Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The EP Subcommittee and My Affirmative Action Seminar- How Scripted Curricula Stifle Creative Teaching

Since I first began teaching it 12 years ago, my senior values seminar on Affirmative Action has been one of my most popular and successful courses at Fordham. Offered both the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campus, the course presented historical and legal dimensions of affirmative action that few Americans were aware of, and generated an enthusiastic response from students in it who went on to law school or graduate school. Virtually all students who took the course felt it gave them a unique viewpoint on a subject which continues to generate great controversy. One of the things I wanted students to learn was how to discuss a subject that stirred fierce passions, often along racial and ethnic line, in a principled, civil way, drawing upon carefully reasoned, well documented arguments rather than raw passion. Since my classes were almost always racially diverse, what resulted was a space for a frank discussion of racial issues that could take place almost nowhere else in the society, and in truth, rarely took place on most University campuses. During the fall 2011 Semester, our class discussions led to two class projects that were quite literally “history making” in character. The first was a “REAL Affirmative Action Bake Sale” which the class organized in response to the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” at University of California, Berkeley, which sought to dramatize the advantages women and under represented minorities allegedly received in college admissions. My class had just read portions of two books, Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning The War Over College Affirmative Action and The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, which demonstrated that the greatest beneficiary of college admissions advantages were athletes and the children of the very wealthy. Enraged by the Berkeley sale’s misrepresentation of the college admissions process, they asked if I would allow them to take two weeks from the class discussion to organize a bake sale of their own which would attract national media attention. I gave them the green light and they divided themselves into committees which wrote positions papers, developed press releases, secured the space and support of other clubs, and did the baking for the sale. The result was an event which attracted national media attention, including reports from CNN Latino, Fox Business and the Huffington Post, all of whom presented the student's position sympathetically and said “they had the facts on their side.” In all my years at Fordham, I had never seen a class organize an event of this kind in response to course material, much less attract this kind of media attention for it. But that wasn’t all. As the students read Supreme Court decision after decision which whittled away the basis of “race based affirmative action:” in colleges and professional schools they became concerned that Universities were increasingly being closed to children of the poor and to minorities who didn’t come from middle class or wealthy families. The only way they could think of to keep educational opportunity alive for their generation of working class, minority youth was for Universities to “adopt” nearby public schools and guarantee admission to their students. They asked for permission to develop a proposal for Fordham to adopt the six high schools in the Roosevelt High School Building across the street from Fordham’s Bronx campus and I gave it to them. The result was a fifteen page, meticulously documented proposal which included practical suggestions about how Fordham could use its resources to improve educational opportunities for thousands of Bronx students, and as the program developed, increase the economic and racial diversity of the Fordham students body by admitting a critical mass of Roosevelt students. The proposal they developed was sent to the Fordham College Dean’s Office and is currently being discussed by Fordham’s United Student Government Given the accomplishments of this class, I was shocked to discover that, in line with a new curriculum Fordham College had adopted, I could no longer teach this course in the future unless it became an EP (Eloquentia Perfecta) Seminar with special provisions for writing, public speaking and critical thinking. Since my course ALREADY provided for all those things, I thought this was ridiculous, but with the help of my Chair, I dutifully made some small additions to my syllabus to have it fit the new EP requirements. Yesterday, I was shocked to receive an email from the EP Committee saying my course didn’t meet the requirements for public speaking and expository writing and I would have to add material to the syllabus to assure both of those were more formally incorporated into the course. Needless to say, I found these comments infuriating. Clearly, the members of the Committee who evaluated my syllabus knew nothing about the class projects that had taken place last semester, both of which gave students priceless experiences in those very attributes the EP Seminars claimed they hoped to foster- public speaking, expository writing, critical thinking. Except that my students didn’t just display those attributes for their classmates- they did it for the entire University and a national audience! And herein lies the problem. If you “script” a syllabus as thoroughly as the EP Committee wanted, you leave no room for the kind of spontaneity which I have always made room for in my pedagogy. You leave no room for student initiatives which transform the syllabus and create new forms of discourse which even the professor didn’t imagine. You leave no room for the professor to respond to new information students bring to the discussion. And you leave no room for a class project which take two weeks of a semester, but might change lives in the process I don’t blame individual members of the EP Committee for what they did- they were just following the logic of an approach to classroom education which takes power away from teachers and students and places them in the hands of administrators or faculty committees. Not only does this take much of the creativity out of teaching, it discourages innovation and discovery on the part of students I have been at Fordham 42 years and have seen curricula come and go. But the kind of “scripting” we are seeing now undermines everything I have learned about how to inspire and motivate, and threatens to remove the joy from the part of my work that I care most about- my teaching. I am sure there are gains to be made from the new curriculum Fordham has instituted. But there are also very serious losses, and we need to take a really close look at whether we are undermining some of the very things that made Professors like me love to teach at this school April 25 2012

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