Reed Union

On Thursday, April 10th, a group of faculty and students gathered in Vollum Lecture Hall to discuss changing the Reed curriculum. At this semester’s Reed Union, Questioning the Curriculum: Gender Studies, and Ethnic and Race Studies at Reed, a panel consisting of two students and three staff members presented their opinions on this matter and took queries and comments from impassioned community members. The question remains, though: has this event had a serious impact on Reed, and will it lead to changes in the curriculum in the future? 

As each of the panelists spoke, the deeper issues present in connection with these two fields of study became more clear. Mark Burford (Music, 2008–) spoke about the storied past of Black Studies at Reed. He recounted how, in 1967, when the newly recruited black students of Reed demanded a Black Studies program, and were denied, they protested by barricading themselves on the third floor of Elliot for a week. This well-known “Reed story” sheds light on the current state of affairs on this topic. Though, following the protest, Reed did have a Black Studies program for a few years, it was quickly deemed unnecessary by the college, and shut down.

Panelist and sociology major Delai Ayivor ’15 said that she sometimes feels as if she has to “approach incoming students of color, sensing their discomfort, and give them my phone number, assuring them that they’re not alone.” This is something she feels would be changed if Reed had a Racial Studies program that would enable the students of color to feel less alienated.

One question that came up several times during the Union was the academic value and rigor of Gender Studies and Race and Ethnic Studies. To which, Anika Ledlow ’15, replied “I’m tired of hearing that issues of identity and inequalities are not academic enough for us to consider and study. I know academic rigor is a pillar of Reed’s identity, but in this case I feel like this rhetoric doesn’t defend our intellectual integrity, but instead serves as a thinly veiled excuse to stay mired in outdated ideas of what’s important and valuable academically.”

These very sensitive topics dredged up deep emotions for many community members whose Reed experiences have been impacted by issues of racial and gender tensions. Sophie Naranjo-Rivera ’14 who was vexed by the argument that these programs would not be rigorous enough, “the fact that Reed doesn’t have them is offensive. It’s invalidating the experiences of people who aren’t white men.” She continued, “I almost left Reed as a sophomore because I thought the education was way too limited. I think a lot of Reedies don’t come for that reason.” Ayivor also recounted some difficult experiences she has had with race on campus. “Our classrooms are sites where, in a 20 person, 200-level Shakespeare class, the only other black girl and I were nearly the only people to speak during an in-class discussion of Othello, true story, and where a visiting black professor felt inclined to stop me outside of Vollum because she was new in town and say ‘it’s hard for here for us.’ Girl, yes it is, okay. But it doesn’t have to be. This has got to stop.”

David Satten-Lopez ’16, concurred, “In the mission statement, it talks about having students have a breadth of knowledge and in not educating our student body on these topics the College is depriving us of that breadth of knowledge because these things are inherent in so much of what we read regardless of department—this stuff is always mediated by topics of gender, race, and sexuality.” Panel moderator Margot Minardi (History, 2007–) took this point further by saying “I’d push you to think about thinking about curricular change as a way to keep our academic program in line with what is most cutting edge and important with academic fields at all. It’s integral to the mission because the fields change over time and we should change with them.”

Another potential bone of contention came in the form of what capacity these subjects would enter the curriculum in. Minardi wondered aloud if it would be better to “have a gender or cultural studies requirement, or an interdisciplinary program with departmental lines. I think it’s incredibly important to think about giving the lens of race and ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies to students who have not specifically signed up for those classes.” Burford thought this could be best achieved by using a “structure...along the lines of the ES — Environmental Studies — model where students would be rooted in the home department. That is a model that we’ve considered in terms of a possible way of making this program work,” something he, Minardi, and other members of the ad hoc Committee on Global Race and Ethnic Studies that met last year.

Rennie Myers ’15, a ES-History major, agreed on the merits of this approach. “I want to attest to the value of an interdisciplinary major. I get to maximize my education, meet people with different skills, being expected to exercise those skills that you learn makes me feel like I haven’t lost the rigor and core experience.” However, as Archit Guha ’14, an International Comparative Policy Studies major made clear, the road to graduating with an interdisciplinary major is not always easy. He points to “faculty resistance to seeing [ICPS] as a legitimate program.” He also says “I’ve been asked what I’m actually majoring in. [ICPS] only graduates maybe one or two students each year, but it allows, much like the proposed comparative Race and Ethnic Studies program would, for students to be reflexive about their education and to take an interest in why these questions are important.”

On campus, it is hard to say what effect this on-going conversation is having. Certainly, though, many students are excited about the prospect of a time in the near future when they could sign up for classes on these culturally important subjects, without having to dig through the course catalogue for the Anthropology, Sociology and History departments. Perhaps this potential change will bring a new attitude to campus, and encourage students to engage further with the wider world. However, as panelist Paul Currie (Psychology, 2009–) said, if the community wants this to happen “students need to push forward as well.”