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First-Year Students Dive Deeper in New Class on Race

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The goal is to make AUx2 be mandatory for all incoming first-year and transfer students in 2018-2019.
The goal is to make AUx2 mandatory for all incoming first-year and transfer students in 2018-2019.

When American University Provost Scott Bass asked School of Communication Associate Professor Angie Chuang to set up a new AU course on race and social identity, the task appeared daunting. How do you devise a curriculum that competently explores the racial history of the United States?

Chuang had a lot of resources at her disposal, and she consulted with AU faculty, staff, and student groups to create a multidisciplinary course.

For an introductory class for first-year students, it looks quite ambitious. It touches on everything from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to immigration to Native American rights. Yet it’s not meant to stand as the be-all, end-all class on the matter. If anything, this course will be a gateway for further study.

“We wanted students to have a grounding to begin a conversation that was an educated conversation. A conversation that came from a place of knowledge, a place of historical fact, as well as sociological and psychological theory,” says Chuang.

AUx2: First-Year Curriculum on Social Identity and Race

This new course, called American University Experience II, or AUx2, just started this semester and is part of the American University Experience pilot project. AUx1, offered last semester, helps first-year students transition to college. Students get an introduction on critical race theory and implicit bias in AUx1, but AUx2 is a much deeper dive into these issues.

AU invited a cross-section of first-year students to take AUx1 and AUx2—collectively, a three-credit general education course. There are 57 students in the pilot program this year, and next year that number will increase to about 450 students.

The goal is to have the course be mandatory for all incoming first-year and transfer students in 2018-2019, says Andrea Malkin Brenner, director of American University Experience (AUx) and a sociology professor. To make the course compulsory, Brenner says they will seek approval from the Faculty Senate next month.

Each AUx2 classroom includes an instructor-facilitator and a student peer leader. As an online and face-to-face hybrid course, it makes strong use of videos from AU professors and students. One week includes a video talk called “The Lens of Your Identity,” from AU Performing Arts Professor Caleen Jennings. School of Public Affairs adjunct Bev-Freda Jackson provides a video on Emmett Till, the March on Washington, and Black Lives Matter. Sociology Professor Celine-Marie Pascale contributed a video on allyship. AU students Angelica Vega and Krista Chavez engage in a video dialogue on issues of free speech and race in the classroom.

“The course had to touch on many disciplines,” says Chuang. “People suggested different readings and different approaches.”

Chuang also included edgy pieces of popular culture, such as a critically-acclaimed Saturday Night Live sketch of Tom Hanks playing “Black Jeopardy!"

“The topics are serious and racism is not entertaining, but I think you have to be able to laugh. You have to be able to look at this in other ways,” she says.

Identities Intersect

AUx2 is tackling weighty, complicated subject areas. Midway through this semester, classes are slated to look at the legacy of slavery. Since students can’t learn the history of the transatlantic slave trade in one week, Chuang established an entry point of discussion. She videotaped poet and Colorado State University Professor Camille T. Dungy, whose writing is based on historical documents and utilizes composite and real characters. One of her poems chronicles a woman who surreptitiously shipped herself out of slavery in a box.

Chuang initially planned to dedicate each week to a specific racial or ethnic group, but she later discarded that idea. Instead, she chose historic points in time and how various groups and identities intersected around a particular issue. For instance, Frederick Douglass joined forces with women’s rights activists to push for abolition.

“What I love about the abolition unit is it’s really about allyship,” she says.

To examine white privilege, she revised the syllabus after the presidential election. Many commentators argued that an aggrieved white working class helped put Donald Trump in office, so she adjusted the unit to focus on both white privilege and the disenfranchised white working class.

“I really wanted students to have a debate about this. ‘If you’re white, you’re privileged, but we just learned about this entire population that’s struggling,’” she says. “How do we address that contradiction?”

Band-Aids and Healing

AU Director of Alumni Outreach Isaac Thweatt is one of the AUx2 facilitators. In an interview, he describes how he views his role.

“We’re trying to expand mentalities,” he says. “So not necessarily telling students how they should think, but exposing them to new ways of thinking.”

Since AU attracts a geographically diverse student body, he thinks AUx2 could be a point of entry for first-year students.

“It will be a fantastic place to start the dialogue,” he says. “If we can teach our students how to be better citizens now, then when they leave our institution, we can hope that they are making a greater impact on the world.”

Especially if AUx2 becomes mandatory, Brenner believes AU could carve out a unique, innovative niche.

“Nobody is doing it quite the way we’re doing it. It’s these intensive, interactive communications about living with people different than yourself and learning from others,” says Brenner, also an AUx2 facilitator.

Fostering an open, collaborative community will be key for future success. AU is trying to create a healthier racial climate on campus, and this course is a measurable step towards that goal. Chuang is obviously committed to that cause. But she suspects, given racial tensions on the national level, that things might get a little worse before they get better.

“You sometimes have to rip off the Band-Aid and expose the wound before it’s going to heal,” Chuang says, borrowing a sentiment that AUx2 student Vega expressed in the academic freedom video.

For 18-year-old students, a course like this may require abandoning old beliefs and sailing in uncharted waters. And it places a special burden on AUx2 facilitators.

Thweatt says, “It’s a lofty task, but we could be one of the first institutions to do it exceptionally well.”