University of Puget Sound department is model for civic learning Association of American Colleges & Universities give national recognition to African American Studies program for teaching students democratic engagement

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African American Studies Class at University of Puget Sound, with Director Dexter Gordon second from right. Photo courtesy of the AAC&U

The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), the leading voice for undergraduate liberal education, has announced the list of institutions, and included Puget Sound’s African American Studies department, among its nine featured “case studies” of student engagement in civic learning.

“These civic-rich departmental designs … offer hands-on practice in collaboratively addressing challenging public problems, and introduce students to moral, ethical, and civic responsibility issues that are likely to be part of their professional lives,” said Caryn McTighe Musil, director of civic learning and democracy initiatives at the AAC&U.

Puget Sound’s African American Studies department keeps a civic lens at the center of its vision and practice. In fall 2016, in recognition of the importance of such teaching, Puget Sound began offering African American Studies as a major, making it the first liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest to do so. In addition, to help ensure civic and black cultural studies are broadly available, the department creates and places its courses strategically in the curriculum to attract a wide swath of students.

“Colleagues in African American Studies are unwavering in their commitment to the two foundational principles of the discipline: rigorous scholarship and responsible social engagement,” said Dexter Gordon, director of the program. “For us, the civic lens for African American Studies reflects our core commitment and serves our key educational role of preparing our students to be ethical and effective leaders.”

The AAC&U focused on the need for more citizenship training after a 2012 Department of Education study found that most civic-oriented study occurs in the first two years of college, and then shrinks as students start focusing on a major. Supported by a grant from the Endeavor Foundation, the AAC&U team began work to “limit the ‘civic-free’ zones of too many departments,” by providing guidance on how to bring civic learning squarely into the prime area of students’ attention: their majors.

The African American Studies department will share its experience of designing and implementing its classes in the January 2018 issue of the AAC&U’s national magazine Peer Review.

Gordon, and colleagues Professor Grace Livingston and Assistant Professor Renee Simms, write in their upcoming Peer Review article about the intensive planning within the department, the support from the administration, and the outreach achieved by Puget Sound’s Race and Pedagogy Institute (RPI), which aims to educate students and teachers at all levels to seek societal change. They also credit the institute’s Community Partners Forum – concerned local citizens who have supported the RPI’s work for more than a decade – and Puget Sound’s Civic Scholarship Initiative, which partners academic scholarship with community needs.

The professors conclude that the interdisciplinary nature of Puget Sound’s teaching, which, for example, brings professors of science and religion, or professors of communication studies and African American studies, into the same classroom, also serves to enhance awareness of civic responsibility and to build the competence of future civic leaders.

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