Carol A. Davenport, Johnson C. Smith University
Marsha I. Walker, Johnson C. Smith University
Today’s undergraduate students are highly critical of the relevance of academic scholarship to their present and future life experiences. Students entering liberal arts institutions seem particularly invested in their future employment and creating positive links to the communities in which they reside. In Liberal Studies 130, a freshman course designed to orient students to African-American cultural traditions and other identities, we proposed and executed an enriched curriculum that provided opportunities for beginning college students at Johnson C. Smith University to examine their identities, values, and beliefs through the qualitative study of diverse human populations throughout the metropolitan Charlotte area. The aim of this interdisciplinary studies course was to enable students to examine the process of human identity formation in western and non-western contexts. The course aimed also to enable students to examine themselves as individuals and as citizen--their beliefs, values, morals, customs, fears, strengths, talents, ethnicity, ways of coping and challenging, attitudes toward learning, and interaction with other humans. Employing community-based assessments, students conducted inquiry into the systems and factors of this process beginning with those who may have formed their individual identities: family, religion, political, and socio-cultural systems. Inquiry was based on a variety of cross-disciplinary materials: readings, guest speakers, cultural field trips, and brainstorming through questioning, and analyzing arguments across the disciplines.
According to Johnson and Lollar (2002), “Universities and colleges are a place where students from homogenous backgrounds can be introduced to the diverse environment in which they will live their adult lives” (p. 305). However, students at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) enter a particularly homogenous culture devoted to instilling pride in traditions of African-American excellence and to fostering a continued core of African-American intellectualism. Given the cultural demographic of the JCSU and its designation as an Historically Black University (HBU), it becomes imperative for students to be exposed to cultures outside of themselves and to become more aware of the ethnic, cultural, religious, and political divides that have shaped the United States, their home environments, the university community, and themselves.
To this end, we developed an enriched Liberal Studies course that provided opportunities for beginning college students at JCSU to examine their identity, values, and beliefs through the qualitative study of the diverse human populations throughout the metropolitan Charlotte area. More recent educational research indicates, “The face-to-face encounters within communities where racial sameness dominates must be troubled by naming the ways in which a seemingly more diverse ‘representational reality’ saturates the everyday life of isolated communities” (de Freitas & McAuley, 2008, p. 431). We requested to be given at least one Liberal Studies 130 class entitled Identity: Citizenship and Self in American and Other Cultural Traditions (LS 130). Most students taking this course were generally second semester freshmen who had generally been exposed to a homogenous culture. While we were devoted to instilling pride in traditions of African-American excellence, we also ventured to foster a continued core of intellectual stimulation via more exposure to community diversity.
A small, competitive institutional mini-grant provided means for us to fully execute the course proposal. Since the aim of this enhanced LS 130 course was to enable students to examine the process of human identity formation in western and non-western contexts, the research mini-grant offered students an opportunity to examine themselves as individuals and as citizens. Often, first-year students bring their beliefs, values, morals, customs, fears, strengths, talents, ethnicity, ways of coping and challenging, as well as their attitudes toward learning, and interaction with other humans that may not have been challenged beyond their eighteen- to twenty-year old life experiences. The interdisciplinary research course model provided students with a training ground to conduct inquiry into a systemic viewpoint and some of the processes by which individual identities, familial rituals and beliefs, religious convictions, and political and socio-cultural ideas formulate and influence theirs, as well as other’s ways of seeing citizenship, race, and ethnicity.
In addition, the course provided opportunities for beginning college students to examine their identities, values, and beliefs in a world that is becoming increasingly connected by modern transportation and communication systems, multicultural and multiracial interactions and interdependency, along with ethno phobic behaviors. It was crucial that liberal studies include a focus on multicultural studies that promoted harmonious interactions among the people of the modern world and, in so doing, develop in the student a keen sense of self-worth, and the need to prepare to become an outstanding citizen who will make significant contributions toward the well-being of the community.
The chosen text for the enhanced LS 130 course was Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century by Hazel Rose Markus and Paula Moya. The theoretical framework for the course was social hegemony as a means to extrapolate some of the impediments that seem to divide the university and the community. In addition, we solicited speakers to help reinforce or dismiss some of the students’ misgivings about difference and citizenship.
