Teaching American Politics: The Politics of Incorporating Multicultural Highlights Into a Traditional Curriculum

Gus Jones, Jr. • Miami University

Michelle G. Briscoe • Miami University


This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s April 2006 edition.


Census reports reveal that the U.S. is increasingly becoming a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and a multi-racial society. Aware of these demographic trends, colleges and universities are scrambling to formulate and implement curricula that will better prepare their students to compete and succeed in this ever-changing heterogeneous society. Unfortunately, few colleges and universities provide explicit directions on how to construct and implement a multi-cultural American government course. This essay attempts to address this vacuum.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

Our Starting Point

Our involvement in composing and activating our American Politics and Diversity course can be traced to multiple considerations. The University’s adoption of a comprehensive diversity plan in 1998 spurred our involvement. President James Gar-land asserted that this plan was put in place to address hateful words and deeds in the University. A review of the University’s student newspaper, The Miami Student, suggests that many factors motivated the University, including (1) telephone calls received by first-year students threatening their lives; (2) the brutal beating of a minority student by white teenagers from surrounding communities; (3) the Kodak Corporation’s warning to University officials that it would no longer recruit Miami students if students were not offered a multi-cultural education; (4) requests from former graduates urging university officials to diversify so that Miami students come to the work place with experiences that reflect our heterogeneous society; (5) minority students’ protests, sit-ins, and recommendations in 1997 that the University adopt and foster a hospitable milieu for students of color; (6) the successful piloting of the College of Arts and Sciences diversity workshop for first-year students; (7) the posting of hateful graffiti in the Center for Black Culture; and (8) a sur-vey by Princeton Review rating Miami University last out of 311 in terms of friendly race/class interactions. Less than a year later the University responded with a plan directed at improving the climate, curriculum, and recruitment of students of color. The new American Cultures requirement flows from that particular curriculum. Our American Politics and Diversity course is in response to this new requirement.

Aside from professional reasons, we also had a personal rationale for creating our new course. As two African-American political science professors teaching at a predominately white mid-western university, we welcomed the opportunity to develop this particular course because after collectively teaching American politics for twenty years, we were frustrated. With few exceptions, the American government texts we reviewed did not spell out how different racial, cultural, and ethnic groups had constructed, challenged, and changed the political system. Specifically, they did not present a comprehensive picture of the historical and political experiences of African Americans, Latinos/Latinas, Native Americans, and white ethnics in the political system. Given this, we enthusiastically embraced the chance to develop a more complete and comprehensive picture of how varied groups have participated in the political system.

No Maps

We recognized that there is no book or map describing how to create and implement an American politics and diversity course. We began constructing our course considering the works of minority scholars. We did so fully aware that while multiculturalism is a fairly new concept, African American scholars for centuries have spotlighted how African Americans have participated in and changed the American political system. Furthermore, we contacted minority scholars at Stanford University, Duke University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who had written books or had experiences organizing and teaching politics and diversity. They gave us good advice. For example, the Barker, Jones, and Tate text documents how African Americans were affected by, challenged, and changed the American political system. In so doing, their work serves as a guide for organizing and teaching how other groups are influenced by the features of the political system (federalism, bicameralism, separation of powers, etc.) and political institutions. Additionally, we looked over various articles, books, course outlines, videos, and web sites that seem to relate to politics and diversity, and that we thought might be useful in forming our course.

In assembling our course outline, we were guided by two points gleaned from our attendance at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity. This conference was designed to help persons interested in developing, implementing, and evaluating multi-cultural courses. The first point was to communicate the mes-sage that diversity does not pertain solely to African Americans; rather, it relates to multiple groups. The second point we took away from the conference was that the creators of multicultural courses must exhibit how their course conforms to or promotes university goals. There are four components of Miami University’s Liberal Education Foundation courses: critical thinking, understanding context, engaging learners and reflecting and acting. Our course outline specifies how we intend to satisfy these components.

Having laid out how the objectives of our course are congruent with the aims of the University, we then determined how it would differed from the traditional American Political Systems course commonly known as POL 141. We maintain that our course American Politics and Diversity (POL 142) differs in two ways. First, our course has a broader focus. Specifically, the traditional course examines how African Americans and women have fared in the American policy process for the period from 1950 to 1990. While informative, this approach offers an incomplete picture of America; our new course takes a more expansive view. It highlights from colonial era to the present day how African Americans, women—and other racial, ethnic, and cultural groups—have been influenced by, challenged, and changed America. By adopting this longitudinal view and including a variety of groups, this course offers a richer and more inclusive version of American politics which hopefully will broaden students’ knowledge of American government. Additionally, the traditional American government course, by and large, adopts an elitist or top-down approach to the study of American politics. That is, it concentrates on how major policymakers have influenced different groups. In stark contrast, our new course examines not only how government institutions have influenced different groups, but we also weigh how these particular groups have challenged, constructed, and changed these particular institutions. Various groups encountered a system that may or may not have been designed to support and advance their rights and objectives. This approach enables us to assess how much influence the people are able to exercise over the decision makers elected to act on their behalf. We demonstrate that “yes,” some organized groups can be important as pluralist theories suggest. However, this comprehensive examination shows that other groups have been less successful in achieving their goals even though they have followed an established set of rules. In so doing, we examine a broader range of conflicts and interactions and explore the tactics used by groups to gain notice and find remedies in the American political system. Distinctly, this course offers a closer approximation to the world we live in.

