Confronting Humanity’s Urgent Challenges

Black and white photo of protesters marching in support of Black lives.


The protests and calls for change spurred by the shocking death of George Floyd along with the COVID-19 pandemic will likely impact society for years to come. USD professors say students shouldn’t wait to read about them in textbooks; the time to start the discussion is now.

This fall, the course Black Lives Matter: Interdisciplinary Perspectives will explore this moment of social and historical change by looking at issues of systemic racism and the longstanding policies and practices that have led to inequities in criminal justice, the economy, education, health care and other sectors.

“I hope students will take a brave look at anti-Blackness and commit themselves to learning how to personally divest from attitudes and systems of white privilege and build antiracist, intersectional solidarity in their everyday lives,” says Associate Professor and Ethnic Studies Chair May Fu, co-coordinator for the course. “As Black Live Matters organizers remind us, ‘when Black people get free, we all get free.’”

The course will bring together more than 20 faculty members from across the university including the College of Arts and Sciences and the schools of Business, Education, Engineering and Nursing.

“By including multi-disciplines in a single course, students are better able to understand that Black resistance and the goal of dismantling white supremacy are multifaceted and multidimensional,” says Associate Professor of Communication Studies Jillian Tullis, the second co-coordinator. “No single perspective has all the solutions.”

The one-unit course is designed for first- and second-year students but all students may enroll. Each week features a faculty panel that will address a different theme such as issues of anti-Blackness in science and technology, mass incarceration and policing, popular culture and media, and Black and LGBTQ+ feminisms.

Students will have the opportunity to read some of the latest works by authors, such as Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Courses like this are “at the core of our university’s mission to create a diverse and inclusive community,” adds Tullis. “We can’t practice an ethic of care or accomplish the university’s mission without addressing this urgent challenge.”

Students say they are excited about the positive changes that a class like this and other actions can create for USD.

Ethnic studies senior Gianna Pray hopes the class will help create “safe spaces” for all students and is “thankful the university is adapting to these necessary changes in our nation and is supporting Black Lives Matters from their academic structure.” 

The format for the new BLM course was influenced by an interdisciplinary course taught over the summer about COVID-19. Throughout history, contagions, plagues and pandemics have profoundly changed the shape of societies and contributed to scholarly and academic inquiry and knowledge.

The course, Pandemic Times: Human Experiences and Responses, offered through USD’s Humanities Center, looked at COVID-19 from a variety of disciplines. One class, for example, brought professors from biology, history and physics to explore the definition of a pandemic and its many impacts while another brought engineering, theology, political science and language professors together to discuss the responsibilities of global citizenship during such critical times.

The course was “a remarkable example of an interdisciplinary class for incoming students and really highlights what USD offers as a liberal institution,” says College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Ron Kaufmann. “A class that introduces students to these and other ways of considering the pandemic while it’s happening will deepen their understanding of current events and inform their responses in ways that would be difficult long after the pandemic ends.”

A course in the School of Business over the summer looked at the economic impacts from the pandemic. After starting in oneegion, “COVID-19 rapidly spread to other areas around the world within a short duration,” notes Economics Chair and Professor Alyson Ma. “Unlike previous pandemics or outbreaks or even the Great Recession, the world is simultaneously experiencing various containment policies. This act alone will have economic shocks that have no historical equal.”

The COVID Economics class explored the pandemic from multiple angles, including its impact on the global economy, the industries and communities most affected, and the trade-offs between lives, economic recession and work safety.

Speakers from Google and Amazon provided real-world examples on how their firms were affected. Students found the class compelling, says Ma. Many “noted that the assignments did not seem like work since they were given the freedom to select countries, industries and companies they wanted to learn more about.” — Liz Harman

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