Sundiata Cha-Jua: The misuse of required courses – Champaign/Urbana News


After decades of student and faculty struggles to democratize the University of Illinois’ curriculum, proponents of a required course on U.S. domestic racialized minorities finally succeeded. However, a year later, some troubling signs suggest this historic accomplishment may turnout to be a pyrrhic victory.

One step forward and two steps back.

As we await the phasing in of the new obligation in fall 2018, it seems some academic units are poised to make a mockery of the new requirement.

Those of us with expertise in African-American, American Indian, Asian American or Latinex studies or in the exploration of “other socially significant identities,” such as women, hoped the requirement would centralize the importance of our courses to the university’s educational mission. Frankly, I expected it to do for my discipline what the composition requirement does for the English and communication departments.

The reference to the composition requirement is not rhetorical. Not only are all students required to complete a course in English composition, but to do so in their first year. Moreover, only a very small number of courses or combination of courses meet the requirement. In fact, only five courses and two combinations of courses fulfill the composition requirement.

Specific features of the composition requirement can serve as a model for implementing the U.S. domestic minority course obligation. First, it should specify the point in a student’s academic career by which they must meet the requirement. It should be early, if not during the first year, than by the end of the second.

It’s important that students are exposed to these areas of knowledge and engaged in the questions posed by them as soon as possible. Students enter college largely ill and misinformed because few secondary schools offer courses or incorporate substantial material about U.S. racialized communities. Addressing this knowledge gap earlier maximizes the possibility of developing a well-rounded person who thinks critically and has a broad empathy for others, the historic goals of a liberal arts education.

Second, it’s important to respect the boundaries of the requirement’s subject matter. It’s about people, not things. The focus on human beings was the point of the 40 plus year struggle. In example, a course emphasizing how the international slave trade spurred the development of new shipping technologies might be an interesting engineering course. However, it is wrong headed for the new domestic curricular obligation.

The idea of the domestic requirement on racialized communities is that courses “substantially address the experiences, conditions, and perspectives of U.S. racial minority populations.” For this requirement, it’s the social relations on the slave ship not the technological innovations for the shipping industry that matters. It’s for this reason Marcus Rediker named the only book on the subject, ‘The Slave Ship: A Human History.” An emphasis on accounting or technology performs what Rediker calls “a violence of abstraction.” That is, such a focus contributes to the further dehumanization of Africans. And it continues to mask the cruelty imposed on them by Europeans in pursuit of money and capital.

Yet, even more irrational ideas are a float.

Given the relationship between enrollment and funding and the desire of some units “to protect” their students, some units outside the social sciences, humanities and fine arts are poised to cynically create courses that undermine both the letter and the spirit of the new general education requirement.

Allegedly, the astronomy department is creating such a course. If true, this move would take us full circle to the ridicule heaped on black studies during its inception. In the early debates about black studies its opponents often maliciously joked about courses in “black math” and “black engineering.”

It seems in pursuit of enrollments departments outside of the social sciences, humanities and fine arts may try to make a travesty of the domestic minority requirement.

The question of boundaries counts in a third way. Expertise is also at issue. Faculty with expertise in the subject area should teach these courses. What this means is that faculty whose graduate education was in these areas of research and whose scholarship is on U.S. racialized communities should teach these courses.

Given the importance of this initiative, tenure track faculty should largely teach these courses. As with other curricular initiatives it’s important to get students in the classroom with skilled teachers whose research is on this subject matter.

This is not the place to pursue money-saving schemes by employing adjuncts and teaching assistants as instructors. Nor is this requirement the space for experimentation by unqualified dilettantes.

To do so is to make a mockery of the new requirement.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.