UNM plan seeking to revolutionize general education program receives big endorsement

By David Lynch

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A UNM report which recommends enhancing the university’s core curriculum and general education initiative as a whole cleared a major hurdle Tuesday afternoon in the form of a near-unanimous endorsement from Faculty Senate members.

The report was created by the General Education Task Force – commissioned by the Faculty Senate in late 2016 – as a response to 2017 legislation that seeks to streamline the credit-transfer process for higher-ed students in New Mexico.

“We saw this as an opportunity to revitalize the general education program; the core curriculum that we already offer,” said Pamela Cheek, interim associate provost for curriculum at UNM, and the original chair of the task force. Continue reading →

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Pop culture classes add substance to material

But UNM also offers several courses based on popular cultures that don’t seem to have educational value at first glance. A variety of pop culture-affiliated curricula are offered at UNM and its branches, including Rock Music Appreciation and courses centered on Route 66 and even food.

Yet instructors in these courses — like those focusing on hip-hop, Harry Potter and fashion — do feature typical academic approaches and concepts that serve higher educational goals.

Webster Matjaka, an American studies graduate student who facilitates a hip-hop music and culture course, said that by exploring the music genre’s origins, students learn about specific societal movements whose mark can be seen in history.

“What we like to teach in the American studies department is critical thinking skills,” he said. “What I mean by that is students being able to situate things or events in a broader context. I use hip-hop as a case study.”

Matjaka said that even though most modern hip-hop artists are driven by money and selling platinum records, it didn’t start out that way.

“It developed under conditions of people questioning society and their identity, as a way for people to comment on their social conditions in places of oppression,” Matjaka said.

Surprising as it may be, Matjaka said if students are at least interested in taking a certain pop culture course, they will find that the subject matter explores exponentially more than students initially expect.

Julie Hillery, a professor in UNM’s Honors College, teaches two classes focused on contemporary fashion and also said that by studying the subject matter, students can learn much about the world that they live in.

The majority of Honors College courses tend to delve into multiple academic fields, and Hillery said her class curriculum examines fashion from sociological, psychological, anthropological and business perspectives.

“[The courses] are very much rooted in social science, meaning we look at clothing in the context of society,” she said. “We can tell a lot about what is going on in society at any given moment by examining what people are wearing at a particular time. We look at topics such as beauty ideals, gender issues, aging and appearance, race and ethnicity and body modifications.”

Hillery said it is common for students to judge her classes simply by the word “fashion” and envision an easy class. She said they turn out being surprised at the academic value her courses hold.

“I believe that there is definitely a stigma concerning fashion classes and that many of them think of the classes as blow-off courses,” she said. “I have had many students tell me that they didn’t expect to learn as much as they did, and that the classes were much harder than they expected.”

Michael Rogers-Oty, a sophomore East Asian studies major, said he was surprised and excited to see the Honors College’s Harry Potter course, and signed up for it based only on its reference to the popular book and film series’.

According to the syllabus, the course highlights character analysis and compares views of standards of morality in the series to real-life philosophies and theological theories.

“It’s a bit more than I expected,” he said. “I guess from reading the description I didn’t fully grasp the kind of materials we’d read. I’ve learned more about Harry Potter and just the general theme of the class: good and evil in the world.”

Rogers-Oty said it was hard beforehand to see the educational value in something so mainstream. He said the teacher, Sheri Karmiol, has even had to defend the legitimacy of the course because it is so engrained in culture as a topic of entertainment, not academics.

“The majority of people at UNM grew up with Harry Potter and a lot of people see it as something for kids and therefore see no value to the class because it is so entwined with Harry Potter,” Rogers-Oty said.

Matjaka said students come into his course curious about what exactly they’ll take from it, but he starts the semester by hoping that their perspectives about hip-hop change as the class progresses. They usually do, he said.

“One of the things I was afraid of was that students would think this class is too easy. That they can just come in and take the class and think they can just have fun,” he said. “Most students who come in this class are very interested in hip-hop. They come in curious. What I find is that there are changing interests from the beginning to the end because they are learning new things.”

David Lynch is a staff reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached atnews@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

Growing Chicano studies program gets votes from faculty senate

Irene Vasquez, director of the program, said that growing the program has been an ongoing process since 2011. In 2013 a bachelor’s degree was installed, and in the fall it will get even bigger.

Departmentalization allows for better infrastructure, something that Vasquez said was a huge obstacle for success when developing the plan for a major.

Vasquez said the faculty senate’s vote was an event she’ll never forget.

“It was a wonderful moment that I will cherish in my memory. We had a very large turnout of students and community members and staff and faculty who were there with the most positive intentions to be able to celebrate what we anticipated would be a positive vote for departmentalization,” she said.

Most of the faculty in the program is either joint appointment, meaning instructors are primarily with other departments like American studies or history, or they are hired on a year-by-year basis.

“So you can imagine that doesn’t give the program the stability it needs,” Vasquez said. “It makes a world of difference to be a department because we can attract our faculty who are rooted in the field and then we can promote and tenure them.”

Now Vasquez said she has her sights on developing a graduate program for Chicana and Chicano studies, a goal which has been a part of her master plan since the beginning.

“When we established the major, what we began to do was structure the whole degree around offering high impact practices, [which are] strategies and approaches in teaching and learning that are more likely to retain graduate students,” she said.

Vasquez said it is all about creating a support system for students in the program, giving them the resources they need for when they go on to graduate or professional school, something that is a common target for her students.

She would like to have a master’s program within two years, and a doctorate program within four. That timetable, Vasquez said, is for the benefit of her students.

“I can say with absolute certainty that we have cohorts of students that are interested in studying Chicana and Chicano studies at the graduate level,” she said.

Departmentalization of her program, Vasquez said, will help UNM fulfill the promise of diversity and multiculturalism. She said the program will play an important role in leading the forefront to assure that those students who move on to graduate programs are a diverse group.

“When we look at who is graduating with graduate degrees, we are falling short,” she said. “Our program will really help the state of New Mexico become more diverse in terms of education and getting students into all kind of professions, career and economic opportunities.”

Divana Olivas, a senior majoring in Chicano and Chicana studies and Spanish, said that she has been fortunate to bear witness to the evolution of the program.

“The very first class I took in my first semester was an introduction to the Chicano movement, and three and a half years later seeing that it’s become a department on campus and has really established its identity as an academic and intellectual space on campus makes me really happy,” she said. “It’s really special.”

Olivas said the program has helped them form their identity by asking the questions they never previously thought were important to ask.

“Personally I’ve really found who I am, and that’s just more than you can say about other programs on campus,” she said.

For Claudia Avila-Mitchell, a graduate student studying American Studies, those questions included where her family came from and the lifestyle they endured.

Avila-Mitchell said she never saw the value in asking her mother and grandmother about what they went through, and that she realizes what she missed out on.

“Now that I’ve been exposed to all these things they’ve done or even just critically asking what they’ve been through…those are things that I’m thankful for that have helped me grow a lot,” she said.

Avila-Mitchell says she would like for the program to install a graduate degree as quickly as possible so that she can jump right into it.

Olivas advocated Vasquez’s drive to acquire a graduate degree for future students.

“In terms of faculty mentors and more funds to be able to do research or get to travel, those opportunities are going to be priceless for students in the future once the departments really gains more status and prominence on campus,” she said.

David Lynch is a staff reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.