By Kate Tyler
The department’s revamped American diversity course helps undergrads see the changing face of Minnesota.
Jaime Kammen’s description of her own cultural background could be a snapshot of Minnesota’s immigrant heritage.
“My ancestry is partly Norwegian, partly Swedish, and partly German,” says Kammen, now a University junior. It was a familiar cultural profile in Kammen’s community of Victoria, Minn., a lake-dotted Minneapolis exurb.
Yet in high school, Kammen’s best friend was from Mexico, one of many Mexican Americans who attended the school while their parents worked in sugar, pie, or pickle factories in neighboring Chaska. If her school did not have any of the many Somali, Hmong, or Native American students common in central Twin Cities classrooms, there were at least a small number of African American students, and even some of the many blond heads, Kammen says, belonged to immigrants from Russia.
Kammen’s firsthand awareness of Minnesota’s growing cultural diversity is one reason she enrolled this past fall in AmSt 3113, an undergraduate course taught by American studies faculty member Kale Fajardo. The course is taught every semester (by Fajardo or one of three other professors) and is a centerpiece of the American studies curriculum. Originally developed two decades ago, it was one of the first courses in the College of Liberal Arts to tackle issues of multiculturalism. Last year, the department gave the course a Minnesota-themed makeover, sharpening its focus and revamping it to use the state’s own social history as a lens into the shifting dynamics of American culture.
“We decided that our course on American diversity was an opportunity to see Minnesota as a global center for immigration,” explains department chair Riv-Ellen Prell of the course now subtitled “Natives, Migrants, and the Making of Minnesota.”
“Immigration, especially since 1965, has brought people from many nations to this area. Understanding why they have come, and who they are, is crucial to understanding American studies.”
Challenging courseFajardo describes AmSt 3113 as “a searching exploration of culture, and cultural politics, in the context of the United States.” Each of its four instructors tweaks the reading list, but the focus “remains firmly grounded in the context of Minnesota,” emphasizes Fajardo.
When Fajardo taught AmSt 3113 last fall, it drew 84 students spanning fields as varied as engineering, psychology, business, and as in Kammen’s case, Spanish. Fajardo knows that some sign up mostly to knock off two liberal education requirements (in cultural diversity and in writing-intensive study). Many, too, are making their first foray into the thorny thickets of diversity issues.
“It’s challenging to teach in that students’ experiences and expectations are all over the map,” says Fajardo, also noting that the enrollment was predominantly European American (“we hope it will get more diverse as word spreads about the new focus”). Some students, Fajardo says, “seem to assume the course will be a tour through different musical perspectives and cultures. Many have never thought about race as a social construct. There’s some discomfort in talking about privilege and oppression that is somewhat palpable in the classroom.”
Also, Fajardo notes, “Not surprisingly, students in many ways mirror the divisions we have in the U.S. as a whole. Some are more conservative, think the status quo is fine; some more inclined to feel there are injustices. But we’re not trying to preach to the choir. We’re trying to give students from many different perspectives space to grapple with issues and come to their own conclusions.”
Complex frameworkFajardo devotes the first weeks to Gary Okihiro’s Common Ground: Reimagining American History, which “sets up a framework for the course, giving students the basic tools they’ll need to think about issues of culture and power.”
“Students learn that history has been constructed in particular ways, with key binaries—East/West, black/white, homo/hetero—shaping how we think about culture,” Fajardo says.
“We also talk about the idea of intersectionality— that you can’t honestly study race separately from class and gender and sexuality.”
From there, students move on to readings and films that “challenge them to reflect on how race and class and other cultural differences affect their own lives, and how they play out in social relations in the state and country.”
Fajardo, a recent transplant from California, devoured Minnesota diversity factoids while preparing for AmSt 3113. Though Minnesota remains far less diverse than “gateway” states such as California, New York, and Texas, its transformation in the last 15 years has been dramatic—“for example, the African immigrant population shot up nearly 800 percent between 1990 and 2000,” Fajardo says.
Many readings, films, and speakers help students make imaginative “border crossings”—gaining insight into what life was like for people in Africa, Mexico, or other places they lived before migrating to Minnesota. “People carry their histories with them when they come here,” Fajardo emphasizes.
Critical thinkingAmSt 3113 prods students to think deeply about key questions, Fajardo says: How is cultural difference understood or experienced by those in dominant groups and by those in marginalized groups? How do national and global events affect Minnesota communities? How are identities and communities shaped by a sense of place (Minnesota), as well as a sense of movement (such as immigration or migration)?
“It’s hard for students to get their brains around all this,” concedes Fajardo. “I really think it’s a process. Sometimes lightbulbs don’t go off right away, but do later on. From student papers, I do see students making connections.”
“I really liked the class,” says Alyssa Ferrie, a sophomore psychology major from Moorhead. “I liked learning about how ‘culture’ impacts Minnesota, and I liked being challenged on notions of what defines ‘culture’—I really came to see that there’s a lot of ambiguity around race and gender and sexuality.”
Kammen says she found the course “challenging, for sure,” especially because the writing-intensive course found her knuckling down to the page far more often than she was used to. “But it made me more aware of the many layers of culture and how connected the world is. Also, I realized I knew more about Chile [after studying abroad there] than I did about my home state. “Kale did a great job,” concluded Kammen. “I really learned a lot about Minnesota.”
AmSt 3113 Syllabus
as taught by Kale Fajardo, Fall 2006
Culture, Power, and Representation
Gary Okihiro, Common Ground: Reimagining American History
Peter Elbow, Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process
Bontoc Eulogy by Marlon Fuentes (film)
Minnesota: Imagining Communities
Inheriting the Land: Contemporary Voices from the Midwest
The Flatness and other Landscapes Imagining Home: Writing from the Midwest
Border Cultures, Border Crossings
Gloria Anzaldúa, La Frontera/Borderlands
Señorita extraviada (Missing young woman) by Lourdes Portillo (film)
Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife
Militarization, Migration, and Transnationalism
Lao Cao, Monkey Bridge
AKA Don Bonus by Spencer Nakasako (film)
Chris Abani, Graceland