Peer Review

Creating a Civic Lens in African American Studies

In fall 2016, the University of Puget Sound became the first liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest to offer an African American Studies major. The breakthrough represented by this achievement is significant. However, even more striking for us is that this moment honored the unique institutional and community legacies of questioning and praxis, collaborations and struggle, to which the development of African American Studies at the University of Puget Sound belongs. The moment also marked a threshold in the impact of our efforts to build an intellectual endeavor grounded in a critical integration of the field’s two foundational principles: rigorous scholarship and responsible social engagement. For us, the civic lens for African American Studies finds its vision and practice at the nexus of these principles.

Such an understanding of and orientation to civic and public engagement form an essential facet of the pedagogical commitments of the African American Studies major in the way that it permeates the scaffolding for student learning. Such learning includes the achievement of specific program goals that are incorporated in every African American Studies course syllabus and discussed in every course. Students in our program (1) acquire sophisticated knowledge of African American and other African diasporic experiences; (2) become conversant with the roles of race, power, and difference; (3) cultivate rigorous transdisciplinary skills in analytic, reflexive, and community-based research methodologies; (4) develop critical, intellectual, and ethical perspectives that can guide and advance personal, educational, civic, political, and professional actions; and (5) engage and interact with differential sites of community development and leadership in the Puget Sound area and beyond so as to deepen and apply their understanding of African American Studies and to learn to contribute collaboratively to the ongoing work of equity.

At the University of Puget Sound, our capacity to develop a major positioned toward the civic in this way was influenced by the fact that the development of African American Studies here has involved the building of the Race and Pedagogy Institute (RPI), with its mission of educating students and teachers at all levels to think critically about race, to cultivate terms and practices for societal transformation, and to act to eliminate racism. The institute’s Community Partners Forum (CPF) is pivotal to fulfilling the integrity of this mission. The forum works as an essential part of the enactment of the institute’s founding principle of fostering collaboration between the university and its surrounding community. The building of the institute alongside the related ongoing pedagogical work of African American Studies scholars across the campus and beyond have together elaborated the conceptual parts, cultivated the relationships, shaped the scaffolds of support, constructed and made visible sites of engagement, and reoriented the structures of reward and recognition which have crafted our curricular and pedagogical civic lens. Given African American Studies’s abiding awareness of its historical debt to communities of color for their sustained democratic enterprise of pressuring institutions of higher learning, particularly predominantly white institutions, to desegregate their curricula and campuses and redress their exclusionary terms and practices, we continue to be intentional in our efforts to build a program that grounds civic engagement as a core feature of the liberal arts education sought by a range of students.

Infusing the Curriculum

Establishing the contours and terms of the civic lens in which the African American Studies major rests involved a deliberate execution of what we have come to call an infusion approach or framework. This approach was strategic and pedagogic, emerging out of faculty deliberations early in the development of the program’s dedicated courses, which attended to our own campus and community contexts while examining emphases in broader national debates about the social, institutional, and intellectual role of African American Studies. We understood this model as allowing us to focus on influencing, connecting with, giving to, and learning from the wider curricular, intellectual, and civic life of the campus and beyond through active sharing of the ideas, literature, discourses, and practices of the field. This infusion would also serve to enrich African American Studies and strengthen its sense of presence. Thus, courses are intentionally developed and placed strategically in the Puget Sound curriculum to ensure that students across the university, and not only African American Studies majors and minors, take these courses with their explicit requirements of civic and social engagement.

This infusion framework for African American Studies also influenced, even as it was influenced by, the work of RPI. This critical connection was central to scripting the institute’s first strategic priority aimed at transforming the culture of curriculum practice to foreground sustainability and responsiveness as central to the enactment of Puget Sound’s educational mission. Such a reciprocal influence is evident in our modes of building critical pedagogies in which emphasis is placed on learning and teaching as a multidirectional process in contrast to a one-way transaction between teachers and learners. Teachers and learners in the encounter are encouraged to be aware of their contexts, their identities, and their shared accountability in making and using knowledge. Such an approach includes the promotion of a reflexivity that challenges self and others, as well as notions that educational engagement ought to be apolitical, ahistorical, and value neutral.

Another connecting point in the development of our infusion approach is that it has happened against a backdrop of the university’s Civic Scholarship Initiative and its broader mission focused on developing students’ intellectual and moral capacities, and their appetites for learning. The initiative articulates Puget Sound’s commitment to civic engagement beyond the campus and provides resources to support this engagement. African American Studies developed its civic design for the major within this context as a way to enact a grounded application of the institution’s mission.

Additionally, African American Studies seeks to elaborate and translate the workings and educational mission of the campus so as to connect them to our external responsibilities to the world. We present African American Studies and the RPI’s innovative and dynamic approaches to pedagogy as case studies to inform critical learning and teaching practices at Puget Sound. These efforts include the placement of subaltern voices as germane to the narration of Puget Sound’s new stories and possibilities. For RPI, the complex sets of situated spaces and social relations signified by the concept of community are central to the imagination and instantiation of our work. Especially for liberal arts institutions like ours, engagement with communities is an imminent and historical priority. RPI’s community engagement is grounded in an acknowledged debt that educational institutions like ours owe to communities long exploited for their resources and long excluded from the project of exploring, remaking, producing, and applying knowledge. For African American Studies at Puget Sound, our civic lens includes a focus on subaltern voices as part of a process of redress for this historical wrongdoing, especially where the knowledge produced has been used to exclude the members of beleaguered communities from the terms of what it means to be human.