The project further enhanced the basic objectives of the course by:
- incorporating documented, critical research on the ideas, experiences, and theories related to human diversity via the textbook Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century edited by Hazel Rose Markus and Paula M.L. Moya;
- implementing small team reflection and debate on various positions on humanity;
- engaging Charlotte community leaders from diverse backgrounds within the classroom setting by way of course guest lecturers;
- developing a qualitative interview survey for members of the greater Charlotte community;
- interacting with varied Charlotte communities in order to complete surveys on area diversity; and
- producing in small teams a coherent and dynamic video presentation of collected data related to Charlotte’s diverse communities.
Community Action Research Mission
Because the Liberal Studies course is offered each semester, the opportunity for us to engage students in a service learning research project was considerably beneficial as the University embraces the ideal of its place within the West Charlotte socio-economic and community corridor.
The method by which this project was focused was through interaction with the varied and multicultural business establishments within the Northwest Charlotte-Beatties Ford corridor. Twelve main businesses were targeted, including restaurants, lounges, and retail. Using a simple process of oral and visual data collection promoted harmonious interactions among the establishments that surround the immediate JCSU community and university students. This type of service learning project established a connectedness between community and university so that students would develop a keen sense of self-worth and to prepare to become outstanding citizens who will make significant contributions toward the well-being of the community. Modifying assessment instruments of other interdisciplinary scholars (Mistry, Jacobs, & Jacobs, 2009), we established the following community-based research agenda for LS 130:
- Collaboration among group members
- Identification of community assets, resources, and activities
- Appraisal of community needs
- Implementation of effective strategies for citizens
- Fulfillment of a community mandate
- Provision of decision-making data
- Fostering awareness and action
- Knowledge of current community capacity
- Working future vision for the community
- List of good questions
- Interests of community stakeholders
- Open communication with community stakeholders
- Address technical support needs
- Review community capacity
- Determine direction of new data collection
- Decide on method of new data collection
- Identify community participants
- Generate data collection instrument
- Designate team roles for data collection
- Compile and analyze data
- Publish your findings
Students enrolled in our LS 130 courses were thoroughly prepped for their roles as beginning community researchers. Each team of students was responsible for developing their own sets of interview questions for local businesses within the community. Their interview questions addressed more generally the following (Gallavan & Ramirez, 2005; Mistry, Jacobs, & Jacobs, 2009):
- What opportunities do citizens want most?
- What attracts citizens to a service or resource?
- What barriers prevent citizens from accessing a service or resource?
- Do any existing services meet citizens’ needs?
- What are citizens’ positive and negative encounters with agencies?
- What experiences do citizens have with working collaboratively?
- What activities, policies, and procedures work well within the community?
- Are there opportunities to enhance community resources?
The work plan for this project involved the following objectives and assessments:
Objective 1: Analyzing the basic elements of an idea, experience, or theoretical framework
Assessment--In teams of four or five, students participated in weekly open forums to evaluate their understanding of key concepts presented in course text. Students received participation grades for their team effort and input in open forum discussions.
Objective 2: Analyzing, synthesizing and organizing ideas, information, or experiences
Assessment--Students produced weekly written reports that highlighted their understanding of assigned readings and course activities.
Objective 3: Class presentation
Assessment--In teams of four or five, students presented their interpretations of course reading assignments, and collected community research data in accordance with a standardized course oral presentation rubric.
Objective 4: Discussions with students with different religious beliefs, political opinions, or values
Assessment—Students were evaluated by the instructor of record for their critical engagement with their respective team assignments. Students were measured on their team effort using a standardized course team participation rubric.
Objective 5: Discussion with students from different economic, social, and racial or ethnic backgrounds
Assessment--Students were evaluated by the instructors of record for their critical engagement with their respective team assignments. Students measured their team efforts using a standardized course team participation rubric.
Objective 6: Use electronic technology to discuss or complete assignments.
Assessment--Students uploaded all course assignments using university-issued laptops or other electronic aids. Students prepared final team video presentations with the aid of electronic technology. A standardized course oral presentation rubric was the measure.
