Written by Nicholas Forster
The final week of class is always a challenge. As the Fall semester closes, fourteen weeks have come and gone, winter has started to creep in, exams are on the horizon, and daylight seems to erode before lunch has finished. For many it is a time of somnolence joining anxiety. For those in Professor Alicia Schmidt Camacho’s “Introduction to Ethnicity, Race, and Migration” (ER&M 200) the semester concluded not with a whimper but a bang.
The final meetings of the course were anything but quiet —stretching over two days the class shared “Global Playlists.” In the imposing halls of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona (SSS), students in small collectives took to the stage, providing commentary over curated soundtracks. Guided by the semester’s readings the selected sounds came from across the globe. Music was presented as, what the scholar Shana L. Redmond calls, “a complex system of mean(ing)s and ends that mediate our relationships to one another, to space, to our histories and historical moment.”
Weaving personal narratives with political commentary students selected a wide range of music. From the Grammy winning Chicago artist Chance the Rapper to the sonic insights of Nina Simone, and from the genre shattering work by the indigenous Canadian group, A Tribe Called Red to the Puerto Rican trio Calle 13, music became a way of understanding the world. Resonating across the ornate walls of SSS, the social and cultural politics of that music were not contained by those walls. Curated sounds of critique, hope, and revolution reverberated as students pointed to songs that reckoned with topics including the legacies of slavery, the tentative title of citizenship, the nature of indigenous resistance and narratives of transnational migration. As Professor Camacho described in her concluding remarks, music provides a new way of knowing by “getting us to move” and understand the “importance of cultural work as a domain where those ‘disenfranchised’ can collectively create meaning.” In the same way that sound transforms space, music reconfigures bodies. Dancing wasn’t antithetical to the audible calls for freedom and sovereignty—it was part of it.
If the calls for freedom were important when the tracks were recorded, they appear all the more magnified in this moment. While America undergoes a broad transition of power, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the announcement that Ethnicity, Race and Migration (ER&M) would be a major at Yale. The project of producing different modes of knowing the world has been essential to ER&M, and this survey class is, in part, reflective of ER&M’s own history. Now housed under the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), ER&M first emerged in response to student calls for an Ethnic Studies curriculum in the 1990s.
Though the program has met a variety of obstacles, recently it has grown to have a substantial number of majors. In the context of a course that is structured to provide an overview of a discipline’s lineage, this history is especially salient. Introductory survey classes are notoriously difficult to organize: professors are asked to distill countless scholarly contributions to a small selection of readings with the aim that students will end the semester equipped with a reshaped set of tools to engage the world. In the growing industry of scholarly publications the selection of a course’s readings becomes a balancing act of establishing a sense for foundational work that continues to resonate with innovative research from the contemporary moment.
For a field that is inherently interdisciplinary the task is all the more difficult. The syllabus for “Introduction to Ethnicity, Race, and Migration” describes the class as drawing from global political and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to “understand the complex cultural practices and ideologies that have permitted ‘race’ to function as a central organizing element for societies structured in dominance…Our task in the course is to track the different ways in which race and racism inform social and cultural processes and historical events.” This is no small aim and the contents of the class require an adaptive mode of learning. However, recent years have seen enrollment increase, a growth that might be attributed through word of mouth and and contemporary political shifts. Matthew Motylenski (YC ’20), a freshman, explained that “many recent Yale graduates highly recommended this class.” And in Professor Camacho’s words: “ER&M has a particular role to create space for students to engage all the disciplines available to them,[and] also to reflect on their own space in defining their own education.” In a lecture course that features many international and first generation college students that imperative is all the stronger. Motylenski explained: “Professor Camacho provided a safe space to discuss issues…As a Mohawk, I am familiar with the challenges that Native Americans have faced and the battles they continue to wage. This class expanded my world view to the struggles and the displacement endured by many other races and ethnicities.”
The scope of ER&M 200 is wide, however the course is broadly split into two frameworks: beginning with George Fredrickson’s essential Racism: A Short History, the first half of the semester moves chronologically. These weeks are dedicated to studying different forms of racism and imperialism concluding with the holocaust and mid-20th century global movements for decolonization. Jonathan Salazar (YC ’19) highlighted the power of such an approach, stating that “Rather than studying world and American history through the mere representation of dates and events, we analyzed the racial ideologies and systems of racial hierarchies underlying and influencing these events and facts.” The second half of the course is structured around conceptual categories such as nationalism, sexuality, migration, policing, and gender. As Camacho explained “the goal of the class is to be really integrative.”
Being integrative is as much about topics as it is about pedagogy. Moving away from a model in which the professor hands down decrees and provides analysis that students need to apprehend and repeat, ER&M 200 opens the classroom space for dialog and exploration. Here student engagement is a necessity and critique does not result in exclusion. While “safe spaces” have become a term used by some to challenge the topics of courses across college campuses, such dismissiveness fails to account for the pedagogical value of creating environments where students feel they are recognized and can then reckon with immediately relevant topics that have long histories. Camacho stressed the necessity of openness this semester as students engage intellectually and personally with contemporary events including the refugee crisis and the immigration proposals of the then incoming president. As she explained, the class (and ER&M as a major) “is not about creating…an oppositional view to the rest of education.” The goal of the course is, in part, to aid students who hope to make the world around them better.
Eager to create a unique space for professors-in-training Camacho also stressed the essential experience for graduate students working in Ethnic Studies. ER&M 200 offers a unique chance for teaching assistants as there are few opportunities on campus to teach in Ethnic Studies courses. Beyond enabling new teaching methodologies, the opportunity to TA for a class like ER&M 200 provides experience that might be necessary for the job market. This semester the class had four TAs. One of the TAs, Carlos Alonso Nugent (GSAS ’20), detailed the necessity of classroom dialogue based on “participatory experience.” Conversations within section were so vibrant, Nugent claimed, that he saw students’ relationships to other disciplines shift based on what they learned in this class.
This method of teaching and mentorship was echoed by other TAs as well. Yami Rodriguez (GSAS ’20) explained that sections provided students “the one space to reflect on the academic in a personal way.” While the humanities are sometimes accused of turning research into solipsistic “me-search,” the relationship between teachers and students in ER&M 200 made clear the high educational stakes and political seriousness of the material. Here graduate students were to be treated as colleagues, shifting the relationship between lectures and discussion sections to create a process where, as Randa Tawil (GSAS ’20) elaborated, students can “articulate the particularities of different systems but also see human agency.”
This dynamic was reflected in the global playlists project which ended the semester. The music not only spoke of the specific conditions of existence for people of color—it spoke to those conditions in attempt to reimagine them. For Tawil, the wide-ranging material required not only dedicated undergraduates who would read across a wide range of literature, but also a commitment to creative thinking where students developed “creativity as [they] gain[ed] rigor.” Rather than displacing subjectivity the course invited a kind of embodied engagement, one which traverses the boundaries sometimes constructed between culture and history.
These boundaries are precisely what ER&M as a major attempts to nuance. If the historical accounts studied in ER&M 200 are underrepresented or under acknowledged the voices in such histories have rarely been quiet. Sounding collective history through global playlists meant acknowledging that this course is but one part of a longer movement, one that has been at work for centuries.
Nicholas Forster is a Ph.D. Candidate in African American Studies and Film and Media Studies. He is also one of the editors of the RITM Center’s blog.