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Ponnada: Diversity more than general education

BY SRI PONNADA | APRIL 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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Gen-eds are probably what best connects the future doctor to the aspiring Picasso here at the University of Iowa. All students, regardless of their majors, are required to take at least one course in each of the various general-education categories — such as the Values, Society, and Diversity category.

Two years ago, this category didn’t exist. In 2011, the university changed its general-education program; Values, Society, and Diversity was created, and Health and Physical Activities was removed. All of the courses that satisfied the Health and Physical Activities requirement, such as badminton, self-defense, and Ping-Pong (table tennis to the layperson) were clumped into the new category.

A few extra courses in the category won’t make that much of a difference — right?

That change in the general-education program led to substantial decreases in enrollments for many courses that are actually diversity-related, such as Gender, Race, and Class in the U.S.. In the spring of 2010, there were 145 students enrolled in Gender, Race, and Class. This spring, there are 33.

There aren’t just a “few” physical-activities course offerings either.

For spring 2013, there are 144 physical-activities courses/sections being offered, many of which are fully enrolled. Each course/section is worth one semester hour. Assuming all 144 are fully enrolled with 20 students each, there are 2,880 semester hours being earned by taking physical-activities courses, which go toward satisfying the Values, Society, and Diversity requirement.

What Ping-Pong teaches me about values, society, and diversity, I do not know.

UI first-year student Lisa Gunter said she thinks a lot of students take physical-activities classes because the classes might be easy.

“I don’t see the correlation between PE and diversity classes,” she said. “I don’t see people learning anything about diversity through a physical-education class.”

There are 1,462 students enrolled in physical-activities courses this semester, and only 334 of them are enrolled in colleges that restrict them from using the courses for general-education requirements.

Thankfully, the Education Policy Community of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recommended the program to be changed once more. Beginning this summer, physical-activities courses will no longer count toward the semester hours students need to fulfill general-education requirements.

This change is absolutely necessary and fantastic, because now more students will take classes that actually make them more culturally aware and diversify them.

“I think more students will take classes that teach them about issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, and social justice, which you can’t learn by taking badminton or learning to play Ping-Pong,” said Deirdre Egan, a graduate student and TA in the Department of Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies.

I’m not saying badminton, Ping-Pong, and other physical-education classes aren’t useful. It’s just an entirely different set of skills.

Diversity-related classes introduce you to so many new ideas and perspectives that you may not necessarily have been exposed to before. Trust me on that.

I’ve lived in three different countries — India, Jamaica, and America — and have always thought of my experiences as “diverse.”

When I started taking Transnational Feminism this spring, which I don’t think fulfills the gen-ed requirement but is nonetheless a diversity-related course, I saw that there was an ocean of information, ideas, and opinions that I had never encountered. I became more open-minded.

What we also often fail to realize is the true essence of diversity.

I’m not learning about aliens when I take these courses. I learn about other people. I learn about myself. These classes teach you about the diversity in your own culture and in your own society.

Take Gender, Race and Class in the U.S., for instance.

Everyone has their individual idea of gender. Class? We certainly understand class difference. And race: we all have one — or more — even though there may be some discomfort in discussing it.

We all have experiences with these topics. However, we may not have the same experiences. I’m essentially an Indian woman, but my life as an Indian woman in America is very different from my female cousin’s life in India. It’s even different from another Indian woman’s life in America, too.

That’s why it’s critical for us to get engaged in these classes that mix different people and perspectives together.

“Until we’re exposed to these other experiences, we think of our experiences as universal,” Egan said.

What happens when you think that way? You ignore other people’s experiences and fail to understand others on a whole, which only leads to greater problems.

Diversity, obviously, isn’t something to be ignored.

In fact, the university should do more to encourage students to take diversity-related courses.

Perhaps students should be required to take more than three semester hours in the Values, Society, and Diversity category. Or maybe issues such as gender inequality, race relations, etc., should be incorporated into other courses as well.

Those issues are part of the human experience, which unites us all.


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