February 9, 2020

A Short Note about a Big Problem: Gen. Ed. Humanities at OU

I've written this blog post as a possible contribution to FORUM Magazine at OU; find out more here: @FORUMatOU. Here is their latest call for submissions: DECOLONIZATION: What does it encompass and how can you contribute your experience?

When was the last time you looked at the General Education Humanities requirements at OU? Take a look now; you might be surprised by the language you find there (link to Gen. Ed. Humanities):

Humanities - Western Civilization & Culture
Humanities - Non-Western Culture

This distinction between "Western" and "Non-Western" is bad enough, and even more bizarre is the idea that civilization (one civilization only, mind you; singular, not plural) is found in the West, but not elsewhere. Apparently the only thing that non-Western traditions can offer is culture, not civilization.

It's weird, right? And it's disturbing too, a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon that indicates a lot of submerged assumptions and prejudices at the heart of the Gen. Ed. curriculum, a curriculum which has not changed since I joined the OU faculty in 1999. (Perhaps someone who has been at OU longer knows just when the current requirements were put in place; I'm guessing back in the 1980s? But that is just a guess.)

And yes, I teach these Gen. Ed. courses. Western and Non-Western.

And every time I have to type those words, I cringe.

"Othering" Language and Domination

Dividing the world up into "Western" and "Non-Western" is a textbook case of othering language, an us-not-them approach in which the "Western we" is the norm, and everything/everyone else is characterized by a lack of Westernness. This conceptualization is an obstacle to the promotion of equity and social justice, something I believe should be at the heart of a General Education project.

One of the purposes of othering language is to demarcate an unequal power relationship, and that is what is going on here in the use of "civilization" with regard to the West, contrasted with a lack of civilization in the Non-West. This is the ideology on which settler colonialism is built, justifying the domination of the supposedly "uncivilized" Non-Western world by the supposedly "civilized" West.

These labels would be of concern at any school, but they are of special concern at the University of Oklahoma, where "Boomer" and "Sooner" make the Oklahoma Land Run into a shibboleth of school pride. [See Lena Tenney's account of the "boomer sooner" resolution sage of 2016.]

Boomer and Sooner are a problem, and so is Western/Non-Western.

What OU's General Education Promises

Now take a look at the General Education homepage; lo and behold, you'll see the language of "Soonerism" enshrined there too:
General Education is at the heart of OU's mission. OU's curriculum is designed to ensure that graduating Sooners have breadth and depth - the fundamental knowledge and skills they need to flourish as individuals and as citizens.
The embedded video describing the General Education program states that OU's "Sooners" will become global citizens as a result of their Gen. Ed. courses; here's a screenshot from the video:

If developing global citizens is the goal, then surely OU should not be teaching those global citizens to see the world in Western versus Non-Western terms.

Yet that is what OU does every time a student fills out their degree checklist, checking off those two courses in Western Civilization and Culture, plus one course in Non-Western Culture.

What to do?

As a Gen. Ed. instructor, I am stuck with these "Western" and "Non-Western" labels; there's nothing I can do to change that. But I can still refuse to let these colonial categories define my work.

In the so-called "Western" course that I teach, Mythology and Folklore, half of the readings would be labeled "Western" (and even that depends on how you want to categorize the Hebrew Bible), while the other half would be labeled "Non-Western" (Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Asian, Native American). I am not going to let the cultural colonialism of the Gen. Ed. requirements define what we do, or don't, read in that course.

In my "Non-Western" course, Epics of Ancient India, I got a big boost from an alternative textbook grant from the OU Libraries to acquire comic books and graphic novels from India to include in the course. (Thank you, OU Libraries!) Building the course around books from India by Indian writers is one way, I hope, that the course can contribute to the goal of global citizenship.

At the same time, it is a very sad thought that I might spend my entire career teaching courses at OU that bear these colonial labels:

Western.... Non-Western....

It's now the year 2020: isn't it about time OU decolonized the Gen. Ed. Humanities curriculum?

I don't know how or when or where that conversation will take shape at OU, but if and when it does take shape, I will be an eager participant!

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