Class on diverse perspectives takes different form at Cal Poly

Class on diverse perspectives takes different form at Cal Poly

Holly Dickson
hollydickson.md@gmail.com

A waitlist formed during registration for a new class based on conversations between students of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions or socioeconomic backgrounds.

The class is a well-established course that began at University of Michigan 25 years ago and has been offered as part of other classes at Cal Poly in the past, but was officially offered for the first time this spring. It got started at Cal Poly in a slightly different format this quarter, with three groups that discuss race and ethnicity, one of which doesn’t consist of racially diverse students.

“We ended up not being able to offer a third race dialogue or a gender dialogue, we simply didn’t have the numbers,” former Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Conn said. Instead, the third group has all white students discussing race and ethnicity, Conn said.

When the groups follow the guidelines set by Michigan, they have six to eight students that identify with one social group — male, female, transgender, white, Hispanic — and meet with an equal number of students who identify with a different social identity. The groups meet together for the quarter to learn the difference between debate and dialogue, and discuss timely issues from their various viewpoints, Conn said.

Psychology associate professor Jennifer Teramoto Pedrotti, the faculty member in charge of the class, said students were asked to report their racial and ethnic background for the Cal Poly version, as well as disclose whether they felt they identified as a white person, a person of color, neither or both. After registration was complete, students were dispersed into the various dialogue groups as evenly as possible, she said.

Conn, who has been involved in running pilot versions of the class and training facilitators, said the organizers recognize that students probably have more than one social identity, or even ethnicity, they identify with.

“Very often in the course of the dialogue, the intersecting identities come up as well, and that’s encouraged,” Conn said.

Conn said mostly psychology students knew about the four-unit class (PSY 303) this quarter, which contributed to the fact that a diverse third discussion group could not be created based on race or gender this quarter.

“So I guess, somewhat inevitably, we got a lot of white females signing up for this, even though we’re offering it beyond psychology,” Conn said. “We’re hoping that once people get to know about this, there will be a lot of other people coming in.”

The vision

The class, which has binders of research and curricula supporting it and has won awards from the U.S. Department of Education and President Clinton’s Initiative on Race program, is open to all students and can currently be used as an upper division elective for many degree requirements, but Conn said he hopes it will eventually qualify as a GE course.

“My vision for this is that every student who comes to Cal Poly should have at least the opportunity to take an intergroup dialogues course,” he said.

Cal Poly’s method of placing all the students in the dialogues after they signed up differed from Michigan’s strategy and probably also contributed to the inability to offer a third race or gender group, Conn said.

At Michigan, only half the desired number of students are admitted during registration, and after sorting them into the various social identities they indicated, the opposite groups are recruited for, Conn said.

“There’s some hesitance, I think legitimately, to placing students based on social identity,” Conn said. “Or admitting students to a course … based on social identity.”

Conn said though the all-white dialogue group has been tried at other schools, such as Skidmore College, the jury is still out on its effectiveness at Cal Poly.

“Most white people, myself included, don’t think about being white,” Conn said. “That’s one of the privileges we have, whereas most people of color have to think about it because our society forces that onto them.”

One of the goals of the dialogue is for each student to learn about other social identities, but also to learn how to communicate and work with people different from themselves, Conn said.

Teramoto Pedrotti said it’s neat to see recent generations of Cal Poly students be more accepting and desire the opportunity to communicate with people from different backgrounds than their own.

“I think (students) are wanting this kind of information and sometimes don’t know how to get it,” Teramoto Pedrotti said. “Intergroup dialogues provides such a Learn by Doing approach to talking about race (and) talking about gender. … It’s really serving a need that I think students are feeling.”

The dialogue groups talk about subjects broached in the lecture, which include the difference between debate and dialogue, racism, racial identity and awareness, becoming an ally and other “hot topics” the students decide on themselves.

 ‘Seeing a new perspective’

Intergroup dialogues is a program that has been implemented at many other universities, Health and Counseling Services psychologist Herlina Pranata, who brought the original idea for the class to Cal Poly in 2008, said.

Pranata facilitated a dialogue program similar to the Michigan-originated one during her postdoctoral fellowship and internship at University of California, Davis, and felt it had such a positive impact on students that she mentioned it in her job interview at Cal Poly as “one way of addressing diversity issues on campus.”

“I have told myself that wherever I go, I’d like to bring such dialogue to campus,” said Pranata, who started unofficial versions of the class in 2009, “especially if it can help bridge differences and build community.”

Cal Poly Human Resources Information Systems analyst Ethan Kuster, who helped lead pilot versions of this class in 2011 and co-facilitates one of the groups about race this quarter, said the dialogue group is a place where students can talk about issues they’d normally be afraid to bring up for fear of offending someone.

“It’s an open space where it’s OK to say the wrong thing,” Kuster said. “Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong — it’s just seeing a new perspective.”

Conn said the low numbers of diverse students at Cal Poly don’t reflect the diversity of the state, and he hoped hearing other perspectives in the dialogues would help ready Cal Poly students for life in a very diverse world.

“There’s no denying that Cal Poly, in terms of numbers, is not a very diverse campus,” Conn said. “And we’re acutely aware of the need to prepare all students, not just minority students or white students … to go out into a world where they are going to be faced with, and hopefully work productively with, people who are different from themselves.”