Ethnic Digital Notions

Scholars have studied race from many perspectives ad infinitum if not ad nauseum. Yet the question that my elders always asked still prevails; “would you get the same result if you substituted white for the non white group?” We must still ask that question about digital media. A friend of mine once said he has to keep reminding his peers at his institution that African American history is American history.  In the same way (insert ethnic group here) American studies is American studies. The best American history and studies programs have realized this long ago even if there are some places that haven’t caught up with them.  Many of the ways digital media can assist in the scholarship and the pedagogy of America studies are also the ways they help in ethnic studies. We would be fooling ourselves however if we didn’t acknowledge that ethnic studies  carries an increased burden in academia than other programs or departments. For one they often feel an obligation to the ethnic group which forms their content which often expresses itself in social action, professional obligation or personal choice.  This is a double edged sword.  One the one side it keeps the programs grounded in a social reality and at least cuts down on the threat of intellectual pointlessness and irrelevance that many projects have. On the other side we have to constantly justify programs as being more than a sop to political correctness which doesn’t have the intellectual rigor, procedures or proponents that other disciplines have.

Ethnic studies programs are going to be subject to the knee jerk white intellectual superiority that is built into the academic structure. It is embedded so deeply that one often doesn’t know it is there until it rears it’s ugly head. For example research into one’ own ethnic group may not be weighed as heavily or favorably in hiring or tenure decisions, curricular decisions and even administrative ones. How many ethnic studies programs have felt the administrative ax or been consolidated with other programs when financial straits come?

I’ve always felt that ethnic studies programs ought to be on the cutting edge; investigating things that the “mainstream” departments and programs do not.  When I was an undergraduate for example (which as my wife reminds me was a long time ago) one could read Toni Morrison only in an African American studies course.  Today of course there are few if any English departments in the country that don’t study at least one of her works. To be sure you may find a different discussion about her work in an ethnic studies class than in an English class but the ethnic studies program does not bear the same weight of introducing her work into the curriculum and canon. I would argue that the ethnic studies programs should still provide the function of introducing things into college curricula which would not otherwise be there and correcting disciplines that omit ethnic content. To be sure we are much more aware of and open to the introduction of so-called “Third world” cultural production.  Many scholars are incorporating it into their intellectual work and teaching. However many still need to be made aware of how it changes their mainstream scholarship.  A study of the New Deal for example, is changed by showing how it maintained southern racial mores even while it was altering the conception of the American political state. Subaltern studies changed the normal colonial history of the third world forever. I remember one student saying that Native American studies should change the way political studies departments talk about sovereignty.

Digital media should play a role in the fulfillment of ethnic studies’ roles in the curriculum. As I have argued elsewhere digital media provide not only the multimedia aspect of teaching and learning but also things that were never before possible.  For example digital tools can create mapping functions that illuminate old things in new ways, 3-D recreations of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, interactive learning that returns  control to the learner, new pedagogic tools that make learning fun and exploratory again. We should be using them to create new objects like Native American pueblos, new analyses of residence or voting patterns, the preservation and presentation of non text aspects like dance, music or performance or spatial analyses to name a few.  We can then use these new objects in creative ways to teach members of ethnic groups and others to look at things in new ways. That is the real function of ethnic studies programs.

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