Recently I sat down with a young woman who shared with me the experience of her first year at Thurgood Marshall College, one of the six colleges of the University of California at San Diego. She explained to me that regardless of her major field of study and in order to graduate she was required to take certain “general education” courses, the centerpiece of which is a three-quarter, 16-unit creation called “Dimensions of Culture.” What she had to tell me is a warning to both parents and students.
The Dimensions of Culture program (DOC) is an introductory three-quarter social science sequence that is required of all first year students at Thurgood Marshall College, UCSD. Successful completion of the DOC sequence satisfies the University of California writing requirement. The course is a study in the social construction of individual identity and it surveys a range of social differences and stratifications that shape the nature of human attachment to self, work, community, and a sense of nation. Central to the course objective is the question of how scholars move from knowledge to action. – UCSD Course Description
Edgar B. Anderson: So let’s talk about Dimensions of Culture. That’s vague. What’s that mean?
Student: I don’t know. Each quarter, the first quarter is called Diversity, the second quarter is called Justice, and the third quarter is called Imagination. So Diversity is we studied everything about minorities – like women, homosexuals, and then Asians, blacks, Latinos.
Q. So what’s left out – white males?
A. Yeah, pretty much if you’re a white male you’re bad, that’s kind of the joke among all the students.
Q. Women are not even a minority, they’re a majority.
A. But it’s more about the workforce.
A. Yeah, that’s kind of how they presented it. We didn’t really focus on women that much. It was mainly how Asians have been oppressed in history and how Latinos continue to be oppressed and how blacks continue to be oppressed, all of that.
Q. Is there any mention of how successful Asians are in the culture?
A. They say that it’s a stereotype because whites have labeled Asians as smart in order to put down black people.
Q. And how about Latin Americans now?
A. That we also put them down…
Q. So this is your Diversity class.
A. Yeah, that was Diversity.
A. I liked that quarter best because all it was about were Supreme Court cases like affirmative action and Brown v. Board… My teaching assistant, who you have in discussions twice a week, was crazy. I remember one day she was talking about how there should be affirmative action in terms of who becomes a Fortune 500 CEO and that they should require that a certain percent of all CEOs in Fortune 500 companies be women. I said I disagree, “Who’s to say that a woman is going to be a better CEO than a man? Let’s be honest, you know, a lot of women don’t become CEOs because most women choose to not work as much ’cause you have no life if you’re a CEO to raise a family or anything.” But she said, “How can you be a woman and think that? That’s totally wrong. That’s what’s wrong with women in our society because we need affirmative action to get ahead.” She was unbelievable.
When we talked about investment bankers and people who worked in finance… she said, “Well, I hate investment bankers anyway, I hate them, I hate their whole attitude.” And she went on and on how they’re terrible people…
Q. So Imagination. What is that?
A. I really don’t know. I had no idea what was going on in that class. And even the TA said she had no idea what it was about…
Q. But did you have reading lists?
A. Yeah, I have the book. You’d spend a week on Vonnegut or similar writing, or the next week it’d be about graffiti, and another week it’d be immigration, and another week it’d be Vietnam. It wasn’t tied together at all, so we never ended up with anything.
But I remember for graffiti the professor said how pretty much we don’t understand that it’s an art form, and it’s just a misunderstanding why people don’t like graffiti and why police try to cover it up. She said that people are just trying to express themselves, and she never went into how it was vandalism or anything like that.
When we talked about the entertainment industry and the show The L-Word, she said that having straight actresses portray lesbians was the same as white people painting themselves black. And so I don’t think that anyone agreed with her on that.
Q. In these classes were there a lot of student challenges?
A. No, the only student challenges were when she was talking about The L-Word, and that was the only time when people like really disagreed with her, and she was just so adamant about it.
Q. So through Diversity, Justice, and Imagination you found generally students simply took notes?
A. Um-huh. Well, [the school] is majority Asian, and half of the class, especially in Diversity, was like, “Poor Asians, we’re mean to them.” So, you know, they had no reason to complain.
Q. Did they talk about blacks and their problems? Is it all blamed on whites?
A. It was all just, you know, people are racist toward them…
Q. Did they talk about the fact that blacks have a 70% out-of-wedlock birthrate-
A. No. Okay, very few black people go to UC Diego, and so they’re trying to get more African-Americans to come, and we read this article saying, “Let’s be honest here, UC San Diego has no sports, it’s pretty much all science, and there are just a lot of blacks that go to school to do sports or are not into biology.” And, oh my gosh, that was terrible, and they’re like, “I can’t believe this was written. You can’t say that blacks only do sports.”
