diversity digest
Winter 01
Student Experience
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Diversifying the Curriculum: What Do Students Think
Barbara Gold, Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of Classics, Hamilton College


As the cover article in this issue of Diversity Digest suggests, colleges and universities across the country are developing a variety of models for requiring students to study issues of diversity as part of their undergraduate general education program. We need to have a better understanding of students' own attitudes toward these sorts of requirements and what they think they need in their college courses to prepare them for the future.

Hamilton College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, recently completed a lengthy review of its undergraduate curriculum including an examination of its diversity requirement. The faculty ultimately voted to replace distribution requirements with a strong advising system which will give students freedom to choose their own programs, but Hamilton continues to emphasize among its Goals and Purposes a focus on cultural analysis, including the study of non-western traditions and of diversity in the United States.

As is true at many other institutions, Hamilton students usually come to college already very aware of the issues around diversity both in their daily lives and in the curriculum. Some of our students come from highly diverse high schools while others come from very homogeneous high schools. These experiences clearly influence their expectations of college life and diversity learning. About 13 percent of Hamilton students are students of color, and Clinton, New York is a very small, predominantly white community.

In light of our newly developing curriculum, I interviewed extensively five Hamilton students from varied backgrounds and ethnic/racial groups about their thoughts on diversity and the curriculum. I posed a series of questions about the diversity requirement, their own experiences in diversity classes, and their recommendations for how Hamilton should be changing the curriculum and campus life to teach about issues of diversity in the best possible way.

The students who participated in this focus group were Daniele Berman ('00), Dzu Bui ('00), Amy Lawrence ('01), Yvette Padilla ('00), and Nadia Sangster ('00). In general, these students affirmed that the ongoing diversification of Hamilton's curriculum was having a positive impact, but expressed reservations about other areas of college life that remained less affected by attention to diversity.

The Need for Diversity Requirements

These students felt that ultimately a diversity requirement should not be needed. As they put it, diversity should be "taught across the board--from arts to zoology." Nadia said, "My ideal diversity requirement is not to have one...It's not African American history. It's American history." She felt that if diversity permeated the curriculum and became part of the norm, there would not be as many students avoiding diversity topics or sighing in class and saying, "I can't believe they're talking about slavery again." In a similar vein, Yve said that she had fulfilled her diversity requirement numerous times over, officially by taking a year of Japanese, but then also by taking courses in "Sociology of Race and Gender," "Spanish," and "Women's Studies." Yve took most of her diversity courses, however, in her last two years after she had already declared a concentration in Sociology. She wishes she had studied different cultures earlier in her college years.

Dzu supports the idea of having a requirement, but thinks that such a requirement would have to be reviewed with some regularity so that it could be altered in response to changing student needs and desires and to reflect the external environment. Dzu agreed that the ultimate goal should be not to have a requirement. Three of the students interviewed could not remember which course they had taken to fulfill the requirement. Daniele suggested that this might mean we have already reached the point where diversity is embedded in the curriculum and might not need to be highlighted or marginalized in a requirement. She had taken between five and ten courses that would have fulfilled the requirement without considering them in that light. She thinks that perhaps students are getting tired of discussing diversity as an issue and that we should just try to let it happen without foregrounding it quite so much. Amy agreed and suggested that the current diversity requirement (not a part of the new curriculum) is simply a check-off system--a single course agreed upon by the advisor and student, but not integrated into the rest of the student's curriculum.

Classroom Climate and Teaching Practices

Discussions with these students suggest that many professors still feel uncomfortable talking about diversity issues. These students said that some professors zero in on the one or two students of color (or, for example, the few male students in a women's studies class), and expect them to speak for the entire non-dominant point of view.

They praised other professors who knew how to create a "comfort zone" so that students felt at liberty to speak their minds without repercussions. One student observed that the atmosphere at Hamilton is so "politically correct" that students are afraid to bring up anything that might sound racist or sexist. This student felt that, as a result, open discussions often do not take place.

