Faculty discuss value of Identity and Society course

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A central pillar of education that William Jewell College prides itself on is its unique core curriculum. The College’s website says that this core curriculum is the “foundation of our approach to critical thinking and inquiry.”

These core classes are termed “Critical Thought and Inquiry” courses – better known as “CTI” classes to students. The aim of these classes are to answer three questions: What is real? What can we know? and, How should we live?

Traditionally, over the course of their first year at Jewell, students take three level 100 CTI classes – Responsible Self, Written Communication and Mathematics. However, the 2017-2018 first-year class saw the introduction of a fourth mandatory CTI level 100 course: CTI 150 Identity and Society.

The College’s online course catalog describes CTI 150 as, “An introductory course in how to interact with others through the creation and perception of personal identities. Students will reflect on how they enact their own ideological, cultural and contextual assumptions regarding their relational perceptions of self and others, while learning how to engage in constructive, authentic communication.”

The course differs from other level 100 courses, such as Responsible Self, in multiple noteworthy ways. First, it is a two-credit hour course, which means it is only seven weeks. Second, the course does not have a core curriculum but insteads leaves the curriculum up to the professor teaching the class – as long as it follows the core objective.

Recently, students voiced concerns about CTI 150 at a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) event hosted by Jewell Student Senate March 27. Along with concerns about the on-campus housing policy and lack of diversity in recruitment, students cited CTI 150 as a possible failed initiative of the College to promote D&I.

The Hilltop Monitor spoke with multiple faculty and staff members involved in teaching and coordinating CTI 150 in order to better understand the origins and focus of the course, as well as potential improvements that can be made.

The creation of CTI 150 came in response to a group of minority students on campus who gave testimony to the school regarding their negative experiences at Jewell.

Donna Gardner, professor of education and education department chair, became frustrated after she saw no action being taken after these students bravely came forward and shared their testimony. She put out a message to faculty that these issues needed to be addressed in the curriculum and thus, a group of professors begun to envision what this class would entail.

Ian Coleman, professor of music, spoke of how student voices were the leading factor on the beginning of CTI 150.

“We felt we were responding to those student voices in the way we as faculty could respond, which is through the curriculum,” Coleman said.

The course was modeled after other courses at Jewell that focused on diversity, such as the communication course, Rhetoric of Race, taught by Kyle Dennis, director of debate and communication instructor.

“Students were coming out of that class [Rhetoric of Race] pumped to talk about these conversations,” said Chris McCoy, theatre/stage director and assistant professor of communication and theatre. “That kind of became a model that we looked toward in developing the new class.”

There has been only one additional member added to the faculty members that Gardner originally gathered to teach the course – Pharamond Guice, Director of Academic Achievement Center, who is the only staff member teaching the course.

“At first I wasn’t sold on it [CTI 150],” Guice said. However, he began to see the benefits of CTI 150 after talking with faculty and understanding core curriculum – which lead him to approach Dr. Gary Armstrong, associate dean of the core curriculum and political science professor, in fall 2018 in order to begin teaching the course.

The faculty teaching the course all underwent a three-day training session where they read common materials and had dialogue with each other about what the course was going to be about.

Ultimately, though they read common materials together, the faculty decided against having a common curriculum or texts for the course. Each teacher in CTI 150 can assign the material they feel is correct for their class.

“Our conception was that this was a strength of the program,” Coleman said about not having a shared curriculum. He added that this strength comes through teachers all being able to take a different approach to the class. For example, Colemans’ CTI 150 specifically draws on how artists respond to issues of identity formation.

Gardner echoed these sentiments, emphasizing that each of her colleagues has a different realm of experiences. She said that while they have common objectives and common thinking about D&I, each teacher has a different way of approaching it.

“Different people bring different personal journeys and different backgrounds with them,” Gardner said. “People needed to be comfortable from their own frame of reference, from their own background.”

Lori Wetmore, professor of chemistry and director of Village Partners Project, talked about how this course is meant to engage in dialogue and set students up for future CTI courses. She spoke of how she observed a gap in knowledge in teaching her capstone class when students had not heard about concepts, such as white privilege, until their senior year.

“This is not Responsible Self two… There is a difference in what we’re trying to accomplish with this course versus what we’re doing with Responsible Self,” Wetmore said.

A common sentiment that arose was that while there is a not a shared curriculum, the teachers all follow common objectives and share similar materials with each other.

McCoy spoke about how he follows the common objectives in the syllabus and has added additional learning outcomes he feels are beneficial.

Keli Braitman, associate professor of psychological science, emphasized that there was lots of sharing of materials among the teachers and congeniality – for example, they have a Moodle page for teachers of the course on which they can share course materials. Braitman also pointed to the shared learning outcomes as a way in which the course unifies itself.

