As the opening article in this issue suggests, many colleges and universities around the country now require students to take at least one diversity course. Iowa State University implemented its three-credit course requirement in U.S. Diversity in 1997. This implementation came after a long period of debate and deliberation by the Faculty Senate.
Diversity Requirements and the Teaching Experience
We joined the faculty of Iowa State University in 1998. Given our backgrounds and experience, we sought the opportunity to teach two of the many courses that met the requirement. Jointly as well as singly we have been involved in two courses, African American Women and Introduction to African American Studies. Overall, we have enjoyed the opportunity to teach many intelligent and exciting students committed to learning about the issues raised in our classes.
While we also encountered some students who have no interest in the course or the subject matter and who are taking the course only to fulfill the requirement, they have not been numerous.
Believing that committed students would be encouraged by the opportunity to study the issues in depth, over the years we have developed these courses and raised the course requirements significantly. We introduced material from our research as well as our experiences as administrators into the classroom presentations. We are very aware that the work load both for ourselves and our students is significant. Campus leaders need to be aware of the significant effort that is involved in developing and effectively teaching these sorts of classes.
In the course we jointly taught on African American Women we required students to read 12 books plus several articles. In addition, students wrote 12 essays in class and led at least 3 discussion sections. The semester was capped with a comprehensive take-home examination.
In the Introduction to African American Studies, students were required to read 16 books, write 12 essays in class, lead two to three discussion sessions, and complete a comprehensive take-home examination. Most of the discussion sessions were led by teaching assistants.
Student Responses to Diversity Requirements
We encountered no opposition from students in the course on women. They came to the course because of their interest in the subject matter, and the class soon moved from an anonymous group to an academic community. Students supported and encouraged each other and bonded across borders of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality.
To the extent that students had problems in the course, it was because of pressure from peers, partners, or family. At least one student dropped the course because of pressure from family and friends, who objected to the amount of time and interest she was putting into the course. Others resisted similar pressure and completed the course. When class members learned of such problems, they encouraged them even more strongly. Some of the friendships developed in that class continued beyond the semester.
The experience with the Introduction to African American Studies course has been significantly different and reveals how important it is for us to set clear expectations for these courses, including their seriousness and academic rigor. The enrollment limit for this course is 120. At its first offering approximately 85 students enrolled, but after the first week the numbers dropped to less than 50. Students complained to staff the books were "too expensive" even though the books were also placed on library reserve.
A number of others continued in the class thinking they could "get by." Some did not even attend lectures or showed little evidence of reading the books. However, the intensity of the academic expectations eventually reached them. Some became involved, while others dropped the course.
Even now there are students who enroll without reviewing course expectations and they greet the first session with disbelief. Each semester there are about 2025 students who drop the course in the first week. On the other hand, there are others who seek out the course and its intense learning experience. Some report that they reduce their course load for the semester so they can put more time into the course. Enrollment has stabilized at 8595 students each semester.
The experience for many students is typified by written comments from one student delivered at the beginning of a discussion session toward the end of the semester:
"When we introduced ourselves the first day, I remember saying that I was taking this class because it was required. Fifteen books, ten essays, and two discussion starts later I don't think of this class the same way as I did.
"At first I was intimidated by this class and didn't know quite what to expect. How was I supposed to read all of these books? What was I supposed to talk about?
"Taking this class has given me the opportunity to understand the African American race as well as my own. I have gained an appreciation of life, the ability to formulate my own opinions and appreciate others."
We have seen additional evidence of the impact of both courses in students who seek us out in subsequent semesters for a variety of reasons, some unrelated to the course. In one case a student wanted to interview us for a journalism course. She was interested in how we combined our academic and personal lives. Other students seek additional information about readings and developing issues in the African American community.
Our experience also reveals some of the positive impact these requirements can have beyond the immediate outcomes of the one course. The number of students taking additional courses in African American Studies at Iowa State has increased. We are also experiencing a rise in the number of those who wish to minor in the program or do independent study. A student in an independent study has produced an article that has been provisionally accepted by a major journal. Even graduates continue to work on ideas they developed in the courses. One, an architecture major, is working on some designs inspired in part by his studies. For additional information about the course and its outcomes, see our web site: www.iastate.edu/~aastudies/.
The diversity requirement is not the onerous burden we once perceived it to be. Serious students appreciate the intellectual challenge, and even when simply fulfilling a university requirement, they gain a great deal in the course. High expectations and active student involvement in the learning process have a powerful impact on students. As well, we have found our own intellectual growth stimulated by the challenges students present to us from their own multicultural backgrounds. If the course were not a University requirement, the teaching and learning experience would not be as intense and rewarding. We expect this process will lead to new research projects as well as more effective teaching.
(To see the syllabi of the courses described in this article or the language describing Iowa State's requirement, see the Curriculum Transformation section of DiversityWeb, http://www.diversityweb.org)
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