Students Receive Tools for Constructive Discussions on Sensitive Subject

September 26, 2017 at 10:38 am

Whites vs. blacks. Women vs. men. Police vs. citizens. A wall vs. immigrants.

At a time when social issues continue to expose polarizing divisions among Americans, the University of South Carolina Upstate will use a Campus Compact grant to help students learn to discuss the sensitive topic of race in constructive, rather than inflammatory, ways.

The $5,000 grant is titled “Engaging the Public Rhetoric of Race.” USC Upstate was one of two Palmetto State universities to receive Fund for Positive Engagement awards from Boston-based Campus Compact. Forty awards were given overall.

USC Upstate will use the grant in conjunction with its Preface program, which is, itself, a novel approach to assigned freshman reading that has broached other timely topics in past years, according to Celena Kusch, a USC Upstate assistant professor and chair of the English Division.

“Our students want to write about issues that are really important to them,” Kusch explained. “They want to write about foster care; they want to write about the prison system; they want to write about same-sex marriage. They want to write about the same important cultural issues that everybody is hearing about in the news. And we want to arm them with the tools that universities give for thinking critically, for thinking deeply, and for communicating without that level of impassioned polarization that could turn to hostility or defensiveness.”

The Preface program combines guided reading of a selected text with co-curricular events, during which students discuss questions raised by the text with university, community and national experts.

The program is unusual, Kusch said, because it involves teaching a single book across multiple courses, including English 101 and University 101. The book selected for the 2017-18 academic year is “The Fire This Time,” a collection of essays edited by Jesmyn Ward.

According to the grant request, “this challenging book carries on the civil rights legacy of James Baldwin, author of ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963) and asks how we as a nation should respond ‘this time.’”

Kusch said that, because “The Fire This Time” is a collection of essays on subjects including Hurricane Katrina; the prison pipeline; Ferguson, Missouri; and Charleston, it gives the students exposure to a wide range of voices and opinions.

“We ended up choosing ‘The Fire This Time’ because it’s multiple voices; it’s multiple writers. Some of them are historically focused, so there’s an article in there about Phillis Wheatley, the 18th century author of the first book of poetry published by an African American,” Kusch said. “We liked the fact that the book could be broken up, and faculty could pick which of the essays they wanted to focus on with their students, and it wouldn’t be committing to a single voice.”

Because the Preface program is already established, the division is devoting the grant funds to providing additional faculty training, in the form of monthly workshops, Kusch said.

“We want to take this small grant and use it to arm our faculty with some really good strategies to support our students,” she said. “Then, instead of having to spend money to help 877 students tackle these difficult issues, we’re training the faculty. They bring those strategies into the classroom, and now all of our students have access to tools that help them have more thoughtful, respectful, civil conversations about these deeply important issues that we need to have conversations about.”

For more information and a full list of recipients, visit compact.org/fund-positive-engagement.

About Campus Compact
Campus Compact is a coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. As the largest national organization dedicated to this mission, Campus Compact is a leader in building community engagement into campus and academic life.  For more information, visit www.compact.org and follow @Campus_Compact on Twitter.