ASI and the student voice: The importance of ethnic studies and the focus groups

Prepared by: Claire Jenkins, ASI Chief Campus Relations Officer

Introduction: The student voice

AB 1460 is pending legislation that would require all CSU campuses to add an ethnic studies requirement to their curriculum.  The state-wide Academic Senate, or ASCSU, is currently asking each of the 23 campuses to consider what a curriculum should look like on each campus.  To make sure that student voices are included in the discussion, the ASI leadership has undertaken a series of focus groups.[1]  This article summarizes the results of those focus groups and provides the perspective of the ASI leadership.  Without question, AB 1460, the legislation that would require each campus to create a curriculum, is necessary and it must be done in accordance with a campus-by-campus measure.

Ethnic Studies and the Student Voice

Ethnic Studies is the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity. Its emphasis is on the lived experiences of people of color in the United States and beyond the West. Specifically, it pertains to Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Chicano/Chicana Americans. At CSUF, there is currently a GE requirement that asks students to take a class focusing on cross-cultural learning, but it does not explicitly require students to take an ethnic studies course. This field has been around since the Civil Rights movement, but came into being in the CSU after it was fought for by students at San Francisco State University in 1968. The curriculum’s very origins embodied the importance of identity, activism, and inclusivity that is necessary to truly understand the concepts involved. Since the field formed from student activism, the current moment provides a crucial opportunity for students to be a fundamental component of the process of curriculum building.  They are the ones best fit to represent their own identities and the challenges they face.

The importance of Ethnic Studies

The requirement of ethnic studies is crucial for a variety of reasons. It is the intention of Assemblymember Weber and others who wrote the bill that students will gain the knowledge needed to better comprehend the “diversity and social justice history of the United States, and of the society in which they live to enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens.” It is imperative that students be given the opportunity to discuss and understand the world around them. It should be common sense that ethnic studies is a fundamental, stand-alone requirement of General Education for a few reasons. CSUF prides itself on the extensive and well-rounded education that we receive as students and offers amazing departments and programs. Fundamental curricular goals for students include acquiring critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills, gaining foundational knowledge in study areas such as social science, the arts and humanities, and developing a better understanding of diversity.

General education without an ethnic studies requirement negates its own goals because it is possibly the most important category that we would have. More than understanding particular fields of study, it asks students not only to learn — but listen. Knowledge gained can be applied by students to their world and everyday life and it can be a guiding force in the rest of their education. Ethnic studies is more than just a category on a GE page. It is the opportunity to gain life-long knowledge that will benefit students, faculty, and the campus by beginning important conversations about otherness and equity from the very beginning of a student’s journey. Academia asks us to seek more — so why are we limiting ourselves?

Focus Group Methods and Results

In order to best gather student opinion on the bill we decided to host focus groups for students. In total, we had 5, one-hour long events, where students were shown a powerpoint presentation and asked questions pertaining to the topic. This slide set was derived from the powerpoint shown to the entire Academic Senate and we felt that it would be best to use those questions as a base-line.  At the same time it was evident that it would be necessary to change their focus to students, as that perspective was absent in the received presentations. We advertised these events through the ASI social media, the CSUF portal, and by having the Board of Directors inform their Inter-Club Councils at meetings of the events.

The first theme was broad and strong support for the bill and an ethnic studies requirement.  Students felt it is important that communities of color will be given an opportunity, through this bill, to step outside of the “otherness” that exists in education and academia as a whole.

Secondly, and overwhelmingly, students felt that constructing the course on a campus-by-campus basis would be most beneficial. Students had serious concerns about allowing people that are distant from the campus (i.e., in the Chancellor’s Office) and not familiar with its history to have the final say on these matters as undesirable, as it could lead to a bill that is less than the sum of its parts. Democratic de-centralization is a core component of Ethnic Studies, and centralizing curricular control in the hands of administrators and legislators would ironically place power for creating the curriculum about what power means in the hands of a single top-down power structure. Alternatively, using a campus-by-campus system means taking into careful consideration the needs of each campus and considering local institutional memory and student demographics.

In regards to learning outcomes, students were in favor of creating broad goals with specific instruments. For example, students voiced a need for intersectionality and hoped to include specific curriculua, such as LGBTQ, Gender, and Religious studies. They also believed it was important to include several central and related concepts in the curriculum, including anti-blackness, colorism, discrimination, racism, privilege, stereotypes, prejudice, systemic oppression, and feminism. By incorporating these elements into the requirement, students can be sure to learn about specific topics while giving each professor the option to add to the curriculum whatever their particular area of study is or other content-specific items of importance.

Students felt the requirement should be at the 200 level. This is because it is accessible to more students and will be taken earlier during their time at the University, so it can impact the education they receive during the rest of their time as undergraduates and encourage them to think critically about what they learn. However, it also means students will have become more familiar with how college courses function and will be more acclimated to the process. In the future, students would like to see the addition of specific ethnic studies courses in the upper division, so they can apply their knowledge even if their degree falls outside of ethnic studies. Similarly, students feel that the 200 level class should be a specific one designed for all students, such as Political Science 100, rather than fragmenting the topics across different courses. This will also allow for a broader cultural competency and can ensure a level of accountability by having some agreement over what course material the class should be covering.

Finally, students had general concerns about the importance of the course being undermined. They felt that if there were not proper mechanisms used in order to ensure that feedback is obtained from students who take courses the program will not be tailored to what it needs to be.  If students with ethnic identities do not feel that a course they take that is designated as meeting the ethnic studies requirement has spoken meaningfully to their experience, there should be a channel for that feedback to have a fairly immediate corrective impact on the course.

We believe that every concern can be addressed and are excited to see how the curriculum process and its implementation are developed by faculty. Students and other activists have fought for the creation of ethnic studies curriculum for many years. It is imperative that the California State legislature takes the next step by implementing a requirement rather than merely suggesting that it be included in some way. As a student, I have been able to see instances of students feeling that their identities have been misrepresented time and time again. A requirement such as this one would increase opportunities for students to have more conversations around histories of specific communities and ethnicities while being challenged about the inequities that continue to be present in society and even on our campus. The requirement will give us the tools to address the pervasive inequity across our campus and all other CSU’s. By implementing an ethnic studies requirement, we can assure we are working towards providing a more inclusive and safe environment on our campus and in our community.

NOTES:

[1] Some effort was made to distribute a campus-wide survey, however, due to a series of technical and bureaucratic reasons it was not possible to distribute the survey before feedback was required by the ASCSU.

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