Op-Ed: The benefits of social engagement inside the classroom

April 27, 2012, 12:07 a.m.

As the director of the Community Action Board’s response to the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report, I appreciate that The Daily Editorial Board invested time and energy into engaging with our letter. However, I was disappointed by their conclusions (“The pitfalls of social engagement inside the classroom,” April 23)

I take issue with several points raised by the five members of the Editorial Board. Infusing the Stanford curriculum with discussions of identity and privilege is NOT akin to promoting an “overemphasis on creating agents of social change.” Rather, it is about acknowledging and understanding the complicated histories and identities of underrepresented students at Stanford. Nor is this issue about “transforming some Stanford courses into sites of social and political activism.” Instead, it’s about recognizing that the history, stories, and struggles of minority-identified students are part of the dominant bodies of knowledge that we perceive as normative in this institution. All that we – the 21 student groups, the ASSU Executive and the ASSU Undergraduate Senate that signed the letter – are asking is that minority students see themselves reflected in the academy without being called “activists.

I imagine that many critics of our response to the SUES report do not understand the feeling of being excluded from the syllabus in every course they take. Sometimes, it’s not about rational expressions of racism, sexism, etc. – it’s about the subtle, emotional experiences of being the victim of these destructive “-isms” without having a rational, articulate method of describing what one feels. Imagine taking a literature course where you can’t relate to any of the texts, because the authors are all of a different race and gender. Or a course about U.S. history where the history of your gender or ethnic identity is limited to one lecture. In the words of Dr. Angela Davis, “The history of people of African descent is the history of the United States.” Histories of minority peoples in the U.S. are central, not peripheral to, what most students think of as “normal” American history. Not to mention that major programs that do engage issues of identity and power (like Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity) are often derided and seen as “easy” majors. The histories, identities, and interests of minority students are devalued by the current academic structure.

Furthermore, the Editorial Board writes that it, “values courses that may have nothing to do with social issues.” The truth is, every course has something to do with social issues. Income inequality in the U.S. is clearly connected to race. So why shouldn’t there be more economics classes about it? When engineers study Hurricane Katrina, they should look beyond the levees, and toward the history of failed engineering projects and urban planning policies that primarily affect low-income residents of New Orleans. Identity is not something to be relegated to one major or course. These questions of identity, privilege, and inequality are integral to scholarship in a variety of fields.

Finally, I want to address what I believe is the crux of the Editorial Board’s piece: fear. The fear of being ignorant, overwhelmed and outnumbered. The authors write that, “A view of liberal arts education in which courses should become training grounds for social activism threatens to marginalize thinkers who fail to engage in socially relevant questions or who present less tolerant views on women, minorities and privilege.” The Community Action Board and its supporters are not asking for courses that make some students feel attacked and marginalized. We are asking those students to appreciate the historical experience of feeling attacked and marginalized through exposing themselves to courses that deal with issues of identity and privilege. As a White student who knows the total awkwardness of taking a class on African American history for the first time, I ask you to embrace the feeling of ignorance and discomfort. Yes, others in the class might know more than you about the topic. Yes, you might feel terrified of “saying the wrong thing.” But you will find that these classes increase your own comfort with your privileged identity, and make you a more empathetic and educated friend, scholar and leader.

Increasing the courses that incorporate identity and privilege into their syllabi is not a radical act – it is one that allows all Stanford students truly equal access to this university.

Holly Fetter ’13

ASSU Chair of Communities


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