Student-Led Protest Demands Decolonization of HSS Curriculum

By Brian Frost (EE ‘19), Matthew Grattan (BSE ‘19), and George Ho (BSE ‘19)

Students from the art, architecture, and engineering schools are protesting Monday against the core curriculum of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences before HSS-3 lecture, a course mandatory for all students.

According to the Facebook event for the student-organized protest: “We are not looking to completely cancel the class, we are asking to decolonize our curriculum. We are asking for better teachers. We are asking for professors of color. We are telling you that the HSS admin is racist. We are telling you that it is not a coincidence that most students failing hss are students of color. We are telling you that all students who take HSS think its a waste of time. The curriculum that is being taught to us is INCOMPLETE.”

Last Friday, President Laura Sparks held an open conversation in her office so that students could express concerns about not only the HSS curriculum and faculty but also diversity across the entire school. At the meeting, President Sparks requested that the conversation be kept off the record. Thus far, this meeting has been the only action taken by the school.

Posters first appeared last Monday in 41 Cooper Square and the Foundation Building, encouraging students to boycott humanities and social science classes. The posters asked students if they believed the structure of HSS courses to be “a microaggression.”

Since Monday, a large number of posters have appeared around the NAB and Foundation Building. These posters largely address the issue of diversity at Cooper Union, both within and without the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Some are designed to point out the lack of diversity in the faculty, with one noting that all nine full-time faculty members in the HSS department are white, and another demanding more professors from minority groups. Others attack a lack of diversity in the curriculum; “Fact: You’re learning an incomplete history” reads one such poster.

There are even posters about the response to the posters, with one reading “Fact: This is NOT an attack on white people. This is an attack on whiteness,” and another telling student to “STOP LAUGHING” and trust the opinions presented on the other posters.

The most unique among these posters is an essay written by Mia Lockhart, a student in the School of Art. The essay details a personal encounter with Professor Geoff Kaplan of the art faculty, which the student found to be troubling on account of the way the professor handled race and made assumptions about the student’s situation. This essay indicates that while the protests and the majority of the posters are directed at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, there are students who feel that the issue extends into other departments as well.

The posters inspired several written arguments on Cooper-affiliated Facebook groups. Critics of the posters expressed that the language was incendiary and that posting them so widely was unnecessary.

The posters and Facebook threads are reminiscent of last semester’s contact hour cuts in the School of Engineering, during which strongly worded posters lead to extensive discourse on Cooper Union Facebook groups.

The two situations are similar in that the students are demanding an active role in Cooper’s pedagogy. In order to create a thorough and diverse humanities and social sciences curriculum, time would likely have to be taken from major-specific classes. These conflicts question whether depth or breadth is more important in higher education—especially in a specialized college like The Cooper Union.

This is not the first time students have been critical of the core humanities and social sciences curriculum. In 2016, over 300 students signed a petition demanding that the HSS faculty “dismantle the racial, cissexist biases” that motivate the department. In addition, the petition requested that the department commit to affirmative action for future faculty appointments.

The 2016 petition was released around the same time that the HSS department hired Professors Diego Malquori and Raffaele Bedarida, the first new full-time faculty in over a decade.

In response to the 2016 petition,Professor of History Atina Grossmann questioned in an open letter: “What are you as students willing to sacrifice in terms of your own major to have the kind of curriculum the petition demands?”

This ongoing conflict is a microcosm of larger diversity issues on campus. These include the statistical makeup of the student body on the basis of race and gender, and the behavior of certain faculty on issues of identity. The creation of the Diversity Task Force indicates that the administration recognizes the complexity of diversity in higher education.

Over the past three years, students have expressed interest in having an active role in the design of their curricula, while desiring greater diversity across the school.

Correction: This article was published in Issue 1, Volume 98 of The Pioneer on Oct. 29 with the headline “Student-Led Protest Demands ‘Decolonization’ of HSS Curriculum.” The quotation marks around decolonization implied unintentional and unnecessary skepticism about the protest.

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