Committee to address minority curricular concerns

Building on last spring’s evaluation of the English department’s curriculum for inclusiveness of minority literature, students and professors are developing a committee to determine how well other departments are addressing minority issues. The organization, called the Minority Curriculum Review Committee (MCRC), hopes to work with departments beginning in the fall to review their curricula.

The MCRC’s efforts will follow up on the actions spearheaded by the Black Student Union (BSU) to examine the English department’s course offerings. Students were concerned that the department did not have requirements ensuring that majors would take courses inclusive of minority perspectives – those of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and socioeconomic class. A group of 30 to 35 students, including members of the BSU, met with several English professors last February to discuss the major.

“Students expressed their concerns over the structure of the major,” said Royce Smith ’01, a co-coordinator of the BSU last year. “The salient argument was that when one looks at the courses that counted towards the major and those that did not, almost all of the minority literature classes did not count.

It became an issue of legitimacy, the department seemingly separating the English literary tradition into two racial categories, white and non-white, and upholding the value of the former and dismissing the value of the latter.”

Out of the ensuing meetings and discussions with the English faculty, students put together a five-page report that summarized their feelings about the major and recommendations for change. Part of the proposal called for a 20th century class – a distinction that includes most of the department’s courses with a focus on minority literature – to be a requirement for the major. The faculty eventually accepted this amendment to the English curriculum.

Their interest piqued by the successful collaboration with the English faculty, a group of students decided there was a need to undertake a campus-wide review of course offerings. Professor of English Kristin Carter-Sanborn urged wider participation in the process by students outside of the BSU, believing that the entire minority community should be represented.

It was this call for inclusiveness that led to the development of the MCRC. According to Chabeth Haynes ’02, who is leading the MCRC, “we came to agree with professor Carter-Sanborn that it wasn’t the responsibility of the BSU to meet the needs of the entire minority community. So out of that understanding we decided to form the MCRC, which would comprise reps from all of the Minority Coalition (MinCo) organizations, and that’s what we’ve been working towards this year.”

Drafting a Charter

During February, Haynes and a few others completed a MCRC mission statement and laid out the aims of the committee and how its members would be selected.

The mission statement reads, “The MCRC seeks to examine the academic departments that do not place any significant importance on minority issues whether it is race, gender or sexual orientation, religion or class to incorporate these issues into their curriculum.”

The two expressed goals of the committee were to seek out academic departments whose curricula were “primarily concerned with the dominant culture,” and after identifying these departments, to, “through careful interaction with the department, find a balance in the department between issues that concern the dominant culture and minority issues.”

The purposes of the second goal are to enable more minority issues to be addressed in the classroom, to create greater campus-wide awareness of minority issues and to diversify the entire Williams curriculum.

After drafting the MCRC charter, Haynes took it to MinCo for discussion because she believed shaping the committee around representatives from each of the MinCo groups would be advantageous.

“MinCO got involved because we decided that the composition of the [MCRC] would be one representative from each MinCO organization,” Haynes said. “We took the charter and mission statement to a MinCO meeting and discussed it with the leadership, and they reviewed it and ratified it.”

Haynes also presented the charter to College Council (CC) in early March at the request of then co-president Bert Leatherman ’00. CC responded positively to the MCRC’s stated goals, but wanted to ensure that majority students were represented in the group.

The charter called for a committee of 15, one representative from each of the 13 MinCo organizations and two professors.

CC believed that the two additional “at-large” representatives should be added to the group to include the voices of majority students and also requested that least one of these “at-large” members to be a CC representative.

Discussions with College Council

The MCRC is on CC’s agenda for this Wednesday night, when it will propose a 15-student committee with two at-large representatives.

However, the MCRC proposal will not recommend for one of the reps to necessarily be from CC.

CC co-president Todd Rogers ’01 says he supports the MCRC’s goals but would like CC to send a rep to the committee.

“This came up in CC when [Haynes] approached us about it,” Rogers said. “I would like to see a CC member on it. I can certainly understand the argument for minority-only representation, but I think it would benefit all parties involved if the committee was formed by students devoted to its aims regardless of racial or ethnic lines.”

He continued, “I tend to disagree with those who would say that the committee must be representative because the committee itself has a special interest and it will ultimately be appealing to groups that reflect the student body or the administration, namely CEP or the Dean’s Office. I am very excited about the committee.

“I would hope that the MCRC would like an interested CC member to join it in its effort. This committee is exactly the type of project that [CC co-president] Ami [Parekh ’01] and I have been speaking about CC getting involved in throughout our campaign. I expect that CC will support MCRC in its aims and help it in any way possible.”

Haynes said that agrees with the concept of having majority students on the committee, but she said she “doesn’t understand why they have to be from CC. There are students who are not on CC who would be interested in these efforts, so why does it only have to be CC members?”

Committee Goals

According to Haynes, the MCRC is not advocating an overhaul of the current curriculum, but rather the inclusion of minority issues and readings in department curricula.

“I think ideally what we would want is sort of what the English department is doing with its comparative approach, where you can compare material with and challenge it against the dominate culture,” she said.

MinCo co-chair Mike Woltz ’00 agreed. “We’re not trying to change the curriculum to have more courses simply about minorities,” Woltz said. “We wanted what is taught in each department to be more indicative of what is stated in its purpose.”

Smith addressed the long-term goals of the MCRC and its role in defining the College’s academic future.

“The one thing that members of the MCRC and members of our faculty must continue to understand is that diversifying the curriculum, must include both the creation of new classes and the integration of existing classes, the latter of which might be the faster and more effective solution,” Smith said.

“If there is any goal that is in tune with the ways of Williams, it would be breaking down old and tired understandings of what the normative is, and replacing and improving it with matters of study of equal educational and intellectual value.

“This is an opportunity not only to expand the minds of our student body, but our professors themselves, some of whom might be stuck in a rut of teaching the same type material year after year; to learn from new angles and perspectives.”

The two professors who have been asked to participate in the MCRC are Prof. Carter-Sanborn and history professor Scott Wong. Wong indicated interest in educating the College community about curricular development and faculty decision-making processes through the MCRC.

“I think the committee, and everyone else on campus, should understand how and why the curriculum is formed the way it is, how faculty are hired and how positions or FTEs (full-time equivalencies) are created and allocated,” Wong said.

“Most importantly, I think the issues of curricular diversity should be seen in terms of benefiting everyone, not just “minority” students. So-called “majority” students will benefit from courses dealing with African Americans or Latinos or Asian Americans or gays and lesbians or other topics and approaches just as much as students who identify as belonging to these groups and others.”

Woltz shared Wong’s sentiment, urging all members of the Williams community to share common interest in effecting change in the curriculum.

“These courses are about everybody and they should address everybody, not just the majority or the minority,” Woltz said. “The curriculum should reflect a broad range of people, and it should be inclusive of all.”