University Course Raises Race as a Central Element of Undergraduate Education

University Course Raises Race as a Central Element of Undergraduate Education
The faculty committee that helped to develop the UNIV 101 course, from top left to bottom right: Kerry Haynie (chair), Xavier Basurto, Tyson Brown, Aimee Kwon, Willie John Padilla, Charmaine Royal and Donald Taylor Jr.

When he was an undergraduate political science student, Kerry Haynie was never taught about the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Nor was there much discussion about the role of race in the founding political documents of this country or much examination of how race influenced public services such as sewer lines and zoning.

In one sense, a lot has changed. In 2021, Duke’s faculty includes a strong lineup of leading scholars who examine how race is embedded in issues that cross all the schools of the university. This fall, many of these faculty will form the core of a new university course for undergraduates called "The Invention and Consequences of Race" that will showcase the breadth of the extraordinary teaching and scholarship at Duke on the topic of race and provide a portal for Duke students to pursue further study of topics related to race throughout the university. The full-credit course has no prerequisites and will be open to 300 undergraduate students regardless of their major.

“The course will do what we do all the time as a faculty: impart knowledge and evidence-based information on a topic of importance,” said Haynie, professor of political science and one of the faculty co-conveners organizing the university course.

“This is necessary because there is so much ongoing misunderstanding on the role and history of race. Recently there were friends and colleagues who told me they didn’t know anything about Tulsa. That matters because once you know Tulsa happened, it provides you with information that helps explain wealth gaps, health disparities and other issues our society must address.”

Charmaine Royal, professor of African & African American Studies, Biology and Global Health, said the university course fits a need in the curriculum for a gateway introduction to the variety of classes across campus related to race. Royal teaches a popular class, “Race, Genomics, and Society.”

“It’s thrilling to see lightbulbs come on inside students in my race course when they learn something that explains a question that has troubled them,” said Royal, another of the four faculty co-conveners. “And it really excites me that now we have the opportunity to do that with 300 students at a time in this university course.”

The concept of race can be a slippery thing. Royal noted that she teaches students how in humans race doesn’t exist in a biological sense, but it does as a social construct -- we invented it. That can cause some confusion, she added. On top of that confusion, if the facts about Tulsa -- or the coup in Wilmington in 1898 or many other similar incidents -- have been erased, it’s harder to understand why race matters. This course is one attempt to address that.

“We will show students that race may just be an idea, but it’s one with immense consequences,” Royal said.

The course was put together this spring, with the four faculty co-conveners working as part of a larger faculty steering committee since January to design the syllabus for the fall semester. However, Duke faculty have been building the foundation for this course for many years.

“Many faculty at Duke, especially our Black faculty, have always been engaging race and racism in their research and teaching, but it has not been picked up as a university-wide initiative,” said Professor Aimee Kwon, associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and one of the co-conveners.

“The difference is that all the stars have aligned: A series of global, national, and local crises have aligned administration, faculty, staff and students to come together to make this happen with the resources and the support needed to bump us over a collective inertia. This course has the potential of putting this central issue on the Duke intellectual map front and center.”

Supported with funds from The Duke Endowment to advance understanding of historical and current racism, the course will be open to 300 undergraduate students. Each session will be taught by a different faculty member, with faculty from nearly all schools represented. (See list of teaching faculty on the course website)

To engage students from the four schools involved in undergraduate education, several class session topics were selected to directly address race in public policy, the environment and the sciences. The coursework will be complemented by a series of noted speakers from Duke and elsewhere and a number of co-curricular activities.

While the course has been a faculty-driven initiative, Provost Sally Kornbluth and other administrators have spearheaded the effort as more deeply embedding the study of race as a foundational element in the curriculum and highlighting some of the best scholarship coming out of Duke.

Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, said the class is a university course in every sense of the word, involving the wide resources of Duke, including student affairs and the graduate programs.

“On the topic of race, Duke has a wealth of intellectual resources in every school,” said Bennett. “The course takes Duke’s interdisciplinary ethos to another level and will introduce students to approaches on race from different perspectives and encourage them to further pursue additional courses or conduct their own research. It will also connect students to some of the finest teachers on campus, including many they might not have encountered otherwise.”

The faculty organizers heard from students as they shaped the course. One student, Zac Johnson, an officer with Duke Student Government, said many students are looking for a course about race that will challenge their assumptions and stereotypes about race “and open the door to new fields of study for those who may have traditionally avoided such course material.”

But like the faculty co-convenors, Johnson also believes this academic project may be valuable beyond the classroom and could improve campus culture on issues of race. By addressing misinformation on these issues in the student body, he said the course will help forge “a student body that challenges the boundaries of the [racial] knowledge socialized unto them.”

The organizing faculty are aware that political leaders are challenging classes built around critical discussions about race in universities across the country.

“A straightforward and scholarly reckoning with the role of race in the United States is something that Duke as a private university can more readily do than can public ones, so we have a responsibility to do so,” said Don Taylor, professor of public policy in the Sanford School and director of the Social Science Research Institute. “This course will benefit from the work of many scholars at Duke who have been focused on these topics for years.” Taylor is the fourth faculty co-convenor.

The co-convenors are already thinking ahead of what might follow this year’s course and how it can support expanded discussions of race throughout the Duke curriculum. “We don’t believe this is the only way to teach this course,” Royal said. “We have a lot of great faculty with expertise on this topic we couldn’t fit in this year. Next year it might look different.”

But moving forward, Kwon said she believes the course will prompt change, one that will show that at Duke, “the basics of American and global racial dynamics are valued as foundational knowledge for our graduating students as they move into an-ever diversifying world.”

She added that while there has been leadership from some faculty on racial equity, Kwon said “the heavy lifting of this work has traditionally been given to the purview of units like student affairs and cultural and affinity centers. This means this has not been centered as the intellectual and academic mission of our universities.”

“Now, the difference is that Duke’s leadership is working to desegregate these structural divides to bring these questions to the center of our academic mission. It’s exciting.”

To Haynie, the course is also a logical response to Duke’s mission to prepare students to be global citizens in a moment of demographic, political and social change. The information in this course will be valuable to students in medicine, law, business, education – any field where they will engage people of a different race and culture.

“Students know that the world they are going into is a very different one from what I went into when I was in college,” Haynie said. “They have to know how this world was shaped and the dynamics behind it. To teach them that, the university is going to have to be a different institution.”