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SIGHTS UNSEEN

Introduction By Liam Farrell 

Portraits By John T. Consoli

In drips and drops, the incidents erode an idealized vision of modern higher education: A noose draped around the neck of a statue honoring the man who integrated the University of Mississippi. Obscene gestures and names tossed at black University of Washington students pro­testing police conduct. The chant from an all-white University of Oklahoma fraternity, suggesting lynching before allowing any African-American members.

THE COST OF A SOCIAL-MEDIA EDUCATION by Psyche Williams-Forson

For many of us, a controversial movie cancellation, protests of police violence and other incidents on college campuses involving racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are nothing new. But to an entire generation raised on social media, these incidents can be devoid of any context or history.

Social media provides an instant spotlight for commentary on these events from the informed, the ignorant and the anonymous. And many of our current students have come of age during an era that dubiously promised a “post-racial” America; yet, with little or no knowledge of America’s racial history, this concept and its promises have fallen on deaf ears.

My experiences at the University of Maryland—as a graduate student and now as a tenured faculty member—offer different sightlines of our community than those of many of my students. I find that as times and students have changed, what has not, unfortunately, is attention to a comfortable status quo: Those in authority (academic or otherwise) are assumed to be white and male. With this perception, 18- to 20-year-olds attempt to dismiss the body of research, theory and intellectual observation that I bring to bear on issues of race, class, gender and culture that surface as we navigate the syllabus.

Actually, their dismissal or conscious erasures, often attempt to supercede my authority as a well-researched and informed scholar. Perhaps social media dialogues that make all sharing equivalent, whether sourced or simply felt and lived, inform this. So how does one teach controversial subjects when students do not see you as an expert on such matters? How do you teach on these topics when they do?

The Department of American Studies seriously engages the challenge of creating an informed citizenry by teaching and researching through the lenses of the cultures of everyday life and cultural constructions of identity and difference. We challenge our students to think critically about society and to recognize that the current experiences of social, cultural and racial unrest have a historical root. This approach enables us to examine why people behave and think the way they do, and it helps us to know how these issues affect our communities and us.

The scholarly methods we employ move students from reductive assumptions about bodies, for example, to informed critiques of identities. These methods ask students to question whether they see me—a black, female, food studies scholar—as a facilitator of knowledge about the intersections of food, culture and power, or simply, perhaps, the body who cooks their evening meal in the cafeteria.

In our lifetime, we most likely will not “fix” the problems of society. But American studies begs us to question and analyze existing paradigms, because we cannot change them without rigorous inquiry. Moreover, the humanities require students to recognize and address these problems in ways that might work for social justice and help to effect change.

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Date of Publication: 
9/14/15