Alongside our efforts to infuse the curriculum with a civic lens we have structured course assignments and curriculum requirements to ensure that all our students have ample opportunities to explore the varying dimensions of rigorous and responsible scholarship. For example, students majoring in African American Studies are required to take a course in public scholarship or civic engagement. This course provides students the opportunity to connect their coursework with RPI. In so doing, students fulfill one of the tenets of African American Studies, the production of scholarship and public programs that effect change and impact lives. RPI articulates six key principles developed in our CPF as part of our ongoing work together with our community partners. These principles include responsiveness—the imperative to act dialogically in concert with our partner communities in the face of dynamic changes and emergent crises at the nexus of race and society; reciprocity—the practice of mutually respectful and reflexive give and take; coherence—a focused commitment to reflect an integrity of purpose in all the multiple facets of our work; synergy—garnering the cumulative benefits from our strongest connected selves; sustainability—generative practices and relationships that heal, support, and reenergize; and flexibility—the agility to carry and engage the full arc of our learning in ways that enable us to adjust productively to the changing needs of campus and community.

In addition to a Public Scholarship course, majors are required to take Methods in African American Studies, which provides a thorough grounding in the literature and research areas. Students are taught to investigate historical, cultural, economic, religious, political, and literary phenomena and are encouraged to formulate new thinking based on thoughtful reflection on personal and community experiences. Alongside our public scholarship and methods courses, our requirement of three other upper-division courses aims to ensure students develop critical, intellectual, and ethical perspectives to guide their collaborations in continuing work of justice and fairness.

These other upper-division courses include Thinking Ethically: What Is Justice?; Communication and Diversity; and a capstone course, Research Seminar in African American Studies. In this seminar, students employ the range of methods and understandings gained through our introductory course and further studies in the major to complete an independent research project or paper that involves engagement with community partners.

Reorienting of Reward Structures and Recognition

Another way in which we crafted our civic lens was by rupturing the traditional faculty reward structure to foreground civic scholarship. We make explicit in this structure that civic teaching and service are scholarly endeavors that are both valued and expected. The African American Studies Standards and Processes for Evaluation note:

Inherent in the philosophy of the program is a commitment to applying African American Studies’ theoretical and critical insights, informed by the program’s interdisciplinary focus, outside of the classroom. For African American Studies, work outside the traditional classroom and in the community is an important feature of academic citizenship. Hence, African American Studies faculty are usually expected to make use of their expertise as scholar/teachers beyond their assigned classrooms.

Further, community service is treated not as an “add-on” but as an integral program component:

For African American Studies, community service is an important feature of academic citizenship. . . . The program recognizes that relevant community service is related to professional qualifications and expertise. Such service is a highly valued feature of the program.

Not only did we rupture traditional understandings of what counts as appropriate priorities for our reward and recognition structure, but we work collaboratively with a range of faculty colleagues across campus.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations

We work with other faculty outside of African American Studies to build relationships across disciplines, departments, and programs. Such efforts reflect the transdisciplinary consciousness of our field. In establishing these relationships across disciplines, departments, and programs years ago, we were not only building and strengthening our minor, we were engaged in a practice consistent with our field’s questioning of disciplinary construction. Our collaborations were further facilitated by the possibility and necessity for interdisciplinary work that is one feature of our small liberal arts college.

In order to provide a robust range of courses to constitute the major, we work with colleagues across a range of academic departments and programs including Communication Studies, Psychology, Latin American Studies, English, Theater Arts, Philosophy, Art, Latinx Studies, Politics and Government, Gender and Queer Studies, Environmental Policy and Decision-Making, and Education. Because we are a relatively small program with four dedicated faculty lines, some of which we share with other departments, African American Studies could not on its own offer the full range of courses necessary for a major that would enable our students to develop the capacity, commitment, and competence necessary to fulfill its intellectual and civic goals.

Building on African American Studies’s Unique Strength

Building the African American Studies major was an intentional undertaking grounded in the unique history of the social and intellectual struggle of a people for a place in the pantheon of formal institutional knowledge production, excavation, development, and deployment. Such an endeavor was spearheaded by faculty steeped in the historical and intellectual commitments of the discipline and aided by faculty and staff colleagues invited to share as full partners in the effort. All of these partnerships were developed through sustained cultivation of efforts for more than a decade. Such cultivation included focused faculty retreats and joint efforts on courses and special projects—some of which were done through RPI. This is the unique strength of African American Studies: by connecting the dynamics of race, identity, community life, and knowledge, it can become a catalyst for the transformation of the liberal arts.

Dexter B. Gordon, Director, African American Studies, University of Puget Sound; Grace Livingston, Professor, African American Studies, University of Puget Sound; and Renee Simms, Assistant Professor, African American Studies, University of Puget Sound


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