Course explores Ferguson events through many perspectives

March 03, 2015

Penn State's Department of African American Studies and the College of the Liberal Arts are bringing a multidisciplinary perspective to bear as they study last summer’s events in Ferguson, Missouri. Penn State students enrolled in the African American studies course “The Fire This Time: Understanding Ferguson” will examine the historical context, the fatal interaction between police officer and citizen, and the resulting legal proceedings and protests.

Chris Long, associate dean of graduate and undergraduate education in the College of the Liberal Arts, is always looking for opportunities that enable students to bring a liberal arts perspective to bear on issues of immediate public concern.  

"The liberal arts have always given us powerful ways to study and understand our world," Long said. "The events in Ferguson call for a liberal arts approach because they are multidimensional. They require us to think critically, understand historically, analyze soberly, and respond ethically. This is what the liberal arts do, and it is what the students will do in this course."

Paul C. Taylor, chair of the African American studies department, worked on developing the course as a response to the events of last summer and fall. "The main goal is to help students put themselves in a position to engage productively with issues like the ones raised in Ferguson. This takes work, and that's the work we mean to do in the course,"  Taylor said.  

The course meets weekly on Monday evenings for five weeks throughout March and April, and involves faculty from a variety of departments and disciplines. The participation of many faculty will help students learn to bring diverse perspectives to bear on the events in Ferguson and on other important issues.  In light of the recent “die-ins” and protests led by Penn State student organizations, and the subsequent backlash against those events by members of the Penn State community, Taylor sees this as a crucial time and place to explore these issues in an academic setting.

"We are here in Happy Valley, miles and hours from major urban centers. This can seduce people into thinking that the issues in 'those places' are not our issues. But they are our issues, both because we are all citizens or residents of the U.S., and because versions of some of those issues rear their heads, in a big way, every few years on this campus. We need to get better at dealing with them,” he noted.

Students will meet criminology faculty to review the facts of the grand jury case of Officer Darren Wilson and will hear from psychology professors as they examine the role that media played throughout the court proceedings and protests. They will also discuss the duties of educational institutions like Penn State during these crises with faculty from philosophy.

Taylor sees this course as providing new ways for Penn State students to relate to their broader community. "If nothing else, I hope they get two things. First, a heightened interest in the discipline of taking up hard issues productively and responsibly. This would be an important counterweight to the easy, sloppy approaches we often adopt in mass media and social media," he said. "And second, specifically with regard to the Ferguson situation, I hope they are able to separate myth from fact, and to locate what facts we have in the wider contexts — sociological, historical, and so on — that make the facts meaningful."

The course is fully enrolled, but the department plans to offer it again in the future.


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 04, 2015