Each CTI 150 shares three common learning outcomes. First, students should identify processes by which they enact their own ideological, cultural and contextual assumptions regarding identity and the implications of those assumptions in the context of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, religion and ability. Second, students should learn how to engage in respectful, challenging and productive dialogue related to their identity and the identities of others. Third, students should begin to recognize how their positionality – race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability, etc. – influences their understanding of their own lived experiences and their ability to understand the lived experiences of others.

Alongside the concerns about the lack of common curriculum, students also raised concerns about discussing issues of race among a class of almost entirely white students. At the March D&I event, some students voiced the opinion that CTI 150 could become an echochamber of ideas.

McCoy responded to these concerns by arguing that the reason white people need to have these conversations is because white people have the privilege to not think about these issues.

“We [white people] have privilege of moving through the world when we don’t have to think about that [issues of race],” McCoy said.

In response to this concern, Coleman pointed back to why the course was created – minority students and minority voices came to a professor with concerns about issues on campus centered around race that were causing challenges for them.

Coleman felt that the fact that Jewell is a majority white identified campus is exactly why the College needs this course and why it is critical that conversations about race are had.

Ruth Williams, assistant professor of English, spoke about how she has had only one CTI 150 class with all white students. She spoke about how she has perceived students as white but later the student will self-identify as biracial or multiracial.

Williams also introduced the idea of tokenization, which she felt is a negative of having a predominately white class with few minority students.

“There is a sense among white students that those [minority students] are the authorities in the room about these issues and that puts a huge burden on them [minority students],” Williams said.

She added that since white people have power they should try to address racism and that this course forces white students to realize that they also have a race.

Faculty and staff made a note to clarify that CTI 150 is not supposed to be solely focused on race – a common perception of the course.

Braitman emphasized that race is only one aspect of the course. She also talked about how, even when there is not diversity among races, there is still a diversity of ideas and opinions in the class.

“It [CTI 150] was never designed to be all about race,” Armstrong said. “If students are expecting the course to be all about race we may need to be thinking about getting the best way to describe this to students before they get in there.”

Armstrong added the most of the professors, while evaluating their own classes, felt that they were not solely teaching about race. Most professors felt they were teaching about gender, intersectionality and class.

Ultimately, faculty and staff all emphasized that the goal of CTI 150 is to start a conversation about these complex issues with students, not to force an opinion on students. They emphasized that this class is one stepping stone in students’ journeys to understanding identity.

Williams described her aim in CTI 150 as trying to teach a habit of mind to students. She wants students to become aware of how social identity shapes the way they see the world and she uses civil discourse as a concept in her class.

Coleman does not describe the course as way to check boxes. Instead, he sees it as a way to start dialogue and have students think about these issues.

“I don’t want a finite result at the end, like we checked a box and we’re done, I just want this to be building dialogue,” Coleman said. He also added that he does not want students to just agree with him but think deeply about these issues.

Gardner used the analogy of a journey to describe this class. She emphasized that everyone experiences the journey differently and this course is one step on a students’ journey toward understanding their identity.

“Everybody experiences the journey differently,” Gardner said. After taking the course she wants students to, “think systematically about their own lived experience and to think systematically about the lived experience of people who are unlike themselves.”

The group of faculty and staff members who teach CTI 150 will reconvene in May in order to assess CTI 150.

“We wanted to let the course run for a year or two to get feedback,” Coleman said. During their meeting in May they will “evaluate experiences, share experiences, and make decisions about keeping things the same or making changes, and to what extent [they] want to make changes and what ways do [they] want to make changes.”

Armstrong added that in the May meeting they will discuss numerous topics such as whether there should be a core curriculum or whether the course should remain a seven week course.

Some student assessment data from the 2017-2018 school year about CTI 150, provided by Dr. Armstrong, showed that CTI 150 received positive feedback from students. Students rated the course nearly excellent in categories of developing knowledge and understanding of diversity, and critically evaluating ideas and arguments. Students also rated the course in a similar way to Responsible Self.

The student assessment surveys will be analyzed at the May meeting in order to better understand students’ perspectives on the course.

Faculty were asked what the value of learning about one’s place in society in a classroom compared to real world experience is. They responded that there is value to learning about these issues in a classroom setting.

“What’s the difference between a classroom and personal experiences, I would ask,” McCoy said. “We are learning from each other.”

Williams noted that a classroom allows students to slow everything down and listen to each other.

Guice said that the classroom is a controlled environment that gives students an opportunity to learn and grow together. He said this is an advantage which students do not get beyond school.

“In the classroom, students can explore,” Guice said. He added that the classroom is an opportunity for students to learn and grow together.

Summarizing the challenges facing CTI 150, Armstrong spoke about the complexity faculty and staff face in developing this course.

“If we have a terrible racist incident on campus, it does not mean this course is failing,” Armstrong said. “That’s how complex the kind of work that goes on in this new part of core curriculum really is… These are complex conversations where we want to make sure people see what we have in common as humans and what makes us so different… and that’s really complicated.”

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