Conference on Cultural Diversity in the Curriculum, UW System, April 17-18, 2008

A report from my trek to the conference on “Cultural Diversity in the Curriculum” held by the University of Wisconsin’s system-wide Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the UW-Milwaukee campus.   It was an instructive conference from the first evening’s keynote address by Kevin Kumashiro of the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education to the many fine panels focused on the theoretical and practical details of teaching about cultural diversity and social justice issues.   Dr. Kumashiro’s remarks on the different lenses that both teachers and students bring to the classroom were particularly instructive for heightening our awareness to the multiple perspectives and modes of communication possible and typically unrecognized within our classes.    
The jointly offered panel, “Confronting Whiteness” (Jill Pinkney Pastrana and David Shih) and “Confronting Difficult Issues in the Classroom” (Salah Bassiouni, Brandon Fetterly, Renee Gralewicz,  and Julie Tharp) offered many great ideas for class assignments, especially in contexts where the students are predominantly white.   A key component in the suggested assignments was to bring into view invisible components of racial and ethnic identity, whether in assumptions about different cultural experiences or in the student’s own personal history.   One assignment I found especially useful (discussed by Salah Bassiouni) asked students to research and write on four generations of their family’s ethnic heritage.     Students often discovered that their seemingly homogenous background was in fact quite diverse and many had close connections to immigrant experiences that had become forgotten or erased as time passed.   Crucially, students learned they had a history at all, which enables them to appreciate both their own families within a richer context, but importantly the complexity of traditions for all Americans.  

The value of history, and the intersection of personal and community stories in a shared history, was underlined for me in my class, Film 150, Multicultural America.  I had the opportunity to talk about the transformative effects of that class — on both the students and the teacher — at this conference.   My students were asked to interview individuals within the Walnut Way community, a predominantly African-American community near the university.  Their interviews were to be visually documented and placed in photo essays and later a web archive (the link can be found on this site).   The result was extraordinary — students moved from an initial response to images as representations “out there” to be critiqued (often as “good” or “bad”) to an understanding that images can speak to us and can even build bridges between us.   The students ongoing engagement with images as a record of a neighborhood history and their reflections on this history moved their analysis from a distanced to a passionate one.  Moreover, their visualization of multi-perspectives on a neighborhood — two points of view of a local business, seen below for example – translated into a more complex critical engagement with the neighborhood, its history, and economic conditions. 

You can see some of the photos throughout this blog from my students Lawrence Nichols, William Ramirez, Phoua Xiong, and Elias Bello.   The tipping point I believe was the conjunction of the camera plus the conversation, the verbal and visual, the creative and the critical.   Originally I had hoped the students in Film 150 would learn something about media literacy, but they truly surpassed all my expectations, and instead offered a fluency with the images, that spoke with unusual insight and compassion.

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