One of the most difficult decisions was choosing what text to use for the course. We agreed that we would need to find an additional text to complement our treatment of diverse groups, history, and politics. After much soul-searching, we selected Feagin and Feagin’s Racial and Ethnic Relations text because it offered the most comprehensive analysis of group participation. We singled out this work for three reasons. First, their text covered eleven different racial and ethnic groups. Second, they stress that while the groups were different in many ways, they had many things in common. For example, the authors note that many groups have been stereotyped. Finally, we chose Feagin and Feagin because they talk about politics and group participation in the policy process. Specifically, they point out how varied racial, ethnic, and cultural groups have been influenced by and have sought to influence major governmental institutions. This text did have a minor shortcoming. It painted a complete picture of some groups’ participation in the political process, but an in-complete portrait of others. The result was we were able to show the historical and contemporary links among some groups, but not others.

Having decided on the text we would use, we structured the course to encourage students to play an active role. The students’ roles and responsibilities are spelled out in the course outline as follows:

Each student will be assigned to a team that will be given the task of considering the experience, status, and prospects for one of the groups covered in this class. The team will be responsible for preparing a presentation evaluating that groups record in the political system and outlining strategies for what members of the group can do to advance their political goals. The presentation will include an agenda for action by that group that is informed by what you have learned of the workings of the American political system and the strategies and tactics for influence in the system, and it should demonstrate awareness of disagreements regarding strategy and tactics by members or component organizations within the group un-der consideration.

To offer the students guidance in focusing their linkage of individual group projects to the American political system, we asked them to consider the following questions:

What was the nature of the problem(s) that a particular group confronted?

  • How did the groups use the political system to call attention to and resolve this problem? Specifically, did group leaders use lobbying, legislation, rule-making, litigation, propaganda, peaceful and/or extra-legal means to resolve problems?
  • Did the particular group follow and/or modify the tactics used by other groups in resolving problems or in getting its issues on the national agenda?
  • Did group leaders follow and/or modify the tactics used by other groups in pushing for their policy preferences?
  • How have these groups contributed to the American political system?

Our success in developing and implementing our course can be ascribed to multiple factors, but the primary one is commitment from the top. Having the President of the university, the Provost, the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Dean of the College of Arts and Science, and the Chair of the Political Science Department pushing for the creation of more multi-cultural courses was pivotal. Support from these top administrators made it difficult for would-be critics to directly attack our course, made it harder for them to charge that our agenda was purely personal, and may have encouraged others to back it in order to be viewed as team players or as good university citizens.

While we secured approval for our course from the Department of Political Science, the College of Arts and Science, and the University Liberal Education Council, we believe it is important to emphasize the road we traveled was not always smooth. As a matter of fact, we encountered bureaucratic bumps and potholes that threatened to derail our efforts. Consider what occurred when we first attempted to get members of a depart-mental subcommittee to back our proposed American politics course. Members of that committee raised some very legitimate questions, and they also posed questions and made statements that were troubling. Some members of the department wondered out loud whether the new American Politics and Diversity course was truly a social science course, and also asked if it was intellectually rigorous. We contended that social science refers to the study of human behavior. Specifically, we called attention to the fact that the new course concentrates on how different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups had challenged and changed the American political system. As for the intimation that our class was not intellectually rich and rigorous, we laid emphasis on our course outline. It specifies that the new course required two textbooks and extensive reading. Acquiring the approval for our course took time, energy, and patience.

Mistakes, Mistakes, Mistakes: Some Things we Should Not Have Done

In piloting our new course, we made several mistakes. Sometimes our enthusiasm about developing and piloting the new course outweighed our information and energy. For example, our course set out to examine how thirteen racial, ethnic, and cultural groups have fared in the political system. This was overly ambitious. The result is, while we covered these varied groups to transmit the message that diversity encompasses more than women and African Americans, our coverage was too broad and shallow. In other words, our analysis had breadth but little depth. Another misstep was beginning our course without a concrete strategy for dealing with students’ careless and insensitive remarks. We confronted situations where students make insensitive remarks about Latinos, gays in the military, and about the Islamic faith. When these remarks were made, we were sometimes caught off guard and gave inadequate responses. We expressed our displeasure be we did not take advantage of what should have been teachable moments. We could have taught lessons about critical thinking, tolerance, and the need to know about groups other than one’s own.

