Police brutality. American democracy. The politics of protest. Black Lives Matter. Next term, students interested in these topics can enroll in a new course called “Black Lives Matter and American Democracy,” a new upper-division political science course at the University of Oregon.
UO associate professor Debra Thompson will be teaching the course during the winter term.
In the class, PS 399, students will not only study from traditional scholarly articles, but they also examine contemporary nonfiction, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness as well as podcasts, films, works of journalism and TED Talks. Students also have debates and other activities in class.
The course is a special studies course, which means that the course is experimental and will be offered again depending on student feedback.
Thompson was previously an assistant professor of African American studies at Northwestern University, where she had taught the course.
At Northwestern, all freshmen are required to enroll in a freshman seminar course, which focuses on specialized topics, such as Buddhist psychology or the chemistry of food.
When she was asked to design and teach a freshman seminar course at Northwestern in late 2015, she said she was excited. She chose a topic that had long interested her: the Black Lives Matter movement.
Thompson said that the course was a huge success at Northwestern.
“The students seemed to get a lot out of it,” she said. “They would continue to email me for months and months after the course was over, talking about some of the things they learned.”
She also stated that the course material felt timely.
“These things that Black Lives Matter were bringing to national attention were happening as we were taking the course,” Thompson said.
So when she came to the UO late last year, she decided to bring her course with her.
Coverage of activism movements is pervasive in the news industry, and the UO has witnessed the power of such actions before. In 2015, the Black Student Union released a list of twelve demands to address racial discrimination on campus.
Thompson’s course isn’t the first of its kind at the UO, either. In winter 2016, associate professor Daniel HoSang offered a similar course called “Black Lives Matter,” but his class focused on the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Thompson said that Northwestern is similar to the UO in that many students of color there also “felt alienated” from the university system.
“There were lots of students of color who felt alienated from the university who were just looking for a place to belong,” she said.
In 2016, there were 5,983 total students of color in UO’s student body — about 25.3 percent, and there were 473 students who identified as black or African American — about 2 percent of the total student body at 23,634 students.
UO has implemented various programs to promote diversity in response to a list of demands made by the Black Student Task Force in December 2015, including expanded efforts to recruit African American students, the online publication of campus diversity data and the launch of the Umoja Pan-African Scholars Academic Residential Community in fall 2016.
“There are racists everywhere. There are racists in Oregon, and there are racists in Ohio and Chicago, and there have been racists everywhere I’ve ever lived,” Thompson said.
“I don’t have any fears here that I didn’t have anywhere else.”