To supplement the students’ community-based research, we also traveled with students to community-sponsored exhibits linked to race, ethnic diversity and citizenship and invited community speakers from the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area to share their expert perspectives on topics of diversity. Speakers included Dr. Britt Kern, JCSU associate professor of biology, Mr. Brian Wise, diversity planning coordinator at Country Day School, and Dr. Jennifer Watson, retired UNC-Charlotte professor of African American literature. Over the course of the semester, we visited with staff at the Levine Museum of the New South, Discovery Place Museum, and the University Center for Applied Research.
Student and Faculty Feedback
The research conducted offered a broader, more global insight to what “Otherness” means, or how citizenship, race, ethnicity is defined. The community-based action research and speakers offered students enrolled in this enhanced LS 130 course documented historical proof of the changes, new attitudes, and different ways of looking at the three components of citizenship, race, and ethnicity. Speakers reinforced what the students had seen at the museums, what they had read, and what they found from firsthand community interviews and surveys. Each team of students commented that they felt empowered to learn more about those places within the Northwest Corridor of Charlotte that they would not normally have contacted on a day-to-day basis while matriculating at the university. Further, most teams reported in the final course evaluation surveys that their initial anxiousness to explore outside the gates of Johnson C. Smith University was far less daunting than they had first believed after being in such an homogeneous place as the “campus.”
Students enrolled in the enhanced LS 130 course were able to fulfill the collaborative, community-based research mission in the following demonstrations:
- Students were taught collaborative partnerships in different themed topics. Presentations allowed them to verbalize their firsthand experiences that had touched, in some small ways, the lives of those in their communities.
- The academic conference-style workshops provided for the students enabled them to effectively present their final analysis of the research conducted.
- Students were required to video tape and to gather interviews using digital audio recorders and video technology. Working with university library staff, students gained general knowledge of how to operate various forms of digital technology. On teams, students used this equipment to interview, record, compile and analyze their qualitative data in order to present their final projects.
- The research conducted offered a broader, more global insight to what “Otherness” means, or how citizenship, race, ethnicity is defined. The text, Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century, offered so many options on how race has been defined and used for and against those on the margins. The student research and community guest speakers offered students documented historical proof of the changes, new attitudes, and different ways of looking at these three components.
As instructors of liberal studies courses at Johnson C. Smith University, we would like to encourage further a rather isolated group of students, in terms of socio-economic, ethnic, political and religious factors, to venture outside of their university community and to make real-world connections among the varied communities within the uptown Charlotte corridor. Community psychologists emphasize, “Calls for cultural sensitivity in the design and implementation of human services programs have become a standard response to the increasing diversity among the families and communities being served” (Mistry, Jacobs & Jacobs, 2009, p. 487). Thus, while students enrolled in liberal studies courses at Johnson C. Smith University have traditionally explored diversity via textbooks and required university lyceums, this project allowed students to develop their own study samples, to engage critical scholarship, and to produce significant research findings for the university and the communities surrounding the university. Such professional practice affords incoming freshmen a tangible, direct interaction with Charlotteans that no textbook or classroom lecture can provide and promotes meritorious academic scholarship during their first-year freshman experience. Outcome measures of the impact of college exposure to diversity--cultural awareness and democratic citizenship—provide academicians and administrators alike key data regarding future, effective student life programming and university-city partnerships.
de Freitas, E., & McAuley, A. (2008). Teaching for diversity by troubling whiteness: strategies for classrooms in isolated white communities. Race, Ethnicity & Education, 11(4), 429-442.
Gallavan, N.P., & Ramírez, M.G. (2005). The lunch date: a video for developing cultural self-awareness. Multicultural Perspectives, 7(2), 33-39.
Johnson, S.M., & Lollar, X.L. (2002). Diversity policy in higher education: the impact of college students' exposure to diversity on cultural awareness and political participation. Journal of Education Policy, 17(3), 305-320.
Mistry, J., Jacobs, F., & Jacobs, L. (2009). Cultural relevance as program-to-community alignment. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(4), 487-504.
Markus, H.R., & Moya, P.M.L. (2010). Doing race: 21 essays for the 21st century. New York, NY: Norton.