Diversity Studies: Unique Humanities Degrees Increase Understanding, Awareness of Marginalized Groups

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As an area of study dedicated to cultural analysis, the humanities provide students with a critical framework to identify discrimination and inequality in the world around them. Schools of humanities, arts and letters, and liberal studies have traditionally played a pivotal role in society’s progression through their unique ability to educate on the realities of race, power, and privilege. For example, in response to the Civil Rights and women’s movements, humanities schools created African American studies departments and women’s studies programs.

[Above: Professor Daryl Maeda greets Awon Atuire, the first student to earn a PhD in Ethnic Studies at CU Boulder, at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Ethnic Studies program at the university.]

Today, many colleges and universities are offering innovative, interdisciplinary degrees in fields such as disabilities studies, ethnic studies, and LGBTQ studies. Programs in these areas educate students on the meaning of human difference, the cultural and historical context in which these differences are created, and the ways in which these individuals are represented and stigmatized. Graduates leave campus prepared for careers in education, law, medicine, and public service.

Perhaps their greatest benefit, however, is the ability to increase awareness and understanding of the experiences and oppression of marginalized individuals.

Disability Studies
The emerging field of disability studies has grown “out of a recognition that people with disabilities have traditionally had a second- or even third-class status in society,” says Jim Ferris, PhD, director of the University of Toledo’s (UT) Disability Studies program. What began as electives and a minor a decade ago, in 2015 became the first humanities-centered bachelor’s degree in disability studies.

UT Disability Studies faculty and students celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act alongside a giant puppet of disability rights activist Justin Dart.

“We try to help our students gain a broad understanding of what these things are that we call disabilities and what they mean — not just in terms of a medical or professional framework, but in terms of society and culture as well,” Ferris explains. “We look at how we value some bodies and minds and devalue others.”

In addition to introductory courses in disability culture, history, and literature, students can choose from electives that examine the experiences and portrayal of individuals with disabilities through many disciplines, including art history, psychology, and gender and sexuality. For example, explains Ferris, the course “Gender and Disability” teaches critical-thinking and analysis skills to help increase understanding of the ways in which people with disabilities have historically been considered non-gendered or non-sexed. “One of the first things we do in this class is ask students to start digging into how and why this happened and how they see it [played out] in the world today,” he says.

Ferris says there is no single common thread that propels students to pursue this area of concentration. However, he believes many of them are motivated by firsthand experience with a disability or exposure to a loved one who has a disability. Some may have a job providing services to these individuals or want to pursue a career in this area, while others simply take an introductory course because it fulfills a general education requirement and fits their schedule, says Ferris. “A lot of students sign up for a course thinking it might be interesting, but then they get hooked by the ideas, energy, and fresh ways of thinking that we offer,” he says.

UT Disability Studies professor Kim Nielsen with DST student Nick Hyndman

The program is funded in part by an endowment from the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports individuals with disabilities. “The center realized that one of the most important ways it could achieve its goals was through education, because equality for individuals with disabilities requires a level of social change that is not going to happen overnight,” Ferris says. “Part of our goal and the goal of the Ability Center is to create change, and part of how we do that is by having our students take these ideas out into the world.”

An example of this application is the program’s service-learning component in which students — both minors and majors — are required to complete an internship that involves advocating for or assisting individuals with disabilities. This support can include providing services on campus, assisting community agencies with resolving issues like fair housing, or working for facilities that directly serve these individuals, says Ferris. He believes the internships are key to helping students apply the principles they’ve learned in the classroom to the real world.

Students in UT’s Disability Studies program

Many who complete the program go on to law or medical school or a graduate program related to disability rights, says Ferris, while others pursue nonprofit or government work supporting individuals with disabilities. “Ultimately, we help our students to think better and apply the ideas [they’ve learned] to circumstances in the real world,” he says. “There is no field, disability-related or not, in which those skills are not going to be useful.”

Ethnic Studies
The field of ethnic studies seeks to understand the culture, experiences, and oppression of minority populations in the U.S. In combining the fields of African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American studies, it is a discipline “born out of and dedicated to struggles for social justice for all people,” according to the mission statement for the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado (UC) Boulder.

Founded in 1996, the division, housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, offers a major, minor, graduate certificate, and doctoral degree, all of which focus on increasing understanding of the experiences of minority populations in relation to each other and the broader society.

CU Boulder Ethnic Studies faculty members Joanne Belknap, Reiland Rabaka, Arturo Aldama, Clint Carroll, and Seema Sohi

“What we really emphasize is a comparative lens,” says Arturo Aldama, PhD, associate chair of the department. While students can choose to take electives that concentrate primarily on one race or ethnicity, the core classes focus on understanding ethnic studies theory as it relates to every major subgroup in the U.S., he says. After completing the required foundational coursework, students are able to take a wide variety of electives in the humanities, including media studies, literature, history, and sociology. Some of the program’s more distinctive offerings include “American Indians in Film,” “Asian Pacific American Communities,” “Introduction to Hip Hop Studies,” and “Spoken Word Latino Poetry.”