Q. Wait a minute, where did that statement come from, that most blacks-
A. In our reader someone had written the article saying that it’s not that they’re not getting in, but it’s that they don’t want to come here.
Q. And the reaction was from whom-
A. The lecturer and the TA-
Q. Found it outrageous to say that.
A. Yeah, because the reason that they’re not coming here is because our public schools and high schools aren’t providing any opportunities for them so that they don’t apply to college.
Q. Is there ever any mention that some groups of students for whatever reasons are studying harder?
A. No… But I just felt like it must have been really awkward to be black in this class especially when they were talking about why do no blacks go to UCSD. And they’d almost [ask] “Why do you go here, and why do no other blacks go here?” It was really awkward.
And talking about hip-hop and rap, [they’d say] it’s weird how white people listen to it. The one black guy I knew in my class said, “I don’t think it’s a big deal if white people listen to black rap. I don’t understand why we’re getting so upset about it… I don’t care, I don’t feel offended.” But the white TA insisted, “A lot of black people feel offended, and [white people] think they know what it’s like to be black even though they don’t, and they like pretend to be black, and it’s really offensive…”
Q. This is part of the classroom discussion?
A. Yeah, and then we like listened to rap music and analyzed if it was good or not.
A. Everyone hated the class, and they know it, and even at the end of the year they gave out these pins that said, “I survived DOC.” And the lecturers [asked] “Aren’t you so glad it’s done?”
And all my white friends were just so disgusted because all it’d be is, “Let’s go learn how we’re bad again,” that’s all it was…
And I think I am just so sick of analyzing race relations, and I really feel like our country would be a less racist place if people didn’t continue to focus on it…
Q. How did Asian students you know feel about this class?
A. I don’t really know… I mean, they all thought it was dumb, but I don’t know if they disagreed with what they were saying…
And my Mexican friends, I remember when we were studying for the final, and one of the sections is on immigration, they joked, “Can we just write, ‘We emigrated here from Mexico.’? We’ll probably get an A if we only write that.” They were all joking that they should just write, “I crossed the border with my family,” and, you know, it was a joke, “Oh, wow! You immigrated here! A+.”
I was just so fed up with it. And when they talked about immigration they never differentiated between illegal and legal immigration… I made a comment that it was unfair that people can sneak in from the south, and yet if you’re coming from Russia or Norway you have to wait years to legally immigrate, and the response was that our foreign policy hasn’t affected those countries so we’re not forcing them to come over here…
Q. What about the idea that this is stolen land?
A. Well, she [the lecturer] said people don’t understand that the Mexicans used to have California and so we shouldn’t stop them from immigrating here… She was pretty much advocating for a completely open border and just gave no idea of the problems that would cause at all.
A. I guess what annoyed me most about this class is that they said that it was, you know, everyone can have their opinion, you’re really entrusted in like learning, but if you said anything against what they thought, they were mean. And I remember on my paper I wrote about the Supreme Court case that dealt with Seattle [racial quotas] in which I said that it’s unconstitutional, which is what the Supreme Court decided, I literally spent an hour arguing with my TA before I turned it in because she said, “I think you’re wrong.”
Q. And you wrote that it was unconstitutional to do what?
A. The Seattle case was about having quotas for different races going to high school. They presented it as only white people were upset about it and never talked about how minorities were just as upset … but so yeah, I spent an hour, and she finally was like, “Okay, we’ll agree to disagree. I don’t agree with what you’re saying, I think it is constitutional.” So I turned in the paper, I get an A, and she writes on my paper, “Just so you know, I still think you’re wrong.” It was supposed to be a persuasive essay or argumentative, and I wanted to say, “Aren’t you supposed to be grading on how I’m arguing, not on my opinions?” It was ridiculous. I didn’t learn to write at all in that class. You had to write pretty much what they wanted, or you had to go and fight for an hour. And I’m sure she just knew that she couldn’t give me a B-, or else I’d have gone and complained. So I was just disgusted by it and that she was just so rude.
Q. And what are the qualifications of these teachers? Are these professors or are these-
A. No, these are teaching assistants, but they teach the discussions, as the professor does the lectures, and then they have teaching assistants do the discussions, and the teaching assistants grade.
Q. Was there any student opportunity to feedback, respond in the lectures, or you just listened and took notes?
A. You could raise your hand, but very few people ever did. It was a huge lecture hall.
Q. Oh, I see, a big auditorium.
A. Yeah, so I mean I never personally talked to any of my professors.
[A normal yearly course load at the University of California consists of 36 to 48 units. The required Dimensions of Culture program consumed 16 units, about 40% of the student’s freshman year course work. You can read more about Dimensions of Culture here.]