These students believe that it is important for professors to understand how to let discussions go even when they become heated, but also to set boundaries and ground-rules in advance. They thought professors should emphasize respect and encourage students not to personalize issues. They recognized that this is much easier to do in small classes and saw this as a compelling reason to offer many small classes of twelve to 15 students especially in the first and second years (a major part of the new curriculum).

Another student suggested that professors should be trained in a series of on-going sessions to provide this sort of open atmosphere in their classes. Professors should be encouraged to talk to each other about their classes so that courses don't simply repeat the same material, but present it from different points of view.

Professors should also more clearly explain to students why they are discussing certain issues and how these issues relate to other parts of the students' experience. They felt this would minimize the sense of some students that they were talking about race or gender only as "window-dressing."

Diversity on Campus

These students had strong opinions on the need to increase the diversity on campus. Their suggestions focused on two approaches: expansion and integration. The students felt that we needed to expand our course offerings in this area, but also to make sure that courses on diversity are expanded across the curriculum and not just in predictable areas.

Nadia thought that there needed to be a shift in our thinking about college education in general to respond to the demographic shifts in our society. Some students felt that we needed to invite more activists to campus as speakers and to be more tolerant of student activists. They suggested, for instance, that when a group writes messages on the sidewalk in chalk, the reaction should be, "what is the message here and what can we do about it," rather than, "can you believe that these people are defacing school property?"

Dzu suggested that we use campus activities in a more intentional way, requiring attendance at events for courses and connecting these events more explicitly to a diversity requirement or guideline.

These students also stressed that we must be aware that diversity comes in all colors and sizes and can involve more than just the differences one can obviously see. When designing diversity courses and programs, for example, we should consider factors like class or religion.

These students suggested that we should also be more intentional about preparing our many students who go abroad, making sure that they discuss diversity issues in courses earlier in their time on campus. They need opportunities to learn about the culture they will be visiting. Yve, for example, went to Australia but was surprised to learn that it was a culture with so many Asians. She also was deeply disturbed when she learned the history of the Aborigines in the region--a topic she had not encountered in her earlier courses.

Conclusion

These five Hamilton students showed a high degree of sensitivity to and thoughtfulness about issues of diversity and how those issues could best be integrated into today's curricula in such a way that we ensure that students are prepared to live in today's increasingly globalized and multicultural world while allowing professors the freedom to conduct their classes in the most effective manner.

Hamilton's new curriculum features small classes, a writing program, a mandatory sophomore seminar that emphasizes inter- or multidisciplinary learning and culminates in an integrative project with a public presentation, and the freedom and responsibility for students to choose their own program of study in conjunction with a close advisor. We hope that this new curriculum will allow issues of diversity to arise often and in many different venues and will produce students who have respect for "intellectual and cultural diversity because such respect promotes free and open inquiry, independent thought and mutual understanding" (Hamilton College Catalogue).


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photo of Barbara Gold
Barbara Gold

These students felt that ultimately a diversity requirement should not be needed. As they put it, diversity should be "taught across the board--from arts to zoology."

Communication tips
Curriculum is a hard topic for journalists to cover, as many editors and producers think that those outside of colleges and universities are not interested in what is studied in the classroom. As a consequence, diversity practitioners have to find ways to make news with curriculum changes.

Identifying the spokespeople who can speak to the issue from a fresh perspective is one of the best ways to make the story newsworthy. Students, recent graduates, faculty members, and high-ranking administrators are the best and most obvious spokespeople, but explore whether there are others who might speak to the issue. For instance, is there a prominent local business leader who will address the need for colleges and universities to prepare students to succeed in a diverse workforce? Are there local religious leaders who can talk about the ways that diversity educations strengthens society? Are there prominent local officials who will write about the benefits of diverse curricula and campuses? If so, encourage them all to help spread the word about why diversity is so important.