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Summary of 4/15/05 Discussion:
How can we increase multicultural education at Bryn Mawr--and to what ends?

Two representatives from the student curriculum committee initiated our conversation, by asking what people thought about instituting a course on diversity as a graduation requirement at Bryn Mawr. We have "structures for changing things" here: what action do we want to take, and in what format? Sociology classes on race and class stratification already exist, but many students choose not to be introduced to issues of diversity. What would be the best way to expose everyone? Students take academic courses more seriously than other campus activities. Expanding the course offerings about diversity would be one way to make sure that we all learn--as we all need to learn--more than we already know about these issues. "I don't want to protest every year": this is why instituting diversity in the curriculum is important.

There are a range of possible models for doing this: We might incorporate diversity into the existing Wellness curriculum (with a focus on a different topic each week), into the CSem program, into Division I or III, or into all the major requirements. We might institute a new "Diversity Studies" course, featuring a range of different professors. We might copy the Haverford model of having discussions which are extensions of classes. We might train student facilitators to run such meetings. It is important that this work be student-generated; any required course is going to result in skepticism--and backlash. Could we require "mandatory-voluntary service," to force people outside of their comfort zone? How would we oversee this? Would attendance be taken? Follow-up discussion, and papers required?

Which of these is most feasible? How much faculty interest in and commitment to such initiatives would there be? And what is the value of requiring students to do what they do not chose or desire to do? People only come to diversity discussions when they already feel connected to the topic. But being pushed is important. How do we get people to take classes that make them uncomfortable? What are the reasons for requiring them to do so? What is the value of theorizing diversity? What message does it send? Is the rationale that we are talking about life skills--teaching people to negotiate difference? Or to learn to honor their differences, and develop them in peace? Some of us were uncomfortable with the proposal for an "academic requirement, which sounded like it had an agenda: I feel uneasy being taught things. Can't I make my own agenda? I will only learn if I am open to it."

Some of the most valuable lessons in diversity come outside the classroom, from rooming with someone of a different religious background (for instance), or just hearing others talk about their different experiences. "Real learning happens when you hear a story from everyone else." (The suggestion was made that the housing office should try to match roommates based on their differences, rather than on their presumed similarities: each of us should be assigned several weeks to "of living with our worst negative stereotype.") But we also need to learn about dealing with issues of power.

There are more than a hundred cultural clubs at Bryn Mawr, and "they are all separatist"; why is there no "diversity club"? Technically, all the clubs are "open," but not all are actually welcoming; there are assumptions about the sorts of people who belong to each group. The pluralism workshops held during Customs Week were very powerful, but they need to be extended beyond a single session. "There are methods" for teaching this kind of material. What about the "One Book/One City" model? Along with their acceptance packets, all first-year students could be mailed a book to read in common (rather than the current pluralism packet, "which is wretched").

Successful discussions about diversity depend less on what is read than on who is doing the reading--and the discussing. We need a diverse population to talk about diversity--but some of us are uncomfortable with the (now-much-stigmatized) notion of a "ratio" or "quota," which reduces each of us to one category, and others to being our "compliments." What's the point of such an arrangement? It doesn't feel diverse. "It also annoys the buggers out of me to hear personal stories in my classroom; it is a waste of my time, and my $88." I wish we could ban the phrase "I feel like" from class discussions. "I am irritated by personal input in academic classes." One actually learns very little from just hearing others talk; it is in the process of talking that we incorporate what we know.

There needs to be "some experience from the get-go," some frame established early in people's Bryn Mawr experience that will open them to further education and sensitization. Perhaps the best groups are not chosen or designed, but "random people" who lack inaccurate, preconceived notions about one another, and are willing to meet repeatedly and intentionally, in order to get to know one another in a safe space. People won't be interested in participating, if they think they already know what the outcome will be. The agenda for productive conversation needs to be generated by each group. Having a pre-set agenda limits the discovery of what diversity really can be.

Teaching can also be done through the popular media. The concept of "intimate distance" was also invoked (which involves--I think?--the teacher engaging her students in something "distant from her, but close to them," communicating knowledge in a way they can internalize.) In the end, which pedagogy works better? Carrots (offering something enticing enough that people will come) or sticks (requiring them to do so)?

Discussion closed with a reminder that it can continue on the on-line forum already established to talk about "Teaching and Learning at Bryn Mawr." We also plan to resume meeting in person in the fall.


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