By Lacey Jacoby /// Features Editor
“What message does it send to have the CORE be an exclusive celebration of white, Western knowledge?” Emile Dultra (’17), a representative for the Walk the Talk subcommittee that dealt with “Diversifying Academic Curriculum” said.
A student movement initiated in 2013 in response to racist incidents on campus, Walk the Talk had a number of goals, including curriculum changes.
“We definitely thought that it’d be ideal to pursue the diversification of the curriculum in several other departments, but we had to start somewhere. [Exploration & Discovery] is something that every Lewis & Clark student has to experience,” Dultra said.
Unique to E&D is the collection of common works—at least three but usually five or six—that every fall E&D professor teaches. The professors teaching fall E&D meet the spring before to choose these works. The common works usually come from the standard Western intellectual tradition, and some students expressed concern at only reading works by dead, white men. “All we wanted was to have a book that hadn’t been written by a white person to be included in the CORE,” Dultra said.
Hoping to achieve this, Dultra and Kayla Nachtsheim (’15), the student representatives of the “Diversifying Academic Curriculum” subcommittee, met with Faculty Director for E&D, Paul Powers, and then Chair of the Curriculum Committee, Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell.
Dultra and Nachtsheim then met with the steering committee, composed of faculty and staff, that addresses E&D policy issues. With the steering committee’s endorsement, Dultra and Nachtsheim finally spoke with the fall 2014 E&D faculty in order to advocate for changes. In particular, they asked for at least one of two things: a work by an author outside the Western intellectual tradition and/or a work addressing inclusivity and social justice.
Dultra and Nachtsheim’s concerns were well received. “The curriculum committee and the steering committee were eagerly receptive to hearing from them—there wasn’t any resistance—and the teaching faculty were also quite happy to hear from them,” Powers said.
Dultra agreed: “I’m very happy that we were heard and taken seriously by professors, that they cared for what we said and truly engaged us as equals and as adults.”
According to Powers, the issue of diversity in the common works comes up every year. So why didn’t this change happen earlier?
“I think we had lost sight of the symbolic importance of the common works,” Powers said. Hearing from students helped them to realize that “asking all incoming students to read the same things…carries a certain kind of weight, and we want to signal that that includes a concern about this broad set of issues.”
Although E&D professors generally agree on the need for more complete common works and the need to address topics of inclusion and diversity, they often disagree about how—including which works to use—to accomplish that.
In addition, sometimes professors argue that a certain topic—slavery, for example—is so important they feel they cannot do it justice. They may feel they don’t have enough training or may simply be unsure how to talk to their students about the subject. Since the works require a unanimous decision, as opposed to a vote, one or two individuals’ discomfort can lead the work to be excluded.
The result? Fall E&D professors have generally been left to incorporate these topics and works into their own classes however they see fit. The common works make up about half of the E&D syllabi, leaving the rest up to each professor’s interests and strengths.
Although many professors have done this, no standardization also means no accountability. “We wanted non-hegemonic perspectives to be more than an option, or a post script,” Dultra said. In addition, she worried that additional works may be “treated as the token authors that get rushed through.”
In response to these discussions, this fall’s common works include “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass, as well as Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Perhaps a less obvious choice, “The Tempest,” “addresses issues of difference and otherness,” said Powers. The other common works are: Genesis, Exodus 1-24, Plato’s “Three Dialogues” and Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”
Dultra and Powers are pleased with the results for this year, but what about the next? As January approaches, when next fall’s E&D teachers will be chosen, the entire process will begin again. Since there are no written requirements for diversity in the common works, the decisions for next year could be much different.
Greater student representation could be the solution. With the urgency of the Walk the Talk movement gone, Dultra and Powers think that a structured system for student input could help maintain long-term solutions. The details and format of this are yet to be determined.
In the meantime, Dultra encourages students to make themselves heard. “To have more diverse course offerings in different departments, LC students—en masse—need to take ownership over their academic experience and demand more participation in some of these decision-making bodies. LC is ahead of other liberal arts colleges in many ways and in many academic fields, but it doesn’t mean we should act satisfied if we are not, in fact, satisfied.”
The general feeling? Optimism with a healthy dose of practical concern. “Whether the faculty and the students all agree about exactly how to go about it, where it belongs in the curriculum, how much is enough and what’s the right way to talk about it,” said Powers, “we’re all broadly on the same page about saying that these are really important kinds of topics.”
Lacey Jacoby is the Features Editor of the Pioneer Log. Her work has also appeared in the Portland Tribune, the Beaverton Valley Times, The Times, the Portland Observer and the Lewis and Clark website. She enjoys writing about and photographing the everyday, with all its inherent beauty and strife. Follow her on Twitter @laceyjacoby.