Outside the common core: marginalized voices in thematic courses


At Macalester, thematic courses are a way for professors to cultivate courses based on their current lines of research, with complete autonomy over the sources and content they include. Courses are not part of the official curriculum of the department and do not need to be approved by the Education Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG), which is responsible for reviewing changes in course offerings.

The Macalester Registrar’s website describes thematic courses as courses designed to meet the interests of students and faculty regarding current issues in the field, or to offer an experimental course that could later become part of the curriculum. studies. In the fall semester 2021, 54 thematic courses are offered at Macalester.

The simpler approval process for thematic courses allows professors to teach courses with content they are passionate about and gives them flexibility in what resources and ideas are included in the courses. For some professors, this means teaching courses that bring a variety of different perspectives and integrating their research into the course content.

One of this semester’s thematic courses, Native Americans in Popular Culture, is taught by Assistant History Professor Katrina Phillips. The training is crossed in the departments of history and media and cultural studies at the 200 level. It aims to examine the representation of Native Americans in pop culture, as well as the way in which non-Native people have appropriated Native imagery. and established harmful stereotypes.

Phillips draws on her personal research into the role that Indigenous pageants have played in history, as well as articles she encountered during her studies. Part of his process when creating this course was to delve deep into the sources in the library, with the goal of developing more comprehensive course content.

“I’m going to get some links to sources from my dad,” Phillips said. “He knew I was teaching this pop culture class and he started sending me links on native actors in film and television. He’ll send me links to music and things like that.

Showing students what it really means to study Indigenous Peoples and understand the prevalence of harmful images and stereotypes is extremely important to Phillips, and this course shines a light on much of the work Indigenous artists and creators do to counter them. conventional ideas seen in the media. She described teaching the class as being similar to peeling an onion; students are able to get to the heart of the matter and engage in more difficult conversations after peeling off the shiny first layer of traditional historical narrative.

“Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of pressure, because I’m teaching the history of historically excluded populations,” Phillips said. “Native people are so rarely included in many conversations about the program. “

DeWitt Wallace Professor of Asian Languages ​​and Cultures Satoko Suzuki is a specialist in Japanese linguistics, in particular language and gender, linguistic ideologies and media representations. She is currently teaching a thematic course titled Language and Identity in Japanese, Asian American and Other Communities. Suzuki has been on the Macalester staff for over two decades and has seen their interests grow over the years.

“Over the past year, I was on sabbatical so I thought I wanted to develop new courses,” Suzuki said. “This is one of them. It reflects my research interests in how people use language to express their identity.

Suzuki wishes to include a more personal approach to the subjects she teaches, focusing on the relationship between language and identity. The first reading she assigned for the course was an essay titled “The Triangle” by Indian writer Jhumpa Lahiri, which spoke about the relationship between the three languages ​​she speaks.

Suzuki’s course curriculum also includes an interview task where students are required to ask someone about the language and how it relates to their identity. She said a lot of her students take her class because they are either multilingual or because they know someone who is and want to explore that. This contributes to his desire to teach students personal stories, rather than mere academic articles.

“The program also includes reading assignments that I haven’t read yet, but saw the title and then [article] looks really interesting, ”Suzuki said. “So I want to learn about them myself. I want to learn about them with my students.

Each of the teachers has their own way of keeping their classes engaged in the course content and discussions. Part of Phillips’ lectures is about guiding each day, which helps steer the conversation if students aren’t sure where to start. Suzuki asks pairs of students to lead class discussions and create content questions based on the readings due that day, and finds that discussions are sometimes more rewarding when students are leading than when they are. does it herself.

This is the second year of teaching for Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Tia-Simone Gardner in Macalester. Gardner taught the Cultural Politics of Differences in Modules One and Three of the 2020-2021 academic year. She is teaching two sections of the course this semester.

Gardner sometimes struggles to balance the core and core material needed in the course while including more contemporary readings and sources. The wide variety of students and their different levels of basic knowledge force him to adjust his expectations for the class according to the dynamics created by his students.

“I think sometimes it can be scary and intimidating to include things that you’re less familiar with,” Gardner said. “But I’m happy to learn alongside the students, because I think there is a lot that I don’t know, so I try to think very broadly with things. “

Gardner’s background is in gender studies, with an emphasis on black feminism and critical race theory. She built the course by focusing on the fundamentals of the subject, how race, gender, and national identities work, and building on these core ideas.

“My hope is that [my course] asks people to question their relationships with places and others, ”Gardner said. “What this looks like is always a surprise.”

She finds the course to be very dialogic, that she answers students’ questions and asks them herself, and she hopes the course will help her students develop critical thinking skills that they can use in any situation. learning environment, regardless of their field of study.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Studies in Women, Gender and Sexuality Myrl Beam’s course focuses on dialogue with people who have had experience with the topics covered by the course, for a more immersive experience. Beam teaches Telling Trans Stories: Queer and Trans Oral Histories, in partnership with the Tretter Trans Oral History Project, a program based at the University of Minnesota.

Beam describes the course as an experiential course where students learn both oral history methods and get to work on an existing oral history project, ideally by doing oral histories themselves to donate to the collection. Tretter at the end of the semester.

“The experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people in the written record are absent or only present as a problem faced by powerful institutions,” Beam said.

Oral history, in particular, is a useful source of information about activism around trans issues, as well as a more solid and fabulous understanding of people’s experiences, Beam says. He described the story told about trans and gender nonconforming people as boring and damaging, making oral history the perfect opportunity to get a better idea of ​​the gender transgressive force.

“There is often a fascinating and really interesting mix of identified trans or non-binary students who know a lot about their lived experience and people who may be completely new but are very interested in the alliance,” Beam told About his queer and trans-centric classes. problems.

According to a number of thematic course teachers, students enter thematic courses with extremely varying degrees of knowledge about the subject being taught, which is in part due to the fact that thematic courses rarely have prerequisite courses. Whether it’s being part of the communities the class is talking about or having brought up the topic a few years ago, students usually have very different perspectives to offer.

Phillips and Suzuki both found that most students take their thematic courses because they want to learn more about the topic and recognize the importance of the issues being addressed, and not just because they seek to meet a requirement for Classes. This sentiment was shared by Gardner and Beam, who found a great diversity of majors, interests and experiences among the students in their thematic courses.

Beam is part of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, which has only two professors. This gives him even more freedom with the subject matter of his classes than the subject classes alone allow. However, even in larger departments like Asian History or Asian Languages ​​and Culture, thematic courses allow professors to take advantage of their different areas of expertise when teaching a class, creating a different experience for students. as a class in the basic program.

“I think the subjects [courses] are often introductory drugs, ”Beam said. “They are opening a door to a new area. ”

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