Students Create Ethnic Studies Course

The lack of an Ethnic Studies department at the college prompted a group of ten determined students to establish a course in the field for the spring semester. Students involved see the class as part of a broader struggle for Ethnic Studies on campus.

The course, titled “Locations of Self: Introduction to Ethnic and Cultural Studies,” meets every Tuesday evening for three hours and is primarily student-run and student-led.

During the semester students will complete two analytical essays, take turns facilitating class discussions, and prepare an auto-ethnographic piece for the final project.

Although the class is primarily student-run, Director of the Intercultural Center and Sophomore Class Dean Alina Wong, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies Anna Ward attend each class session to give lectures and to help facilitate discussion.

Wong became involved with the class this semester due to her former relationships with the students, her position as director of the intercultural center, and her research in higher education and cultural studies. The Gender and Sexuality Studies department houses the new course for various reasons. “Ethnic Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies are very closely linked and interrelated,” Wong said.

There is no concrete Ethnic Studies program on campus, although there are myriad classes that relate to the study of race and ethnicity. This course is the second installment of a similar Ethnic Studies course that was offered during the fall semester of 2012.

Wong said that students had attempted to establish an Ethnic Studies program for four to six years, and eventually took it upon themselves to create a course.  The students collaborated with each other to develop a syllabus which takes components of a course Wong previously taught at the University of St. Thomas in their Higher Education Administration program and adds student input, resulting in a “hybrid student-run class,” as Wong describes it.  Madeleine Reichman ’13, who is in the class, said she appreciated the class specifically because of its collaborative approach to learning.

Since the 10 students in the class constructed the syllabus, they pursue personally relevant subjects and ideas. For example, in the autoethnographic assignment, students will utilize theories learned throughout the semester to “actually think through their own individual and social locations and identities,” according to Reichman.  Reichman described that the students’ experiences act as a form of knowledge which contributes to the structure and material of the class discussions.

Students engage in an exploration of the various critical theories that form the background of Ethnic Studies.  Through weekly readings, written reflections, autoethnographic memoirs, and discussions, students contemplate how social identities inform perspectives. The class touches upon social reproduction theories, feminist theory, critical race theory, gender theories, queer theory, and decolonization theory.

During this week’s seminar, students compared and contrasted decolonization methods with postcolonial studies, focusing on how each differs and overlaps in terms of political orientation.

Reichman compared her Ethnic Studies class to an economics class at the college, saying that she could apply theory learned in the class to “how my life is being constructed right now.”  To her, there is no separation between what she is learning in this Ethnic Studies class and her life as a student at Swarthmore.

According to Wong, the introduction of the course is particularly powerful because the students’ determination to establish this class honors the history of student activism in the field of Ethnic Studies. Hopefully, the actions of the ten students involved will lead to the establishment of a legitimate Ethnic Studies program at the college in the near future.

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