The teach-in held during the first week of the spring semester gave students and faculty an opportunity to discuss current national and global race-related issues.
Recent events regarding race and violence stemming from bias in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island inspired faculty members to consider how the Elizabethtown College community is affected by such controversies. Several professors determined over winter break that since students are not immune to these hot topics, discussing these high profile events would promote open dialogue and engaged community participation. An email announcing the teach-in was sent to students over winter break, stating that “professors [were] building a campus-wide coalition to encourage engagement from their students and peers about issues that we find difficult to discuss or know little about.”
The first two days of the semester, Monday, Jan. 12 and Tuesday, Jan. 13, were dedicated to relating course materials to current events. 47 classes across 13 different disciplines participated in the program. With an average class size of 16 students, as many as 752 students and dozens of faculty members were involved in the teach-in. The majority of the courses were open to unenrolled students as well, providing everyone on campus the opportunity to safely learn, discuss and debate the issues at hand.
Discussion topics ranged from the education department’s “Equity Issues in PreK-12 Classrooms” to Associate Professor of English Dr. John Rohrkemper’s presentation in his American literature class about the history of lynching in the United States. The social work and religious studies departments looked into violence and stereotypes while several psychology professors offered students a look into the science of racism, explaining its role in both the conscious and subconscious and how environmental factors can positively and negatively affect one’s acceptance of other races.
Dr. Colin Helb, Assistant Professor of Communications, presented his Introduction to Communications class with a review of media coverage of Ferguson in his lecture entitled “Ferguson and the Media.” Helb discussed the media’s presence in the midst of the violence, explaining how current disagreements often stem from who has authority over media coverage of events and how a source is determined legitimate.
“It is the American right to view and cover [information],” Helb said, showing students the Eric Garner fatal arrest video to demonstrate the virtually invisible difference between user-generated content and citizen action. “That’s the crux of [news creation and coverage] — blurring the line between protestor and journalist,” Helb said.
Such controversy is a large part of why senior Emily Hornung is proud that the Etown community is standing in solidarity for the lives impacted and lost to violent racism. Hornung, a senior social work major and Elizabethtown native, became interested in last semester’s Stand in Solidarity event, which prompted her to attend a faculty meeting during finals week reviewing Etown’s history of activism and lack of recent awareness-promoting activities.
“This event has sparked my desire to stand up for the issues I believe in,” Hornung said. “For me, to speak up in solidarity, as so much of the campus has done this past week, shows others that you care about them, you care about their experiences, and that you care about equal treatment, regardless of social differences.”
During Associate Professor of History Dr. David Kenley’s 11 years at the College, he has never experienced an activity similar to this teach-in. “Several of the faculty felt the events in Ferguson demanded some type of response. Since we are educators, we felt the most obvious response was a campus-wide teach-in. I want my students to understand better the underlying issues informing the events in Ferguson and consider ways they can affect positive change,” he said.
The devotion of class time the students’ first week back sparked a series of serious discussions focused on bringing awareness to Etown. “Syllabus days are about an orientation,” Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Dr. Richard Newton said. “What better way to prepare for a real-world learning experience than by really looking at the world?”
To provide Etown community members with another opportunity to voice their recognition of recent events and show support for alienated minorities, T-shirts emblazoned with #BlackLivesMatter, a popular hashtag on social media, and #EtownEngage were prepared and worn on the second day of classes.
The teach-in’s prevalence on campus increased students’ awareness of racial tensions still present in our country and ensured that the Etown community is dedicated to thinking critically and creatively to provide solutions for social crises.