AFAM Named Case Study in Civic Learning

By Ayden Bolin

Although African American Studies has been a University program since the 1990s, it has recently made national waves.

The African American Studies Department at the University of Puget Sound was recently named one of nine “case studies” in civic learning by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). It was only in 2016 that African American Studies was offered as a major, according to the University of Puget Sound website. Seeing as this program is so young, this award is a big achievement for the department.

The program is described as interdisciplinary by the University of Puget Sound’s website in that it serves to be “interrogative, interdisciplinary, reflexive and justice oriented.” This point was further emphasized by Professor Dexter Gordon, the African American Studies Department Chair.

“We have intentionally developed what we call an ‘infusion model.’ We want the sensibilities of African American Studies to be present in the writing center, to be present in core courses, to be present inside and outside of the department, so we intentionally seek to collaborate with colleagues in different disciplines, so a development of African American Studies since the 1990s has preceded significantly through collaboration with Politics and Government, History, Communications Studies, and more recently with Theater arts, Religion and the School of Education.”

The African American Studies Department is composed of five core faculty members, and each teach across departments and programs from English to Communications to Education, according to Professor Gordon. In this way, the program is intentionally focusing on the intersectionality between History, Sociology, Psychology and other fields, because, in Professor Gordon’s words, “They all hinge upon an understanding of black life.

“Just think about black life in America, for example. There’s no real understanding of black life in America if you don’t understand black cultural contributions — black music, dance, theater — if you don’t understand issues of sociology, of black negotiation, of education.Central to the black struggle is a fight for education,” Professor Gordon said.

The award was given to the program by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Established in 1915, the AAC&U’s mission is to “make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education,” according to the AAC&U website. The University of Puget Sound’s website describes it as “the leading voice for undergraduate liberal education.” This prestigious award was a recognition for the department’s commitment to civic learning, an intentional engagement with students in connecting traditional classroom learning with immediate issues of the social context.

“That connection then requires students to explore questions of their ethical commitment, the relationships among different people groups, the political realities of the uneven distribution of resources, and the range of histories represented in the Tacoma region. So, for example, students in African American Studies would be required to confront the history of Chinese-Americans in Tacoma, the history of Japanese-Americans in Tacoma, because those are significant examples of people struggling for simple decency amidst campaigns of injustice and exclusion. And of course, students in African American Studies would be challenged to take seriously an engagement with Native people, who were the first occupants of this region, among other groups that share the area right now,” Professor Gordon said.

The Race and Pedagogy Institute is a direct product of the African American Studies Department’s work. The department has hosted three national conferences for the Institute, and a fourth one is coming up in September 2018, according to Gordon. This conference is a valuable presence in the University of Puget Sound community, as it adds opportunities for students and faculty to engage in conversations centering race, culture, politics and ethics. Professor Gordon believes that all students should “engage issues of power, equity, identity and how those function as part of understanding a democratic society.”

The University of Puget Sound’s African American Studies Department is being recognized nationally through diligent, interdisciplinary work in civil learning. This non-traditional program is engaging the campus and wider Tacoma community in great ways, and is encouraging change and ethical considerations through educational approaches.

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