This fascinating article is written by two New York Professors of apparently different disciplines – Law and General Education. The authors document their transdisciplinary approach to teaching students in a “large public urban college in New York City with a diverse population” about ‘race’.
I chose the article because the historical concept of ‘race’ in its various manifestations plays an important role in most aspects of my teaching – modern history of ideas – and my area of expertise in research – the British eugenics movement.
It is emphasised from the beginning that any attempts to define ‘race’ – a historically malleable social construct – end in ambivalence and more questions than answers. This is not a bad thing, and leads to fascinating and engaging debates between students, many of whom by the end of the course admit that it “changed the way I think”. Moreover, detailed study of how race has been defined in the past and how this can change depending on the society, cultural background, religion, time period, external events can lead to the individual student identifying and confronting their own often unconscious racial prejudices.
The main strategy used was primary document analysis, reflection and discussion – here referred to as “materials” from popular culture – using sources where race plays an important role. These include novels, plays, laws, music. One interesting method involved the students acting out the plays in the class. In one instance the class was shocked that a late-nineteenth century cartoon depicted an Irishman (rather than a Black American) as a monkey revealing that at the time rather than ‘white’, the Irish were seen as a different race and inferior (much like Italians, Chinese, albeit racially categorised in a variety of ways that also changed over time and depending on the particular society/state). Also like the 1961 picture above demonstrates, the way ‘race’ is understood can change depending on the national political conversations at the time (then McCarthyism portrayed Communism as the incarnation of evil, which influenced the language used by anti-integration protesters).
Although ‘race’ plays a far more prominent role in American society than in Britain, I found the article very useful. For my own specific subject area, I think it is important to engage directly with ‘race’ historically and (I have tried to emphasise in my own research!) highlight the importance to the development of modern society in the broad sense and its impact on individual cultures within this. Using a variety of sources that the class interact with and debate about made each week different and helped nurture graduate attributes beyond simply writing good assignments.