Behavioral science, quant II … diversity ed?

By Chelsea Fiddyment

Every year, University housing sends new paraprofessionals through a variety of training sessions in order to prepare them for their residence hall positions. One of the training requirements for these students is an actual course, EOL199.

While new housing staff takes a specific version of this course, many sections are offered for undergrad students, recently revamped from EOL199 to EPSY203. Titled “Social Issues Group Dialogues,” the class “provides students with opportunities to converse on specific diversity and social justice topic areas offered as separate sections,” according to its description in the spring semester course catalog.

Essentially, the idea behind the course is to spend the latter part of the semester engaging in in-depth conversations with a small group of other students about specific social-identity-related topics such as sexual orientation, religion, race and ethnicity, among others.

Given the University’s current climate regarding issues of diversity, especially race and ethnicity, it’s encouraging to see that so many sections of this potentially eye-opening course are being offered for this semester (nine in all).

At the same time, I don’t think this is an effective implementation of this course. Its potential to do a lot of good for the University community is being stunted by its presentation.

First, it’s not even a full-semester course. That makes no sense given the complexity of the topics under discussion. One semester may only be enough to scratch the surface of subjects within gender, racial and religious studies, but six weeks is not even enough to make a mark.

Second, each course section admits students only by application. This may not be a big deal for students interested in taking EPSY203, but it eliminates campus-wide appeal. A student’s desire to take the course is likely precipitated by some interest or experience in diversity education, and while it’s fantastic for everybody to think deeply about social issues, this is not necessarily the type of person who really needs to take classes such as these. Rather, it’s the students who won’t go through the hassle of filling out an application, the students who have never given a thought to social identities and issues – the students who believe “diversity” is just some politically correct term that will disappear after graduation.

What we need is a broader version of EPSY203, one that lasts a full semester and examines social issues related to not just one specific aspect of social identity but to all of them. Courses meant to fulfill the non-Western/U.S. minority culture and behavioral science gen ed requirements don’t put students in a room together with the object of engaging them in dialogue about their life experiences being black, lesbian, Christian, poor, straight, differently abled, Muslim or white. For many students, the gen ed requirements put in place to make them “well-rounded young leaders in today’s world” are forgettable lectures in which their instructor doesn’t know their name or grade their assignments, much less push them outside their comfort zones.

Ideally, this introductory social issues course would be required for all undergrads during freshman year, first semester. It’s not intended to convert anyone to hardcore liberal thinking, as many might complain, but simply to act as an introduction: to make students aware of their surroundings.

Although campuses may promote diversity and tolerance differently than “the real world,” the knowledge that there are more types of people out there than just themselves equips students not only to better understand their society but also to better understand the increasingly global market. It encourages respect for others and creates cultural learning opportunities by enabling thought-provoking discourse instead of an evangelism of opinions.

Let’s face it: The campus perceives diversity initiatives like Inclusive Illinois as almost as badly managed and ineffective as Global Campus, but a required introductory diversity course has the power to really highlight social issues in a way many students may never have thought about them – through the eyes of a friend or classmate met in an intimate discussion setting every week.

Perhaps instead of just making us take a physical science or some quantitative reasoning classes, the University could include little things such as, say, teaching us to coexist with one another, too.

Chelsea is a senior in English and creative writing and is trying to learn to evenly apply 30 lbs. of pressure with her espresso tamper while rotating it 720 degrees.