Panel discusses Black Lives Matter course

by Sonia Qin | 1/26/16 7:47pm

Yesterday, five faculty members spoke to a full Filene Auditorium about their perspectives on the Black Lives Matter course first offered last spring. The event, part of the ongoing Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, was sponsored by the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and featured geography professor Richard Wright; lecturer of geography and women, gender and sexuality studies Treva Ellison; English professor Aimee Bahng; geography professor Abigail Neely; and mathematics professor Craig Sutton.

The BLM course, introduced last spring, was dedicated to considering race, structural inequality and violence in both a historical and modern context. Over 100 students signed up for the course, which was capped at 30. Twenty-one professors taught the course.

The panel began with an introduction by Wright, who opened with a presentation detailing neighborhood racial segregation and diversity in the United States, topics he covered in the course.

In his slides, he showed data demonstrating the degree of segregation in Northern and Southern cities in the U.S. He showed how black residential segregation leads to isolation from jobs, the creation of a disadvantaged social geography, segregation from the black middle class, “missing males” in the black community and a persistent housing wealth gap.

Wright introduced the audience to a website he developed, mixedmetro.us, which displays patterns of racial composition in the country over time.

“A spatial perspective is integral for understanding this linchpin of black social life,” Wright said.

Neely followed Wright’s presentation with an explanation of how the BLM course was developed. She said that the idea for the course came out of one of last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, at which Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, spoke about how to incorporate questions around black lives mattering into classes at the College.

“We wanted to have a sustained conversation and one that had an institutional space,” Neely said.

Neely said that no one person and no one discipline could deal with the issue alone, explaining the need for the large number of faculty who taught the course together.

“This course gave us an opportunity to enact an alternative organization for learning,” Neely said. “The course was about collective decision-making, forming a course together, recognizing that we wouldn’t agree on every aspect, but that we would come together about this sort of broader picture.”

Universities in general are hierarchical, Neely said, and the faculty teaching BLM wanted to displace that organizational style.

Neely said that there were limitations to the class as well, such as not having any one instructor in the class regularly every week. She noted that more time could have been spent on teaching students about public outreach work.

“It’s really hard to balance the lessons of a movement that’s unfolding in real time with the larger geographical, historical and political context,” Neely said.

Bahng said that an innovative teaching grant will promote the BLM course in future iterations, which will be offered twice over the next four years. She plans on inviting the entire Arts and Sciences faculty to join the teaching collective if they are so inclined.

“I really want to see that curricular development not end with just this course,” Bahng said. “I’d like to see it take hold and be taken up among the various departments across campus.”

Sutton then took the floor and spoke about how he got involved in teaching the course. He said that he initially wasn’t sure of the relevance of his area of expertise, but felt a calling to get involved in an issue he was interested in.

Sutton said that through his work on the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative committee, he realized that working with students often falls disproportionately on women and faculty of color. He said that he felt it was important to get involved and start levelling out the work.

“Maybe we don’t teach these topics explicitly, but you have other allies on campus and people who will talk through these issues with you,” he said.

Sutton, who is one of the inaugural house professors for the house system that will be implemented in the fall, said he hopes that students who have taken the BLM course and those who will take it in the future will see the MDF initiative as an opportunity to build a new community of intellectuals and scholars.

Ellison, who was not involved in teaching the BLM course, said that to teach and to learn about BLM is “to learn queerly, and to retrain our embodied and imaginative reflexes.”

“It’s not just about learning a set of facts, but literally about a set of repeated actions producing knowledge that’s stored in the body, because anti-blackness and white supremacy are knowledge that is stored in the body,” Ellison said.

She said that the BLM movement has really emphasized embodied knowledge.

A question-and-answer session followed the panelists’ individual presentations.

Wright said that the panel is good publicity for Dartmouth, as was the BLM course, which was reported on by CNN and the Huffington Post. He compared the BLM course to the the Great Issues courses from the 1950s. Pioneered by former College President John Sloan Dickey, leading figures of the day lectured to seniors each week on important issues of the time.

“For older alums, they would see this as related to the Great Issues courses of the 1950s and 1960s,” Wright said. “This is a great issue.”

He said that the course showed the professionalism and collective will of faculty to join.

Wright said that many of Dartmouth’s peer institutions face many of the same problems regarding diversity and inclusiveness.

The goals of the panel and course are to make a tangible impact on the institution, curriculum and local community, he said.

The Rockefeller Center’s program officer for public and special events Joanne Needham said that Rockefeller decided to support Wright’s initiative for the panel because of the need to inform students about important social issues.

She said that she thought the questions asked, especially by students, were very insightful.

“It is not that this panel has all the answers,” Needham said. “There are really some hard questions and that’s why we have to keep innovating with our courses.”

She said that the panel’s audience included students, faculty, staff and community members, which showed a cross-section of the town and the greater community beyond Dartmouth.

Hannah Matheson ’18 enjoyed the discussion that followed the panel, particulary concerns raised about the self-selecting nature of these conversations.

“I think the most poignant conversation for me has to do with how if something is self-selective, how do you get information out to people and more of campus involved?” Matheson said.

Kevin Bui ’17 said he found the event insightful and it taught him a lot about how activism on campus can be enacted.

“It’s really important that we have these conversations and really think about how to fold these conversations into the academic curriculum,” Bui said.