• Patrick Healy

The Diversity attribute and diversity in the core: one and the same?

Updated: Mar 4

The third article in a series about the core curriculum. Read the first article by clicking here or the second article by clicking here.

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In our conversation from a few weeks ago, Dr. Stephen Chanderbhan, the chair of the Core Curriculum Committee, said that with the core’s Middle States assessment guidelines updated, the focus is now on modernizing the “Diversity” attribute.


Earlier this week, students were asked by email for their input on a proposal to do just that. After students scrutinize the change, the result will be subject to faculty hearings and more votes before it can be implemented “at the earliest in spring 2023,” as Chanderbhan told The Griffin. When implemented, classes currently tagged with the Diversity attribute would have to reapply for it.


Where the current attribute asks students to identify to “articulate the interplay of two variables [such as race, gender or religion] on the American experience,” the new attribute would focus particularly on race and ethnicity and would broaden the scope from America to include North America and the Caribbean.

Part of the core’s charge is to prepare students for the world. The new definition would reflect the renewed focus on race in society at large. Tweaking this attribute is understandable, but implicit in the change is that other aspects of diversity will receive less attention. The other option would be to add another attribute wholly focused on race and diversity. But changes like the current proposal are contentious enough; any attempt to increase or decrease the total core would be even more difficult. Unless it wasn’t.

Some universities — such as presidential finalist Steve Stoute’s DePaul University — require “experiential learning” in their core. DePaul’s definition of experiential learning includes internships, study abroad, community service and field research. Each of these are interesting ideas and are already incorporated into various majors at Canisius; they also don’t relate to diversity, the matter at hand. I’m interested in what Dr. Richard Reitsma highlighted in a recent conversation with The Griffin: speakers and other cultural events.

Reitsma, who chairs the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, pointed out all the events that his department offers — often sparsely attended. He helps to run the LGBTQ Speakers Series and the Borders and Migrations Initiative (which are both sponsoring a discussion with author and editor Rakesh Satyal on Feb. 28 at noon in the library).


Outside of Reitsma’s department, other programs include the Contemporary Writers Series and Fitzpatrick Lecture Series. There is an opportunity here to strengthen the diversity attribute without putting more responsibility on professors or limiting students’ schedule flexibility.


Implementation

It’s my impression that students used to be required to attend multiple of these events to graduate, even if it wasn’t part of the core. Another former requirement, the First Year Experience freshman seminar, was resurrected successfully this year. Maybe it’s time to reconsider speakers (or other cultural events) as a requirement.


The mid-2000s core change, which took effect before Reitsma arrived at Canisius, removed “structural mechanisms” that put students in his department’s classes and gave underclassmen a taste of its majors and minors. Reistma, who has gone to pains to make his department “more front-facing to the community,” concedes that reinstating the past core would be politically impossible.


I think working these events into the core could take advantage of Reitsma’s efforts by making students aware of his and other speaker-sponsoring departments without taking a “piece of the pie” from departments more favored by the current core.

I don’t know the feasibility of requiring students to attend these events. Maybe only credit-bearing classes are allowed into the core. I’m also not sure how the requirement would be communicated to students. Possibly it could be added directly to the Diversity attribute, requiring students to attend a speaker event and write a reflection on it, or by having the whole class attend and then discuss together.


This runs into the same problem as the revision of the Diversity attribute to focus on the race/ethnicity: to avoid burdening professors and students whose classes have this attribute, it would likely just replace a different kind of requirement in the attribute.


Another potential problem with that is that there may not be enough speakers during the semester in which a student takes their Diversity class (though it’s not like that logic has stopped Canisius from not offering required classes before). A further complication is that students, unless they took multiple Diversity-tagged courses, would probably only have to attend one of these events — not ideal for diversity.


It might be possible to have students attend an event or two per year, but this blunt method would pose logistical problems: 1,800 undergrads, even dispersed over a few dozen events per year, would be a lot for the events to absorb.


