To Include is To Excel: Race Matters
In the first two years of the To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty and staff members have developed nearly 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re highlighting these projects in a new series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.
When the To Include is To Excel initiative launched, Associate Professor of English Jon Naito saw an opportunity to explore the creation of a year-long learning community.
The goal of the learning community, titled “Race Matters,” is to provide students with an opportunity to thoughtfully integrate their study of race and other forms of structured inequality in a social sciences framework with the study of related material drawn from the worlds of art, literature, and popular culture.
Working alongside Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology David Schalliol and Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Ryan Sheppard, the trio developed a first-year linked course sequence that joins a first-year writing course on race in the 21st century with an introduction to sociology course.
Naito shares what he learned in developing this To Include is To Excel project and what he hopes the community takes away from it:
What led you to develop this project?
The Race Matters learning community developed out of conversations with many people — students, faculty, and staff — about how we could help students develop a stronger foundation in understanding the role of race, ethnicity, and other dimensions of identity in the contemporary world. We’ve all heard it said many times that conversations about race are difficult, even as the contemporary world has repeatedly demonstrated that such conversations are necessary. As educators, we did what educators do: we tried to figure out a way to help our students develop the complex, intellectually informed understanding that the subject merits.
“We’ve all heard it said many times that conversations about race are difficult, even as the contemporary world has repeatedly demonstrated that such conversations are necessary. As educators, we did what educators do: we tried to figure out a way to help our students develop the complex, intellectually informed understanding that the subject merits.”
Particularly over the past decade, faculty at St. Olaf whose teaching, scholarship, and creative work encompasses the study of race and ethnicity have been drawn together across departmental lines. The time seemed right for developing a learning community that would strengthen these bonds. In order to address this subject, it seemed logical to link a course in sociology with a course that had more of an interdisciplinary humanities focus.
We also saw benefits in focusing primarily on the 21st century. The lives of our students have been shaped by “race matters” from the start — the long shadow of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Ferguson, and contemporary debates here and abroad about immigrants and refugees. This is a very short and incomplete list. These events will continue to shape the lives of our students and the communities in which they live and work in the decades to come. And learning to appreciate the complexity of the present is a great point of entry for the cultivation of a deeper and richer understanding of the complexity of the past.
It was an absolute joy to put together the proposal for Race Matters with David Schalliol and Ryan Sheppard in the Sociology and Anthropology Department. We share a common vision for what this program can become, and we are curious to see how students will be shaped by taking part in it during such a crucial year in their academic and personal development.
What did you learn — about yourself, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
Throughout the process of developing the Race Matters learning community, we were pleased to discover how much support there was for our efforts among students, faculty, and staff. The St. Olaf community is a large community, and it can be difficult to gauge how others outside of the small circles in which most of us travel will respond to a new idea. However, once we started seeking formal approval, many, many people came forward to express their enthusiasm about our efforts. There seemed to be a recognition that this learning community was something that St. Olaf really needed, that it was something distinct, and that it would make a difference.
What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?
Given that Race Matters is a learning community for first-year students, we focus first on the impact on our students. On the most basic level, we want to help students develop their ability to think critically about the contemporary world, as well as develop a relatively sophisticated understanding of the opportunities and challenges involved in working with materials and methods drawn from the social sciences and the humanities. More specifically, we want students to grow in their ability to analyze racial and ethnic dimensions of power, privilege, and oppression as they intersect with multiple categories of difference such as class, gender, and sexuality. We see all of these as assets for life at St. Olaf and beyond.
“We want students to grow in their ability to analyze racial and ethnic dimensions of power, privilege, and oppression as they intersect with multiple categories of difference such as class, gender, and sexuality. We see all of these as assets for life at St. Olaf and beyond.”
We see Race Matters as one example of how the college can fulfill its commitment to not just recruit but also serve a diverse study body. We hope that others will be inspired to help fulfill it as well.
How can the St. Olaf community support your project?
First off, as a new learning community, it would be great if the St. Olaf community can help get the word out about it. We had a lot of interest among admitted students last year — in fact, we had many more applicants than we had spaces to offer. However, we want to make sure that all incoming students, and, ideally, all prospective students, know about this new opportunity and give it some thought.
We also recognize that we are still in the process of learning how to best serve our students. We know that there are many community members — students, staff, faculty, alumni, and others — who might be in a position to help Race Matters achieve its potential. Do you have a suggestion for an experience, event, or topic that we could include in the program? Do you know about internships, jobs, or other opportunities that might be a great match for Race Matters students? If so, please let us know.
Where does your work go from here?
We are just getting started. One of our big priorities is figuring out how we can involve more voices, more communities, and more experiences in the program. We want to make connections with individuals and groups throughout the region, and to grow Race Matters beyond the classroom. This is a learning community that grew out of the wider world, and we hope that it will reach back into the wider world as well.
“One of our big priorities is figuring out how we can involve more voices, more communities, and more experiences in the program. … This is a learning community that grew out of the wider world, and we hope that it will reach back into the wider world as well.”