George Mason University: student request, involvement leads to Mason core racial justice class


July 9, 2021

As part of President Gregory Washington’s creation of the Task Force Against Racism and Inclusive Excellence (ARIE) in July 2020, students called for broader changes in curriculum related to racism, diversity and inclusion, building on demands and discussions since the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. The Black Lives Matter movement and increased attention around the George Floyd murder intensified these efforts, and students and faculty collaborated to create UNIV 381: Foundations for Building a Just Society. The course has been extended using the recommendations of ARIA. The three-credit class fulfills two Mason Core requirements – Comprehensive Understanding and Social / Behavioral Sciences – and is expected to evolve over time into a compulsory course for all students. “Once implemented, this course will be part of a larger educational plan that will allow Mason to be a national example of inclusive excellence,” said Bethany Usher, Associate Vice-President, Undergraduate Education . “Beyond that, our students will have the skills and knowledge they need to tackle the complex issues they will encounter in the classroom and in the world in a fair and constructive way.” UNIV 381 evolved from a 2019 pilot program created by an interdisciplinary team with a framework for a course that would help students engage with these complex issues in meaningful ways. Sarah Osman, an aspiring senior student studying community health with a concentration in clinical sciences, was one of the students in the pilot class in the fall of 2019. Osman said the course helped her understand how her his own implicit prejudices had a strong impact on his way of seeing others. , their situations and their behavior. Osman said the course gave her a better understanding of the implicit biases she carries, why others think the way they do, and what institutions have influenced their views on race. “We live in a world where skin color determines every opportunity they receive and whether or not they will live to see tomorrow,” Osman said. “[But] the diversity goes far beyond the color of the skin. While the issue of racism is something ingrained in this country, we have the power to challenge the perpetuation of the social hierarchy that currently defines our nation. Lauren Cattaneo, associate professor of psychology, helped create UNIV 381 and is one of five faculty members teaching it this fall. She noted that the course has the potential to engage students in critical thinking with the aim of learning not to respond to others critically, but rather to understand the experiences of others and what they are trying to say. About them. “I hope that students will come out with the basic knowledge, vocabulary and skills to connect beyond the differences and to set their intentions on how to build on those foundations,” said Cattaneo, who has co-chaired the program and pedagogy committee of the working group. “This mental shift is so important to learn. I want students to learn how in the past people have shifted the levers of change to change the way society works, learn from current or historical examples of how changes are happening, and then decide where they want to go with their new understanding. The course begins with basic civic questions: what do we mean by a just society? And what stands in the way of its realization? From there, students delve into their own experiences, address their personal identities, and define words such as race and ethnicity. As the course progresses, they will explore how these concepts relate, how people perceive others based on race or ethnicity, and how this affects their own identity. Shauna Rigaud, a doctoral candidate in the cultural studies program and partisan of the program and instructor of the course, said that UNIV 381 will help promote campus diversity as it will provide students with a basis for understanding race, ethnicity, gender and social class. “The course will allow students to have difficult conversations with each other,” said Rigaud, who also served on the curriculum and pedagogy committee. It is an opportunity to apply what they understand to parts of our world, of society, and then provides them with the foundation to think critically about it as they continue their training work. “With the help of this course, Mason will create a generation that not only appreciates diversity, but works hand in hand to tackle the problem of racism,” said Osman.


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