College needs to add cultural competency to the curriculum

There is only one course that all Emerson undergraduate students must take before they graduate. It’s not research writing or history or world culture—it’s Fundamentals of Speech Communication, or CC100.

During a protest in April 2015, students marched into faculty assembly and asked administration for a required cultural competency course. As co-chair of the student activist group born out of that protest, Protesting Oppression With Educational Reform, I advocated for this idea and have seen it gain little traction. The fact that CC100 remains the only course required for all students in every department is an injustice. If the creation of an entirely new course is too much to ask, then Emerson can at least use this existing course to address students’ concerns and make cultural competency and social justice a priority.

Yes, the CC100 requirement is a long-standing tradition in Emerson’s history. Since our founding, oral communication has been a pillar of an Emerson education. But it should be obvious by now that “this is how it’s always been done” is not a sufficient reason to maintain the status quo. When it comes to purchasing new buildings, changing the school colors and logo in a rebranding effort, or adding new programs like Comedic Arts or Business of Creative Enterprise, the college seems unfazed about trying something different. But now, when students are directly asking for specific changes, the administration digs its heels in and insists it already has changed.

Maintaining this public speaking course instead of requiring a cultural competency class shows that the college cares less about the value of what students say and more about how they say it. The emphasis on the technicalities of speech demonstrates that the college doesn’t see a difference between spewing ignorance or advocating for justice, as long as it’s eloquent. Articulation is important, but this course is prioritizing form over content or substance. How can I be expected to speak intelligently about social and political issues if I haven’t been educated on them? This is a major flaw in our curriculum that must be addressed.

Following the #ThisIsEmerson protest, several departments responded thoughtfully and enthusiastically to the demands put forth by POWER. Though CC100 is specifically mentioned in the demands, months passed and we received no word from the communication studies department. Finally, I asked Provost Michaele Whelan to set up a meeting. At the end of February, two POWER senators and I met with Dean Raul Reis, Department Chair Gregory Payne, and several faculty members from the communication studies department. I walked into the meeting with confidence, armed with what I thought were logical arguments and insightful points. I left frustrated, discouraged, and dismissed. When I say that POWER has met resistance from the administration or that we haven’t seen enough action, I’m not sure if people understand what that looks and feels like. For me, it feels like sitting across from someone in a meeting, asking them to understand my perspective, and leaving the room feeling like I haven’t been heard, or that my experiences don’t matter. There is a particular kind of violence in using academic language and bureaucracy to silence marginalized students asking to be treated with respect.

The protesters asked the communication studies department to change, rather than replace, CC100, but it became clear in the last several months the department made no substantial changes. Adding a new course objective and a textbook chapter on ethics, or including a few token readings by diverse authors and speakers, is not enough. Not only the content of the course, but the entire framework needs to evolve so the focus shifts from speech skills to speaking for advocacy. We need students to come out of their freshman year with a thorough, foundational understanding of social justice issues.

It’s no surprise that microaggressions and incidents of bias happen frequently, considering Emerson does little to establish expectations and knowledge among first-year students about identity, systems of oppression, and how these factors play out in our everyday interactions. Students come to Emerson from varying backgrounds and it’s the college’s responsibility to set and enforce community norms that make all feel welcome.

College should be a place for students to have nuanced, complex, and respectful discussions about sensitive topics like race, gender, sexuality, etc. But when students enter the classroom with different levels of understanding and experience, they run the risk of saying something hurtful without realizing. Until Emerson requires all students to become fluent in discussing these issues, it’s difficult to hold people accountable for causing offense—we can’t expect them to know better because the college hasn’t taught them.

In the meeting with representatives from communication studies, I was told there is a new course in development that focuses on cultural competency for communication studies majors, which may eventually be required for all students. There is no guarantee, considering the long process that courses must go through to get approved, and the longer process to make them required. When I hear vague timelines and promises, without concrete plans and accountability, I lose hope. Emerson can make a statement now by presenting a plan of action to radically change or replace CC100 and finally begin to prioritize marginalized voices beyond public speaking. Students voiced our demands publicly and eloquently, and we deserve to be heard.

 

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