Ferguson captivates SLU classrooms

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Courses incorporate current social conflict

In times of social conflict, classrooms have historically served as sources of discussion, appraisal of events and profound change. The academic departments and classrooms of Saint Louis University are no exception, in light of the events in Ferguson, Mo., in August and the protests on campus this past week.

“I would not say there has been a drastic increase regarding enrollment, but certainly there have been several students who have signed up to major and minor in African American Studies,” said Dr. Stefan Bradley, Director of African American Studies. “There have also been more students coming in to discuss the events. Further, those who were already affiliated with the program have displayed a sense of pride in having already studied and delved into the issues that surround the Ferguson Crisis that has now affected the campus directly.  Something to note is that now administrators, faculty members, and students are definitely paying more attention to what the African American Studies faculty and staff has been covering since the program’s inception forty years ago.”

In AAS 320, “African American Culture,” students read Erasure by Percival Everett, a novella in which a young man is shot by police. Their first day discussing it was the day of the Shaw neighborhood shooting. “It’s coincidental that my syllabus aligned with things actually happening in our communities,” said Dr. Jonathan Smith, who teaches the course. Apart from this coincidence, Smith asserts that Ferguson “comes indirectly into class discussions.”

Dr. Bradley anticipates future manifestations of Ferguson in the African American Studies curriculum, but at the same time stresses a longstanding familiarity with the contexts of Ferguson. “The faculty is already incorporating the events into their courses in various ways,” he said. “I would invite courses that use the Ferguson Crisis as a centerpiece, but as I mentioned, we in African American Studies have been covering the issues that led to Michael Brown, Jr.’s death and those surrounding the tension between black people and law enforcement. So, in that way we have always been focusing on analyzing Ferguson (and the Fergusons around the nation). Personally, I’ll be lobbying to teach my African American Youth Movements in the 20th Century course in the fall so that students can see how the Ferguson campaign is contextualized in the larger push toward freedom that young black people have been making for than a century.”

Notably, one of the actions listed in an Oct. 20 letter from the Office of the President is increasing the budget for the African American Studies Program.

American Studies is another department incorporating Ferguson. Next semester, Dr. Benjamin Looker will teach ASTD 322, “The Urban Crisis.” The course accommodates up to 84 students, functions on a dual lecture/discussion basis and culminates in a field trip to Old North St. Louis and St. Louis Place neighborhoods. “In large measure, the class is a postwar history of how structural inequalities became so deeply embedded in U.S. metropolitan geography. And that story provides an important context for examining the Ferguson events,” said Dr. Looker. “At the same time, the Ferguson struggle will offer all of us in the class a vital way to illuminate the consequences of that long history – both systemic metropolitan injustices and how people have resisted them over time.”

The joint SLU-Wash. U.  group St. Louis Students in Solidarity externalizes classroom learning. “We are engaging the issues of our day by stepping away from our computer screens and textbooks and transforming our thoughts into action,” reads their Statement of Purpose.

As the Ferguson conflict evolves and SLU’s clock tower is devoid of tents and protesters, the University’s classrooms remain, along with the students who will fill them in the coming months. The challenge ahead will be the recollection of the week during which all of these met at a crossroads. As Dana Guyton, Administrative Secretary to the African American Studies Program, put it, “When the smoke clears, will you still be uncomfortable?”