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Ethnic studies more timely than ever

The most active, the most public, and possibly the most sustained discourse on race and ethnicity in the university has come from those in ethnic studies.


 We offer this not as a self-congratulatory homage but simply as a reminder of a time in the university, not too long ago, when the only muted discussions around these concepts were to be found primarily in anthropology and sociology departments and, in very restricted ways, a few other social science departments.


 The fact that there was such an intellectual and curricular vacuum made it necessary and possible for us to demand and secure a place in the academy for this long overdue discussion on ethnicity and race in American society. There was a great treasure that needed to be unearthed and shared, and ethnic studies provided the intellectual framework for that excavation.


 Parched Landscape


 The activist critics and reformers (students and faculty) of this parched landscape in the academy saw precious little as they looked around for anything that might have resembled a comprehensive, systematic, and interdisciplinary approach to understanding ethnicity and race in American society. And indeed, there was nothing interdisciplinary that addressed the historical and contemporary concerns of ethnic-specific communities in the United States.


 Repeated studies left very, little in their wake after research teams abandoned communities in crisis, leading to a widespread distrust of social scientific models that failed to engage the community in some fundamental and practical way. Where were the connections that should exist between the models searching for theoretical explanations and the right of communities to expect another level of engagement and responsibility on the part of the researchers?


 In its more radical form, ethnic studies sought to effect social and structural change well beyond the boundaries of the institution. Perhaps at this point the line between the objective and the subjective in scholarship and teaching was being tested by this way of doing ethnic studies.


 Making a Difference


 In many instances the communities that supported the creation of ethnic studies in the distant academy saw these as places that could make a difference on many levels.


 There was now the possibility of recovering a history that had been all but neglected and pushed to the fringes by mainstream scholars and disciplines. An ethnic studies presence in the academy also held out the promise of applying what we learned through research to communities in crisis. The idea that social science research could and should be applied for the transformation of our communities became a common concern of researchers and teachers, in ethnic studies.


 The classroom provided a similar crucible. We needed a place where the issue of race and ethnicity could be discussed openly and freely, studied without encumbrances of embarrassment and self-consciousness. It is our contention that ethnic studies programs opened the possibilities for scholars today to examine their own personal, ethnic and gender histories in relation to the work that they are doing.


 Over and over again, ethnic studies instructors share a whole range of pedagogical concerns that address the fundamental challenges that we face daily as we grapple with subject matter that is both volatile and emotionally loaded.


 Whether we want to admit it or not, the ethnicity and “race” of the instructor will in some way shape the interaction and the dynamics in that classroom. The possibilities are endless in this regard, and we have been aware of these dynamics since the earliest days of ethnic studies. But few of our colleagues outside of ethnic studies have bothered to engage us about these issues of pedagogy.


 Today’s ethnic studies programs, in the courses offered at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and in the research that has proliferated in a great variety of fields as a result of the ethnic studies initiative, are ample evidence that this field was well worth the struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s. We argue that ethnic studies laid the foundation for today’s cultural and multicultural discourse in the American university, yet too often we have been silenced in that exchange.


 But despite the continuous sniping and undermining of ethnic studies, we persist in our work and continue our struggle to preserve a space in the academy for our programs, departments and research centers.


 COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

© Copyright 2005 by

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