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Race and Ethnicity Studies

globe appleWhile the College has long had interdisciplinary programs in the fields of American studies, Africana studies, and women’s studies, until recently there wasn’t a way to explore the intersection of these fields through the lens of ethnic studies.

There is now, thanks to the efforts of intellectually intrepid and politically astute Barnard students who, working with supportive Barnard faculty, formed a consortium from the above departments. This fall the College launched ICORE (Interdisciplinary Concentration on Race and Ethnicity), for students who are majoring in one of the Consortium areas and MORE (Minor on Race and Ethnicity) for students from other majors.

“I was extremely pleased at the entire process by which the proposals were developed and approved by faculty,” says Provost and Dean of the Faculty Elizabeth S. Boylan. “It shows how the energy and passion of students working together with faculty can make a difference in the curriculum. This is a more imaginative response than just adding another major.” Last year, several students (from Barnard, Columbia College, and across the university), participated in a one- credit independent ethnic studies course under the guidance of Women’s Studies Professor Janet Jakobsen, who is also dean for faculty diversity and development and director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. The course had developed from a weekly reading group the previous year. Students advocated for these programs, explains Zeest Haider ’10, who had been part of this effort, “to better understand, criticize and discuss the issues of race, power, and ethnicity. [The field of ethnic studies offers] the necessary tools and methodology that fosters critical analysis of inequalities.”

Working across departments was critical to program development. “There has been a growing belief at the College that interdisciplinary efforts have merit,” says Dean of Studies Karen Blank, who is also chair of the faculty committee on programs and academic standing. “Comparative ethnic studies are seen by some students as a way to bring the discussion of some topics into the curriculum, and I was very impressed with the way that students undertook an effort to move us toward ICORE.”

A Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues grant offered an opportunity for faculty to explore how to best offer ethnic studies at Barnard, which in turn led to the consortium among women’s studies, Africana studies, and American studies. “Through a faculty seminar and a subcommittee, we realized the best approach was to work among the existing programs that have something in common,” says Jakobsen. “What we were thinking through was what resources are available at Barnard, and what do we need, so students can be well-educated members of a diverse society, and can go on to get a PhD in ethnic studies.”

It’s not just about adding new courses— at least for now. It’s about organizing intellectual scaffolding around existing courses to enable students to focus their academic inquiries into questions of race and ethnicity. “This just drops right in for us,” explains Jennie Kassanoff, associate professor of English and director of the program in American studies. “We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. This maximizes the rich array of courses and the interests of the faculty. We’re all really excited about this.” As an example, an American-studies major can decide to take four courses within the ICORE structure and then count them toward her major.

Students in the ICORE and MORE programs will take two introductory classes, and then select among a variety of intermediate and advanced classes, from the consortium departments as well as others, such as English, dance, sociology, or history. Some course possibilities this term include “Poverty, Inequality and Policy,” “Black Theatre,” “Traditions of African-American Dance,” and “Gender and Power in Transnational Perspective.”

The programs are designed to strengthen student inquiry. “I’m hoping that the interdisciplinary concentration, with a theoretical focus, will ground students with an analysis of race and ethnicity,” says Kim F. Hall, Lucyle Hook Professor of English, and director of the Africana studies program and the Middle Passage Initiative. “This is an evolving field, but the grouping of courses gives a solid foundation. How do we train students to be capacious thinkers? Looking at how categories of ethnicity and power relate gives them the proper tools.”

Within each field, of course, the way students apply an ethnic studies perspective will vary. “Women’s studies is concerned with social differences in general,” observes Professor Neferti Tadiar, chair of women’s studies. “Having a minor in race and ethnic studies is a way, while still doing feminist theory and analysis, for students to do more substantive work. For women’s studies majors, this strengthens the emphasis we already have.” There are still other benefits, suggests Tadiar, noting, “this interdisciplinary approach creates more conversations among our students, more interprogram discussion, and collaborative relationships. Students will bump into one another.”

Perhaps what matters even more, suggests Provost Boylan, “It’s a symbol that we valued this new field of ethnic studies. It’s very exciting to bring together students from Africana, women’s, and American studies.” Boylan explains that this construct is treating the study of race and ethnicity in the context of one of the many potential partner disciplines (or interdisciplines) and methodologies.

-Merri Rosenberg, illustration by Gracia Lam