Further, we made an error not surveying student attitudes at both the beginning and end of the pilot course. We surveyed student beliefs and knowledge about diversity at the beginning of the course but we did not do so at the end. Our failure to follow up our surveys meant we will be left to speculate whether students’ views about diversity remained the same or changed; we can only guess whether they actually gained anything from the course. Worse, we do not have data to present to administrators that could demonstrate that students found the course valuable. Such information could prove highly persuasive in get-ting colleagues and administrators to back the creation of more multicultural courses.

Our failure to contact scholars on campus who had previous experience in teaching a diversity course was another mistake we made in building our American politics course. We could have profited from on-campus scholars who have taught diversity courses in other disciplines, including education, history, Black studies, and Jewish studies. Finally, contacting relevant faculty on campus could have informed us what to do and what to avoid in setting up and implementing a new course.

Recommendations

Creators of an American Politics and Diversity course should first address the popular misconceptions that any course with the word “diversity” in its title deals exclusively with one group—African Americans. To counter this misconception, the instructors of the course must accentuate in conversations with administrators, faculty and students (and in their course outline) that this class concentrates on a variety of groups. Designers of the course should also forward the message that their course is for majority and minority students. They can transmit this message by stressing that their course covers how varied social, ethnic, and cultural groups have fared in the political system. They might also cite census data that shows that the U.S. is increasingly becoming a more heterogeneous society. Tying the courses aims to University objectives will allow developers to claim that in teaching this course, they are satisfying University requirements.

It is also important that developers and implementers of the diversity course have the resources (staff, money, and skills) for doing so. Monies are needed to secure supplied for the course such as books and videos. Funds are also needed to attract speakers who could address topics taken up in the course and respond directly to students questions. Persons teaching American Politics and Diversity courses should be willing and able to teach the course. That is, they should be committed to teaching the class and have skills for doing do. To acquire the skills, they need training. They need to be familiar with the histories, back-grounds, and experiences of different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. They need instruction on how to facilitate constructive classroom conversations about such hot topics as affirmative action, sexual harassment, gays in the military and Boy Scouts, and the rounding up of Arab-Americans after attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They also need tutoring on how to deal effectively with students’ careless, insensitive or intolerant remarks about race, gender, or ethnicity. If possible, faculty should attend the Annual Race and Ethnicity Conference, sponsored annually by Oklahoma State University.

Persons contemplating teaching a political science diversity course should also be cognizant of the political environment in which they operate. Being aware of this environment enables course developers to size up how far, fast, or hard they should push for the adoption of a new multi-cultural course. There are always indications whether the political milieu is propitious for developing and implementing a multi-cultural course. For in-stance, the political environment is favorable if (1) state officials (e.g. governor or state legislators) have not abandoned the use of race and gender in college admission decisions; (2) the president of the university, the provost, the dean of the college, and the chair of the department rhetoric and record indicate strong support for a multi-cultural curriculum; (3) university officials have adopted an overall university plan to teach multi-cultural courses; (4) there is a staff person in place with sufficient money and authority to ensure that the multi-cultural plan is carried out creatively, energetically, and effectively; (5) colleagues in various departments are teaching diversity courses in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and Native American Studies; (6) funding and training monies are available for staff who wish to be trained in teaching diversity classes.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

Plainly, if these conditions do not exist than the political environment may not be conducive for formulating and implementing a new multi-cultural course. In other words, what should professors do when major officials—president, provost, dean, and chair—are not ardent backers of diversity? There are a number of steps they can take. They can make a cogent case for a multi-cultural political science course by (1) citing data showing fifty or more colleges and universities have devised and activated multi-cultural political science courses; (2) identify-ing and forming alliances with persons on campus who have constructed, carried out, and evaluated multi-cultural courses; (3)attending NCORE, a conference that offers constructive ad-vice on successfully building and selling multi-cultural courses; and (4) contacting corporate leaders to gain their support in persuading state politicians and university officials to back the adoption and implementation of diversity-focused courses.

Moreover, organizers of a new multicultural course can seek to influence major policymakers to back multi-cultural efforts by stressing the benefit of diversity. Indeed, they can cite the relevant findings below:

  • A strong plurality of the American people believe that diversity has had a positive overall effect on them personally and their families.
  • 88% of US citizens believe it is important to have students of different races, cultures and backgrounds in higher education.
  • Integrating diversity materials into the curriculum is likely to improve retention rates for underrepresented groups as well as to enhance satisfaction [with campus life], academic success, and cognitive development for all students.
  • The American Association of Colleges and Universities found that education for participation in the United States and democratic pluralities is preparation for citizenship and leadership. It deserves its own time and space in the curricula.

Our experiences in teaching our course have reinforced the view that in order to understand American politics, it is important to understand the Constitution. And in order to understand the Constitution, we need to know something about American politics. One of the queries we debated repeatedly in organizing teaching and evaluating the course was, did we do justice to both traditional and non-traditional subjects in our American politics course? We believe we did. In fact, we contend that our course complements the study of the Constitution. In sum, there are clear linkages to American politics, diversity, and the Constitution.


Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.

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