AUx and its Challenges
What is community? Let me specify. What is your community? Does it contain a wide range of people or is it simply a smaller group of close friends? Neither of these are negative, but as a member of an institution in higher education, I often hear the word “community” used to describe a plethora of things stemming from easily understood tangibles to more abstract concepts. For higher education, it makes sense to study the abstract aspects of what a community is, whether it’s the invisible force that pulls people together or factors that give communities strength to endure periods of struggle. At AU, we are at the turnpike of student culture, one that questions hierarchy in education and our own interpretations of the world around us. So when something happens on our campus that is so egregious that even those who have no personal connection debate amongst each other about its implications, you know it’s bad.
This is where we find ourselves now. Just a week ago, a leaked video of non-black freshman girl saying the n-word surfaced on our phones and made us question how we got here again. It’s only been a year since another non-black freshman was caught on video saying the n-word and two years since the racist hanging bananas incident. These cases are what prompted the need for classes like AUx1 and AUx2 as a means of figuring out what occurred and what that means for AU as a community.
For the few people unfamiliar with what AUx classes are, they’re 1.5 credit classes all students, predominantly freshman, are required to take as a part of the core curriculum. AUx1 is taken first semester and serves as a “how to college” guide for students. It allows students to familiarize themselves with the campus and its resources alongside other students, however AUx2 serves a different purpose; To discuss and debate issues relating to power structures, identity, and oppression. While one might argue that the change is radical, it’s important to remember that our campus is full of opinionated students, so the class provides them a space to debate about issues that they otherwise might not discuss in their other classes. But since AUx’s implementation last year, the class has become the face of the issues in which they discuss, going so far as to question their effectiveness in expanding students’ perspectives and its handling of racially motivated incidents.
I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the AUx2 instructors on how things have changed since last year. As an instructor that had to grapple with the effects of last year’s racial incident, she admitted that while a second incident was, to put it mildly, extremely disheartening, she and other instructors had more knowledge on how to handle the situation with her students.
But as she admitted to me, there there is something upsetting about having this knowledge. Knowing how to handle a racial incident is obviously important, but the consistent use of it, two times in one year, is exhausting, especially for POC students and instructors. Remember, we’re not talking about a hypothetical problem, we’re talking about a real issue that affects real people, so the consequences of doing the wrong thing usually creates more harm than good.
The stress experienced by AUx instructors also extends to student interest in the course itself. As a mandatory 1.5 credit course with an informal setting, many students, as noted by the AUx2 instructor, lack interest in the class because of its informal structure. This situation is problematic because it makes it more difficult for students, particularly those of minority and POC groups, to not only share their stories and experiences, but have an audience that listens, engages, and reacts to what’s said. It’s true that not everyone will be interested in the class. That’s a problem associated with every class. But having students so easily disengage from a discussion is emblematic of a larger problem relating to the students themselves. Do we really need AUx to be a 3 credit class for students to care about race, culture, and identity? Is that the type of student we embody? Hopefully you answer no, but it’s important for everyone to acknowledge that while you might not care about the course, someone else does. It provides them a space to talk about a challenging issue that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to discuss. These students want to be heard, but if we choose to shut ourselves out because we don’t care about the course, then these students’ stories might as well be written down and thrown away.
We also need to talk about the instructors. I understand the students who are unhappy with their instructors, but to argue on the side of the instructors, it’s not always easy to facilitate conversations about tangent issues. How can you have a meaningful conversation about race if your AUx class of 20 has little to no black students? Real situations like these often complicate discussions by causing both black and non-black students to feel uncomfortable giving their perspective on race and on a campus where a racially motivated incident happens all too often, we can’t afford to forget anyone’s opinion. For the instructors, most are genuinely interested in what students have to say because it allows them to better understand students and enrich their cultural capital. It’s a space for opinions to be said and challenged, all of which have real value.
To conclude what I’ve said, I want to ask one final question: Which better resembles a community, a room with people speaking candidly about their opinion or a room with people too reserved to share their thoughts?