Besides being impractical, forcing students to attend a certain number per year is too blunt. It doesn’t work in tandem with the current requirements. Students, even those who voluntarily attend, would benefit from a more purposeful connection between these speakers and their classes.


Another option is for the speakers to be worked into the core capstone, which tries to bind together the lessons learned in previous classes. Students could be asked to attend a certain number of speakers and reflect on how the speakers spoke of the attributes: diversity, global awareness, justice or ethics, or of something they learned in one of the “breadth of knowledge” classes.


I feel a bit like one of Socrates’s foils. There is no definitive conclusion, save that professors might keep speakers in mind as another way to allow students to engage with the material in their class. Might a professor teaching a Justice class permit students to attend and reflect upon one of these events for extra credit, or have the class attend one of these events together?


Lifelong learning

Speakers are from outside Canisius. They (hopefully) reflect the world outside of our corner of North Buffalo. As the outside world changes, hopefully this would allow us to keep up with those changes without having to redefine the static core to keep up with the world.


At the same time, the speakers could prove an engaging opportunity to explore other disciplines and hear people from outside Canisius. Father Daniel Jamros, who I spoke with a few weeks ago, is rightly concerned with the core’s coherence. What links the smorgasbord of classes? The capstone is just one class taken senior year. The attributes are just classes that are sometimes taken with other core classes and sometimes not.


Without a total revision of the core, there is little ability to make the core internally coherent; that is, to make the requirements make more sense in relation to each other. However, it is possible to better connect the core as a whole to the outside world. That is, after all, its purpose: to understand the world in order to understand ourselves, as humans in relation to that world.


The core curriculum promises to make us “lifelong learners,” yet many of us will not step inside a classroom after Canisius or a few years of graduate school. If we are to learn after Canisius (at least in the academic sense), it will not be in a classroom. Much of it will either be at home, intentionally pursuing books or other forms of individual learning — or at lectures, talks and public forums. While readings are often assigned for classes, it would be wise to introduce students to the latter form of learning as well.


The ENG 111/112 sequence requires students to employ the resources from the library, one of the unique opportunities that exists at an academic institution; a different part of the core could introduce speakers, one of the other.


I’m not sure whether speakers — or those who organize speaker events — would want a larger audience, perhaps one that was made up of students more diluted by apathy. Maybe it would be a nuisance for the well-attended speakers, since adding a bunch of students to Montante might crowd out professors or the general public.


But many of these events are not very well attended, particularly not by students. These events are held directly on Canisius’s campus, during the day and at night — giving every student a chance to attend some. A calendar of the events would need to be created, but this would be helpful for even those who want to attend the events anyway.


If they can be implemented, think of the symbiotic relationship these events could foster between students, speakers and departments. Students interact with diverse speakers from outside Canisius. The more students who attend, the more attractive Canisius is as a destination and the more funding the events could earn; more butts in seats means more speakers at podiums. Speakers are fodder for “moments of enlightenment,” as Dr. Robert Butler put it to me last month, or, more practically, opportunities for students to interact with programs from other departments.


Some might point out that students would view it as simply another requirement and wouldn’t engage. There are two answers: many students might enjoy speakers but aren’t incentivized to attend them, and other, more apathetic students are required to attend regular courses which they are about as likely to be excited for.


Is this earth-shattering? No. Has it been done before? Yes. I still have a year left at Canisius, but I do wish I had attended more cultural events, even though many were pushed to Zoom. Some of my most memorable classes have been when speakers were brought in by the professor. It’s one of the unique opportunities of attending an academic institution.


The core is charged, according to its website description, with teaching students to be “better able to understand how others view their own communities and values.” There are a bunch of those “others” on campus all the time. They typically touch on matters of justice, ethics, global awareness and, yes, diversity — our four attributes. In trying to better connect the core to the outside world, these speakers could prove to be that connection.


Update 3/4/22: Read the final article by clicking here.


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