First-year students beginning the Public Policy Master’s Program at the Harvard Kennedy School this month became the inaugural class to participate in two half-semester race and racism classes, after the school moved to expand the mandatory courses from two weeks to an entire semester.
The dual courses — “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power” and “Race and Racism in Public Policies, Practices, and Perspectives” — were first introduced as a requirement last fall, but were covered virtually in an intensive two-week format following first-year students’ orientation in 2020. HKS made the class mandatory amid the nationwide racial reckoning last summer, following years of calls from student activists for more instruction on race and colonialism at the Kennedy School.
These courses are currently only offered to first-year students in the MPP program, as the Kennedy School did not mandate similar course requirements for students in other programs.
Camille N. Choe, a current student in the class, said she enjoyed the perspective from which the material has been covered thus far and emphasized the need for students to engage with its content.
“The readings Professor [Khalil] Muhammad has us do are a very good way about thinking about race and racism in a more structural manner, as opposed to thinking of it as individual interactions,” Choe said.
“I think it’s one of those courses that really does have a really deep impact,” she added. “Race and racism is such a fundamental issue that I really strongly do believe that everyone should have a space to study and sort of discuss these kinds of issues.”
Deepanshu Aggarwal, an international student from India, said the course is giving him a new outlook on the issue of racism in the United States, a topic he said he was previously unfamiliar with.
“What I’ve learned about racism over here is something beyond superficial. Earlier my understanding was, ‘Okay, it’s simply something that’s happening right now. It started off with slave trade,’” Aggarwal said.
“The kind of readings that we are taught in the curriculum – it took me reading those readings to realize that debate also extends to the fact that not everyone thinks about the founding day of America in the same way,” he added.
Besides having a longer period of time to process the material, the current first-year students have another benefit compared to students who took the course last year: in-person discussion.
Ezinwanne O. “Adaeze” Okoli, who took the class last fall, said the delivery of the course’s material was diminished by the online format and short time-frame, especially during virtual small-group discussions.
“It wasn’t enough time to build up that trust and rapport to actually get any depth,” Okoli said. “The level of conversation that you need to have around these things requires a level of trust and a level or ability that is very difficult to cultivate over Zoom and very difficult to cultivate day one.”
Grace Y. Park said the in-person format of the course has allowed for more meaningful discussions with peers.
“One of my close friends in the class was trying to make a comment, but he was kind of struggling to put it into words, so we walked out together, and then we ended up talking for an hour-and-a-half about what he was kind of struggling to articulate,” Park said. “I think that wouldn’t have been possible if we just exited out of our Zoom rooms.”
Though she said she enjoys the class, Park also explained that the “varying levels of experience” with the material among her classmates at times can lead to “uneven” conversations.
“I wonder if there’s a model where people who feel a little bit more well-versed in the theory or have a foundational understanding of racism in the world and the United States could delve into deeper, more substantive conversations earlier,” Park said.
Despite the expansion of the course from two weeks to one semester, Didier P. Dumerjean said he believed the length of the course still does not allow for deep understanding of the course material.
“I think, one semester, to be quite frank, is insufficient,” Dumerjean said. “For people who have not engaged in these conversations, who do not understand how power is distributed across the globe, and how these social hierarchies persist and are pervasive, it’s particularly important that you start to engage with these [topics] now given the positions of authority that we’ll be in.”
Sara Asad ’17, a student in the Master in Business Administration/Master in Public Administration-International Development program, said the demand from students for race and racism courses exceeds the current offerings.
“Students want to be able to learn more about equity issues not just from race and equity in the U.S., but also on a more international level, as you think about colonialism and some of the impacts and repercussions that that has had in our society,” Asad said.
Professor Khalil G. Muhammad, who teaches the first module, said there is “opportunity for growth” regarding race courses at HKS, but pointed to the school’s recent expansion in this area as a positive sign.
“Over the past three or four years, the number of course offerings have definitely increased with an increase in faculty who can work in this area, as the school moves towards more core focus across different cohorts,” Muhammad said.
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