By SUSAN JONES and DONOVAN HARRELL
Two Senate Council committees tasked with developing a proposal for a required Black Studies course for all incoming students have quickly embraced the job and the debate.
The Educational Policies and Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy committees formed a working group this summer that included undergraduate students to draft a proposal, and members reviewed that draft at their meetings this month.
The proposal calls for the provost’s office to “design and implement a universal three-credit course on Black Studies that all undergraduate students would take in the first two years of their University of Pittsburgh education and that said course will not add to either degree credit requirements or to indebtedness.”
The idea for a required Black Studies class originated with a letter and petition this summer from Pitt alumna Sydney Massenberg, who said while she learned about racism and Black history in classes she chose to take at Pitt, many of her white classmates had no knowledge of these topics and were not interested in voluntarily taking these courses.
For this academic year, the University formed a committee — chaired by Yolanda Covington-Ward, head of the Africana Studies department — to develop the free, one-credit course “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance,” in response to the summer of unrest initially sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May. The class is required for all first-year students and is being graded Satisfactory or Not Completed.
This class initially caused some confusion among Faculty Assembly members, because they thought it was the final response to Massenberg’s petition. The one-credit course is not intended as a substitute for the proposed three-credit class, Senate President Chris Bonneau said.
Bonneau said at the Sept. 21 Educational Policies Committee meeting that he’s determined to make sure the proposal for the three-credit Black Studies class makes it through the shared governance process.
He said he has little patience for “whatabout-ism” arguments regarding the course, which essentially amount to “because we’re not doing everything, that we shouldn’t be doing this.”
“The whole whatabout-ism argument is something that just lights me on fire every time,” Bonneau said, adding that the argument is “completely anti-intellectual.”
John Stoner, co-chair of the Educational Policies Committee and executive director for academic affairs at the University Center for International Studies, said that implementation of the course could present a “significant logistical challenge” since each school has different requirements for students that are determined by different faculty.
However, Stoner said, now is the time for action on this course and other similar initiatives.
“And I’m not minimizing, I think, any of those challenges whatsoever,” Stoner said. “But I do think that this is likely the one moment in time when we could really strike when the iron is hot, so to speak, to make this change.”
Stoner later added that he hopes that this course could be a strong recruitment tool for the University.
“It really is a concrete demonstration of a baseline commitment that students will understand these experiences and, ideally, … at the very least show sympathy, if not allyship as a result of understanding that experience.”
Zuzana Swigonova, a member of the joint committee, told EIADAC, which she co-chairs, that there was some debate about whether several courses should be offered to fulfill the three-credit Black Studies requirement, but the joint committee decided having one course would allow more quality control since all students will be exposed to the same thing.
She noted that there currently aren’t any single courses that are mandatory for all undergraduates to take, so this course would be setting a precedent.
“That’s something that I would like all of you also to consider,” Swigonova said at the Sept. 17 meeting. “Because more of these courses may actually eventually come, and I think that responding to more contemporary political situations is the responsibility of the academic field.”
While the joint committee discussed some course objectives, Swigonova said, “That’s something that would be eventually worked through in details in another committee. Our responsibility is to express a strong support for a course that would be mandatory for all incoming students that they would be learning enough about the historical perspective, as well as contemporary issues associated with blackness in America, and therefore, they will be educated in the form that they eventually become advocates for antiracist practices.”
One issue still up for debate is if the class should be pass/fail or have an impact on students’ GPAs. Clyde Wilson Pickett, Pitt’s vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, said he thinks there’s more engagement and “it communicates a different message if, in fact, it is for credit and grade.”
EIADAC members voted to endorse the draft proposal, but the joint committee will continue to gather feedback to make further changes. A specific timeline hasn’t been established for when the proposal will make its way to Faculty Assembly.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905. Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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