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A reader discusses the teaching anti-racism in gen-ed program at JMU. 

 

As the recent Climate Survey has verified, Black, Indigenous, POC, LGBTQIA+, disabled students, faculty and staff at JMU continue to face discrimination, exclusion, regular micro-aggressions and isolation. 

This is not just a JMU issue. In light of the infamous summer of 2020 and rise in public support of the Black Lives Matter movement, institutions all over the country were forced to reconcile their lack of action in addressing a long history of racism. JMU has dedicated itself to actively and transformatively addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and accessibility (DEIJA) through their 2020-26 strategic priorities. This was stated in 2020 through JMU’s Academic Affairs Strategic Plan: “The Academic Affairs anti-racist and antidiscrimination agenda is fully articulated and drives all other strategic goals.” 

The initiative our class, the Anti-Racist  GenEd Project and Anti-Racist in GenEd, created not only helps JMU fulfill its goals but, if done correctly, will keep these goals from being a performative and temporary act of “allyship” that have become all too common across academia. Playing “catch-up” with the lives of students and the very real threats to them reflect the lack of care those students receive from their universities. It also undermines decades of work already being done by staff and students in those communities. However, through the advocacy of faculty and students, this moment provided a transformative opportunity for JMU students on campus. A project was introduced by a group of faculty dedicated to social justice, and thus, the Anti-Racist GenEd Project was born. These faculty members risked careers and went against institutional pushback, creating a space of possibility for students who desired and needed to be involved in institutional change. Together, we created an initiative to begin that change.

The Teaching Anti-Racism/Anti-Discrimination in GenEd initiative (TAG), was generated by a community of passionate students and faculty driven by the need and desire to make JMU a safer place for historically marginalized and minoritized students on campus. The Anti-Racist GenEd Project, which was created in the summer and began fall semester of 2021, utilized works by Black and Indigenous scholars and revolutionaries, scholars of Color, LGBTQ individuals and diverse experiences by students of JMU. We also looked to other universities that are implementing similar initiatives. Over the course of the semester, we focused on design justice and evaluated several models to promote anti-racism in GenEd curriculums. Ultimately, the TAG emerged as a feasible and effective option

The TAG initiative is an intervention to promote curriculum which centers DEIJA issues in the General Education program at JMU. This initiative encourages critical literacy in examinations of power, privilege, intersectionality, and oppression. By highlighting the General Education program, students of every major have the opportunity to engage with these topics in the context of the GenEd class discipline. A class can be TAGged in the GenEd program by going through a vetting process using criteria with specific learning outcomes and measurable goals. These outcomes and goals focus on applying critical thinking skills towards systems of power and oppression. If a class qualifies for the TAG, meaning it has been vetted and meets the criteria, it will be TAGged as such. This would allow students who are enrolling in GenEd courses to know that a tagged class will address DEIJA issues as they relate to the discipline. Our dream for the TAG is to expand critical literacy related to systems of oppression throughout the university, eventually in every department. 

Ideally, the vetting process would involve collaboration between the General Education Council and a Student Advisory Board to ensure student voice is heard and centered. Criteria for a TAGged class are a baseline for discussion and framework for participants. On our website, we outline a potential rubric which highlights course content, pedagogy, class engagement and participation in a learning community for faculty involved. 

Our progress would not have been possible without collaboration from outside faculty and staff, including the General Education Council. Over the course of the fall semester, the TAG initiative was presented to and discussed with the GenEd Council on numerous occasions. Their support, feedback, and collaboration were paramount to our finalized ideas, as they provided us with information about institutional systems and methods which we would not have otherwise known. Our collaboration continues this semester as we attempt to make the TAG a reality in the coming years. The TAG initiative was also presented at the Diversity Conference in March of 2022, wherein we received further feedback from stakeholders. 

The TAG is a student-driven and student-centered process. It means that, ideally, students cannot pass through JMU’s General Education program without critically engaging with ideas of privilege, oppression, and intersectionality that inform our identities and experiences. It means that JMU students enter the world post-graduation with the language and understanding that creates a better, safer world for oppressed communities. It means that the JMU community is committed to actively fighting against oppressive systems by providing the tools students need. While students are a central aspect of the initiative, we understand and acknowledge that this work is not easy. This is, of course, by design. 

With that in mind, another integral part of this process was the pre-existing work of students and faculty who are part of historically marginalized and minoritized groups on campus, who engage in anti-racism, anti-oppression and DEIJA initiatives every day. Students and faculty of those communities who participated in the class bore the brunt of emotional labor as ideas were opposed by institutional bodies — in many cases, asking us to justify this initiative in dehumanizing ways.

The TAG is also important for faculty. As activist, scholar and teacher bell hooks asserts, there is no neutral education, and the classroom is a space of transformative possibility. This is facilitated by teachers. The TAG offers faculty an opportunity to engage in teaching as a form of activism. It asks them to critically examine their pedagogy and content, and to consider ways their classroom either dehumanizes students or empowers them in their humanity and community. It also asks faculty to consider their relationship to power in the classroom. The TAG initiative encourages collaboration between teacher and student, whether it be a discussion on class norms or willingness to listen and consider content that may cause harm.

The TAG is an act of bravery for all involved. This work is not easy, and there are many barriers to success. Even the TAG itself is just a starting place. There is still so much work to be done. As a student of our class affirmed, “We are putting new paint on an old ship, and we need a new ship.” 

Ultimately, the TAG is one step forward. Most of us on the project are graduating this May and will not be here to see the TAG come to fruition. We encourage the student body to continue this momentum, continue to get involved and continue to hold this university accountable for all it claims to do and be. If you are a white student, as I am, understand the great pains this system takes to blind us from the realities of discrimination. Many of us have the great privilege of attending classes that already incorporate DEIJA. 

We must face the discomfort that comes with these conversations, learning how we have enacted harm on others as a result of indoctrination into white supremacy and then seek to repair that harm. Growth is uncomfortable, but the reward is great. To all JMU students, this is your education, our world, and we must step into it ready to meet its ugly parts. We cannot only imagine a better world, but actively create it in community with one another. With love and hope, we pass this to you.