neighborhood in North Philadelphia. In contrast to the student body, the neighborhood in which Temple is located is approximately 97.9 percent African American, .9 percent White, .3 percent Asian American, and .9 percent other ethnicities. Temple's mission and history, the characteristics of its student body, and the nature of its surrounding neighborhood, then, all suggest that a Studies in Race requirement was appropriate.

The knowledge and the communication skills gained in the Studies in Race courses help students better understand a critical context of their society and their own lived experiences. Temple believes that such understanding is essential for living and working in our racially diverse world. Temple's requirement seeks to foster several abilities in its students: 1) reflect on the extent to which racism is present in social, cultural, political, and economic institutions; 2) reflect on how different manifestations of racism have surfaced over the course of history; 3) recognize how matters of race affect society today; 4) recognize how matters of race affect individuals today; 5) make connections between course content and the present day United States; and 6) discuss issues of race with people of diverse backgrounds. Discussions with students suggest that this last goal may be the requirement's most important one.


"STUDIES IN RACE" REQUIREMENT

Objectives
  1. To engage students in a critical examination of knowledge about the existence of racism cross-culturally, historically and in the United States today.
  2. To examine the effects of racism on individuals and societies.
  3. To develop knowledge about the role of racism in the development of different disciplines.
  4. To prepare students to live in a multiracial, multi-cultural world.
Criteria for Courses
  1. Courses will originate within disciplines. Therefore, across the university diverse topics will be explored and diverse approaches to the content may be used. Rather than espousing a particular perspective, this requirement will expose students to a variety of points of view and encourage them to develop their own ideas based on the knowledge they are exploring.
  2. Courses should foster an understanding of the impact of race and racism on social and cultural institutions, of how different manifestations of racism have surfaced over the course of history and of how they affect society and individuals today. Courses exploring racism in other countries and in different historical periods are acceptable with attention paid to the relevance of the content of the present-day U.S. where appropriate.
  3. Courses should foster an understanding of how different types of racism are experienced by different racial groups. While a course might emphasize one group, a particular historical period, or one country, efforts should be made to develop understanding of the commonalities and differences in the manifestations of racism toward different groups.
  4. The study of race should be woven into the texture of the course.

What Students Think

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 diversity—a 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."

Pedagogy Matters

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 classes—those 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.

What Next?
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.


back to top