Educating for Lives of Thoughtful Inquiry, Service, and Care: Perspectives on Diversity Courses at Pacific Lutheran University
STUDENTS OF COLOR ON PREDOMINANTLY WHITE CAMPUSES SOMETIMES DREAD DISCUSSIONS ABOUT DIVERSITY IN THE CLASSROOM, BEING PUT ON THE SPOT TO SPEAK ABOUT THEIR BACKGROUNDS OR DEFEND PERSPECTIVES OF THEIR ETHNIC GROUP. NOT SO AT PACIFIC LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY (PLU). "WE ARE REPRESENTATIVES WHETHER WE WANT TO BE OR NOT," SAYS DEKEY LHEWA, A SENIOR MAJORING IN BIOLOGY, "BECAUSE IT IS OUR CULTURE, ETHNICITY, RACE OR TRADITION." "AT PLU," ADDS LEANNE JONES, A SENIOR SOCIOLOGY MAJOR, "THE FACULTY MEMBERS ARE KNOWLEDGEABLE AND SKILLED AT FACILITATING CLASSROOM DISCUSSIONS."
The Perspectives on Diversity requirement is a well-established part of the culture at Pacific Lutheran University. All 3,500 PLU students take two courses (six to eight credits), one on Alternative Perspectives, exploring diversity in the United States, and one on Cross-Cultural Perspectives, focusing either on the culture of non-European American societies or a higher level language course. Unlike most universities, which require only one course for the diversity requirement and allow students to choose among courses focusing on U.S. and global diversity, PLU faculty members insist that both perspectives are essential preparation for students. Dean of Humanities Barbara Temple-Thurston maintains, "the requirement is only viable if connection and integration of the two areas are made."
The Alternative Perspectives courses highlight the newest scholarly approaches to studying diversity by analyzing the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability, describing the interconnectedness in framing identity and exploring power relations. The criteria for Alternative Perspectives courses state that an approved course must include "the positive contributions of alternative groups, whose voices are heard through inclusion of materials generated by these groups."
In his introductory sociology course, American Society, Dick Jobst introduces students to sociological thinking, especially how to analyze interconnections among race, class, sexuality, and gender. In addition to an introductory sociology text, he uses an anthology of primary voices to explore institutional and cultural patterns that underlie inequities in American society. Beth Kraig, in her African American history course and newer course in queer studies, demonstrates that groups are not monolithic and that there is an enormous range of complex opinions within each group. Students study the relationship between dominance and oppression, including self-other dynamics. They learn how people form abundant and varied affiliations in a deep and complex search for identity and community.
The Cross-Cultural Perspectives requirement strengthened the long tradition of international education at PLU. About 450 students study abroad every year, with 350 of the students studying during the four-week January term. In order to fulfill the requirement, a study abroad course must 1) include readings written by and from the perspective of people in the culture, 2) focus on relationships within the culture, and 3) involve students in interaction with local communities. Many students returning from countries where they have been engaged in social justice endeavors are compelled to address inequities in their own communities.
In the course, January on the Hill, taught by JoDee Keller, students explore what service means to them and to those who receive service from others. They volunteer in agencies in Tacoma's Hilltop and Salishan neighborhoods to address hunger, homelessness, and needs for shelter, employment, and English literacy. Four to six students choose to live in the community and come to better understand their own privileges, as they also learn how those in different circumstances exhibit agency in seeking to improve their lives.
The diversity requirement was a natural fit with the mission of PLU. It emerged during the core reform in the early nineties at the same time that faculty were revisiting the meaning of Lutheran higher education. Perspectives on Diversity courses bring service, inquiry, and social justice together. The planning and implementation of the requirement avoided many of the barriers and pitfalls that have plagued other campuses. Provost Paul Menzel attributes the overwhelmingly positive vote for the requirement in 1992 to the long tradition of a core curriculum at PLU, to strong faculty governance, and to the collegial atmosphere and process.
One concern of the faculty was that the faculty lacked sufficient expertise to teach the Alternative Perspectives and as such too few courses would be developed. But this challenge was countered by making visible the significant strengths among the faculty in race, gender, ethnicity, and other aspects of diversity. Eva Frey, former student and now Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs, sees the requirement as having dignified important work that faculty members were already doing.
Several new positions were provided to staff the new core curriculum, and as a result, new faculty members with expertise in diversity were hired to create new courses for the Alternative Perspectives area. The core curriculum and diversity requirement have become a strong recruitment tool for young faculty who come with an interest in these perspectives.
Deborah Miranda, assistant professor of English, has developed many of the new courses for Alternative Perspectives, including American Ethnic Literatures, Native American Literature, Women of Color in the U.S., and a freshmen writing course titled Seeing: Thinking Critically about U.S. Culture. In accepting a position at PLU, Miranda says, "I felt very strongly supported for the work I wanted to do within the classroom and as a writer and activist; PLU was looking for exactly those skills and commitments."
But perhaps the most important characteristic of the PLU diversity requirement, and the key to its success, is the emphasis faculty and administration placed on ensuring quality and uniformity in the courses to give credibility to the requirement. They decided only one course could double count for another general university requirement. A special, broadly representative committee, Diversity in the Core, was created to develop criteria and create standards for the courses. Formal faculty development opportunities do not exist, but committee members advise and assist faculty members to meet the standards.
Students generally do not complain about the diversity requirement, because the tradition of a strong core curriculum is part of the institutional culture. The diversity courses offer more choice than many of the requirements and have gained a positive reputation, so that most students are eager to take them. In some instances, students do appeal the requirement citing conflict with their belief systems, but the deans very rarely grant waivers.
The campus has begun a longitudinal study of alumni to determine the impact of the requirement. In interviews, students describe how the courses changed viewpoints and help them develop critical thinking skills and social justice values. Those who encounter their own privilege for the first time report changes of self-identity. Students report a greater appreciation of the tentativeness of their worldview and more active engagement with difference.
For more information about the Perspectives on Diversity requirement, see www.plu.edu.
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