Students who enroll in the program, however, do not necessarily intend to work in the humanities and liberal arts, says Aldama. Instead, many pursue ethnic studies as a minor or a second major to supplement their pursuits in other fields. “A lot of our students are double majors in the sciences or a more traditional discipline, but they really want to have that specialized training in ethnic studies,” he explains, adding that many graduates go into careers in medicine, law, and public service or social work. Ethnic studies lends itself well to these professions, Aldama says, because it enables people to better understand the minority populations they will be serving should they choose to go into specialized fields such as community healthcare or immigration law.

Similarly, program participants have the opportunity to complete senior research projects that combine their knowledge of ethnic studies with their specific career interests. A pre-med student, for example, may conduct research on the effect of HIV on communities of color, while someone in pre-law may choose to do a project on the relationship between human sex trafficking and illegal immigration, he says.

Furthermore, demand for K-12 teachers who have a background in ethnic studies is increasing, says Aldama. To meet this need, his department coordinated with the CU Boulder School of Education to create the 4+1 Ethnic Studies and Education Concurrent Degree Program this past spring. It allows students to complete a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies and a master’s degree in education in five years and prepares them to develop and teach classes that increase K-12 children’s understanding of issues of race, power, and privilege.

“One thing we hear over and over again from our students, especially those of color or from working-class backgrounds, is that if these kinds of courses were offered at the high school or junior high level, they would be more excited about coming to school,” Aldama says. “We’ve been hearing from administrators, too, that they want teachers who can bring ethnic studies content and an ethnic studies lens to the classroom.” Classes that have this focus — literature courses about the experiences of people of color or social studies courses on Chicano history and culture, for example — provide a rare opportunity for underrepresented students to identify with coursework, which increases their excitement around learning.

It is these kinds of opportunities that make the field of ethnic studies so powerful for K-12 and postsecondary students alike, says Aldama. “A lot of our first-generation students and students of color may take an ethnic studies class just because they need an elective for their major, but then they have this ‘aha moment’” he says. “They realize that all of the things they care about, all of the things they’ve lived or their family has lived, are actually talked about in a university classroom.”

This connectedness to the curriculum has helped the Department of Ethnic Studies create a strong sense of community. “We work really hard to make sure all students feel respected and valued and able to talk about what they really think and feel,” Aldama says, adding that many majors and non-majors alike consider the department a safe space to be honest about issues around race and ethnicity.

Esther Rothblum

LGBT Studies 
In 2012, San Diego State University (SDSU) became the second college in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in LGBT studies. Housed in the College of Arts and Letters, the program originally launched as a minor in 2009 after the school realized that many departments — including religious studies, history, and women’s studies — had courses on LGBT issues, says Program Adviser Esther Rothblum, PhD.

“Many courses being offered were LGBT-focused, but students had to go through hundreds of courses in the catalog to find them,” she explains. “We wanted to pull these together across campus for the many students who were interested in LGBT studies.”

Today, students enrolled in both the minor and major take two introductory classes on LGBT identity and culture and have numerous electives to choose from in a variety of humanities disciplines. One history class traces LGBT issues in ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, while a literature course gives students the opportunity to read poetry, novels, and children’s books about LGBT issues, says Rothblum. “We want to get students talking about what we mean by sexual orientation, gender identity, the term intersex,” she says. “We look at very relevant issues like same-sex marriage, parenting, the economic climate of the LGBT community, and how LGBT topics are handled in athletics.”

Unlike the field of sexuality studies, SDSU’s program examines issues of identity, culture, politics, and society related specifically to LGBT individuals. “Human sexuality studies can be very heterosexual-based, but SDSU chose to create this major specifically focused on individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” Rothblum says.

While the department doesn’t ask participants to self-identify, she says some are motivated to pursue this area of study because they are LGBT or they have a close friend or family member who is. “Students are fascinated by learning about their own culture and history,” she says. “We have students who may be majoring in theater or engineering who still want to be in an environment where they can meet people like themselves.”

Students seeking a degree in LGBT Studies at SDSU are required to complete a service-learning project, either through an internship or a study abroad experience. Internship opportunities include working with community theater and arts organizations that focus on LGBT issues, helping organize the annual gay pride march and parade, or working with organizations that provide healthcare to transgender individuals. Past service-learning study abroad trips have included working with HIV and AIDS patients or helping LGBT youth and communities in countries such as Ghana, South Africa, and Georgia.

Many students plan on going into careers that provide services for LGBT individuals, or that involve advocating for this community’s rights, in government or nonprofit sectors, healthcare, or law. Also, as the private sector seeks to increase diversity among its workforce, a degree in LGBT studies is becoming highly marketable, Rothblum says.

“This is really a great major or minor to get into many career paths,” she says. “Fortune 500 companies are looking for employees who are knowledgeable in LGBT issues, and those who show any expertise in diversity are going to be highly sought after.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.