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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Professor Rachleff on the Mellon Mays seminar

By Professor Peter Rachleff

I understand that questions of “reverse racism” have been raised about student admission into my advanced seminar, “Historians and Critical Race Theory.” Three years ago I introduced this new, two credit course into my curricular offerings. Listed at the 300 level, registration for the course requires my signature, so that I might limit participation, as the Fall 2007 syllabus explains, to “students with prior experience in analyzing racial formation, applying critical race theory and thinking systematically about the role(s) of race, racism and what Paul Gilroy calls ‘raciology’ (thinking about human beings in racialized terms) in the development of the United States.” My purpose in creating this new course was to complement my ongoing work (since 2001) as the faculty coordinator of Macalester’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, whose “fundamental objective . is to increase the number of minority students and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities, who will pursue Ph.D.’s in core fields in the arts and sciences” (according to the MMUF’s web site). This is a project of inclusion, the web site continues, “to reduce over time the serious under-representation on the faculties of colleges and universities of individuals from certain minority groups, as well as to address the attendant educational consequences of these disparities.” I have designed “Historians and Critical Race Theory,” with a changing content each semester, to “function like a graduate seminar, with students rotating responsibilities for shaping and leading discussions” (again quoting the current syllabus). For the past three years, this is what it has done.

In shaping this course to support the goals of the MMUF program, I have drawn on 25 years of teaching at Macalester. Over this extended period, I have been privileged not only to teach in my areas of expertise, such as working-class, African American and immigration history, but also to grow in related interdisciplinary areas, such as critical race theory, racial formation, performance studies and transnational studies. I have taught hundreds of students in these 25 years, History majors and non-majors, many of whom have gone on to graduate school. Since Macalester was invited to join the Mellon Mays program in 2000 and I became its faculty coordinator in 2001, I have been able to bring a new intentionality and new resources into my mentorship of students of color.

Employing these resources, in 2002 I began to offer a ten-week summer seminar to fellows in the MMUF program. I created the seminar because it was programmatically weak to bring students into the program, tie them to campus in the summer for ten weeks to work on their projects under the supervision of their faculty mentors (the program’s minimum requirement) and not make use of the superb opportunity to build a scholarly community among the fellows. The seminar became a space for these fellows to share excitement, questions and progress about their research projects. We began to discover that there were shared intellectual interests to read about and discuss. We also engaged the community around us, in part to explore the connections between local communities’ cultural formations and our intellectual questions, but increasingly in pursuit of knowledge producers of color (scholars, writers, artists, poets, choreographers and dancers, composers and musicians, activists and more), who were willing to share their work, their stories, their training and their visions with us. We also began to include other students in our discussions, our outings and our discussions of our outings.

When, in the spring of 2004, I decided to introduce the new course, “Historians and Critical Race Theory,” into my 2004-05 curriculum, I sought to meet goals similar to those of the summer seminar. I built the seminar around MMUF fellows and how I perceived their academic needs and I welcomed students with prior experience in the subject matter (as stated in the course syllabus), and who could demonstrate that, by their participation in the seminar, they would contribute to the furthering of the goals of the Mellon program. Some of these students had been denied admission into the MMUF program (last year there were 17 applicants for five positions) and I wanted to honor their resilience, their determination and their ability by inviting them to work with us. I have also welcomed some younger students who have begun to do this intellectual work and have expressed an interest in applying in the future for the MMUF program and exploring their suitability for a life in academia.

I would include white students in the seminar who can demonstrate the requisite preparation and whose participation would further the express goals of the seminar. Since 2002 three white students have participated in the summer seminar and many more have participated in and benefited from other MMUF activities. At all times I have wanted to make certain that this seminar would meet its goals of preparing students to diversify the professoriate of the future. The practice of interviewing and signing qualified students into the course follows the prerogatives that all faculty exercise in structuring admission to upper-level courses.

The seminar’s discussions have been lively, intense, focused, passionate, acrimonious and inspiring. We have pursued advanced level interdisciplinary work, in student projects, in our analysis of challenging texts and in our explorations and critiques of art and culture. We have not merely engaged brilliant and challenging knowledge producers such as Roger Guenveur Smith, Bill T. Jones, Fred Ho, Ralph Lemon, Dread Scott, Bobby Hill, Jayne Cortez, Richard Gibson, Kara Walker, Bakari Kitwana, Ananya Chatterjee, Neville Alexander, David Roediger, Sekou Sundiata, Gary Delgado, Louis Mendoza, Josephine Lee, Rose Brewer and David Roman, but we have turned their heads and gained their respect. A month ago, when, during his visit to Macalester co-sponsored by MMUF and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, Professor Roman offered a late Friday afternoon workshop on selecting and applying to graduate programs, nearly 40 students attended! MMUF fellows have come out of this seminar (and the rest of their education at Macalester, to be sure) to enter graduate programs at Yale, the University of Chicago, New York University, the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Rice University and other fine institutions. The seminar has been an important space where these students asked uncomfortable yet answerable questions about what they might be getting into by entering an academic career, wrestled with the relationships between their communities of origin and the institutions in which they might be employed and prepared themselves to take on the next challenges not only in intellectual work but also in the intellectual-cultural-political climate of graduate education.

I have done considerable teaching, mentoring and community service at Macalester since 1982, but the best work I have done has been in relation to the Mellon Mays program and its related activities, such as my “Historians and Critical Race Theory” seminar. I am honored to be judged by it.

Peter Rachleff, Professor of History and Faculty Coordinator of Macalester’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, can be contacted at [email protected].

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