Monday, January 23, 2017

Eastern Michigan U: Mandatory Black Studies

By Professor Doom

     Time and again I’ve often wondered about the honesty of what I’m doing in higher education. It isn’t the upper level, technical courses that repeatedly cause me to evaluate my morality, even though it’s easy to make a case that the more advanced courses are the least relevant to what anyone would use math for.

      No, my self-doubts are about the basic courses, such as College Algebra. The primary issue I have is it’s a mandatory course. Granted, the course is a prerequisite for just about every jobs-related degree higher education offers, but it’s also mandatory for many “useless” degree programs. I’ve often seen students in their 6th year of their 2 year degree program in Childhood Sexual Deviancy or other new degree program, struggling to finally pass this introductory math course.

“DEAR PRof, I jus wanted to ask u to pass me here cuz it’s the only corse I need for my degre. Ive done good in my other corses. Thanx!”

--typical 6th year student asking for help in College Algebra

     These students would often write me semi-literate notes explaining how they’ve got A’s in every other course, but just keep failing College Algebra, because it’s the only course that has in-class tests, as near as I could tell. 

Deanling: “The math department is an impediment to graduation, and we need to do something about it.”

     College Algebra isn’t the only mandatory course, students are also forced to take English, for example, as well as a few other courses. These “general education” courses form the foundation for a degree. Most other departments have long since caved in, as near as I can tell, but mathematics departments have at least somewhat tried to “hold the line” for being sort-of confident that college degree holders actually have at least a small measure of education.

      Ultimately, this is why I’m comfortable teaching mandatory courses—I honestly feel that a person cannot claim to be “educated” and still ignorant of the basic mathematics I learned when I was 15 (this, frankly, is the math we teach in college algebra today). I’d like college graduates to also be able to write, to know some history, and other things…but I’ll at least handle my own responsibility.

      For a century or more, scholars have more or less agreed that certain basic knowledge should be held by anyone claiming to have a proper (whatever that means) education. I’m open to changing what the foundations of scholarship should be, although naturally I think scholars should be the ones determining this sort of thing.

     Unfortunately, administrators, with no real interest in education, are now determining education. It’s why we can have people who cannot read, write, or do arithmetic even with a college degree. There’s been little faculty can do to resist the changes debasing the meaning of a college degree, which seem to become ever more meaningless year after year.

     The latest recommendation for change comes from Eastern Michigan University. Mandatory Black Studies courses, for all students, all majors. They have a 10 point plan for addressing this goal. Let’s look at their plan:

#1: Percent of Black faculty

New mandatory training for academic search
committee chairs and hiring authorities

Pro-active recruiting has been underway for

     I know it’s a bit self-serving to have mandatory math courses—I’d likely be out of work, otherwise--but I rationalize that teaching knowledge that’s been humanity’s birthright for centuries is an honorable thing to do. 

      Isn’t it nice that this plan is blatant in its racism? I promise you, that “mandatory” training includes a memo about how search (i.e., hiring) committees need to get with the program and hire black faculty. I promise you, again, that if any institution in this country said they were pro-actively hiring white faculty, that institution would be hit with so many lawsuits that it would simply shut down.

      I’ve mentioned a few times the racism and sexism on our campuses. Please, gentle reader, take this published document as further proof that I’m not exaggerating how bad it is. Even half a dozen years ago, it was all done with winks and nods, but now there’s no shame to putting it in writing.

2: Mandatory course on racism as part of
General Education (“Gen Ed”) curriculum

     So, there it is. This is a goal, but I can’t help but notice that no justification is given for why this “knowledge” is critical for every educated person to have. I find the goal particularly tone-deaf in light of the first goal.

3: Black studies included in every major

Black student leaders will continue
meeting with University leadership

Significant overhaul of courses and
resources required

     I concede that “black studies” might well be a worthy academic topic, but I don’t see why everyone needs to know it. I know I risk drawing some heat, but which of the following ability seems more important for an educated person to have:

1)    The ability to discuss the achievements of George Washington Carver in detail
      2) The ability to read and understand directions for taking medication

     I honestly believe everyone educated should be able to perform #2. I grant that this is merely my opinion, and I might be biased…but the Black Student Union might be a little biased in their opinion, as well. We’re producing graduates that can’t do #2, because our college coursework is changing into things that, at best, only a small segment of the population could actually benefit by knowing.

#4: Mandatory cultural competency training

     It’s really worth noting that a typical “4 year” degree recipient takes around 6 years to get that degree. We can’t just tack on mandatory (is the gentle reader sick of that word yet? I hear it many times in my profession…) courses in Black studies, in Multiculturalism, and whatever fad we have, without sacrificing teaching our graduates some more useful knowledge.

      Just barely, the US higher education system is still considered among the best in the world, and receives many foreign students wanting to come here and learn in what was once a great system. In the rest of the world, university degrees don’t contain many hours of this ridiculous “mandatory” training. How long until the rest of the world realizes that coming to the US for an education is a mistake?

      If any administrators are reading this, hear my plea: please stop debasing the system. If simple integrity isn’t a good enough reason, keep in mind that when our higher education system loses foreign students, we lose money, and at some point that will come out of administrative pockets.

#5: Designated space

     The country has been collectively laughing at the whole concept of “University as Safe Space,” but there’s nothing to stop it. Students demand it, and admin, instead of being adults showing leadership, just cave in, because making the students happy is pretty much all their job is today.

     I’m not saying all parts of the plan are ridiculous, but let me zip ahead to a few more:

#9: BSU-appointed committee for Black

      I’ll again point out the extremely offensive racism here, I dare any campus to have a White Homecoming…

#10: Master’s/Doctorate programs for
Africology & African American Studies

     There is a massive, massive, glut of Ph.D.’s, and has been for decades now. Even in fairly technical and supposedly in-demand fields, you can find unemployed doctorates driving cabs or operating microbreweries or…whatever it takes to get by.

     Now, I grant, if “Black studies” becomes mandatory, there will be a new demand for faculty to run the courses…but where’s the discussion about the need for this new field to become mandatory? Across the country, African Studies departments have a reputation for minimal scholarship (it’s why the UNC scandal succeeded for so long, as nobody expected the students coming out of that department to be capable of much). 

     With this kind of reputation, maybe it would make more sense to do the real work of making this field respectable…instead, EMU intends to use the magic word of “mandatory” to just force people to become involved in a field that, bottom line, very few people really want to be in, and even fewer think is legitimate.

     And now I come to my favorite point of this 10 point plan:

#11: Women’s Resource Center to hold
three events per year

     Seriously, this is point 11 of the 10 point plan, I’m not making it up.

     So, yeah, I honestly believe basic math is important to education, so that our colleges don’t look like fools. Unfortunately, admin has watered down “college” math to the point that their 10 point plans have 11 points in them, and nobody on campus has the scholarship to see something isn’t right about this, on any level…

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