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American Cultures, American Ethnicities the Theme of Seminar

Ten members of the Smith faculty -- drawn from such varied departments as English, history, theatre, religion, African-American studies and women's studies -- spent three weeks in June in an on-campus seminar discussing themes and teaching concepts that will help them develop new courses in the areas of American cultures and American ethnicities.

The group read about a dozen articles and books in preparation for the seminar, including Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, "Talking About Race, Learning About Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom" by Beverly Tatum, and The Ethnic Myth by Stephen Steinberg. Other Smith faculty members who are engaged in diversity work and teaching met with the group, to describe their work in such areas as Asian American studies and Latin American and border studies.

Although many of the hundreds of courses in the Smith curriculum already address diversity themes, Carol Christ had suggested that one way to expand such offerings might be to explore a model developed at the University of California at Berkeley. Where possible, faculty members there are encouraged to give in-depth attention to three ethnic groups in courses they develop. "Everyone has an ethnic past of some sort," Christ says, and looking at several ethnic groups in one course gives "everyone a place at the table." That way, "it's easier to ask ‘What makes my group different from yours?'" When a donor became interested in the project, funding for the seminar and the development of the courses it will spawn was assured.

Says Jill de Villiers, professor of philosophy and Sophia and Austin Smith Professor of Psychology, "The seminar exposed me to a wealth of information about the history of racial formation in the U.S. [which, in turn] led me to an appreciation of the economic and political forces that establish and maintain racism." De Villiers says she now sees the issues of her work on language variety in the United States "in a much richer context." Next spring, as an outgrowth of her seminar experience, she will launch a course on language acquisition and the special circumstances faced by African-American children who are learning varieties of English and Hispanic children growing up bilingual.

Although they know they've set an ambitious goal, all the faculty members who participated expect to develop new courses as a result of their involvement in the seminar. They will continue to meet during 2003–04, with another set of faculty members expected to form a second American Cultures, American Ethnicities Diversity Seminar in June 2004. -- AES

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