Now in its fifth year, Education 135J: Multicultural Literacy—which gives students skills to understand, respect, and communicate across differences—reigns as the most popular Jan Plan course. This year 79 students in four sections taught by different instructors took the three-credit course.

“Our original goal,” said Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard, who was in on creation of the course and taught one of the sections this year, “was to really change the culture of the student body through curriculum.” And anecdotal evidence from students suggests the course is having an impact.

Students present Colby Action Research Projects at the Multicultural Literacy Fair Jan. 27 in Cotter Union.

Students present Colby Action Research Projects at the Multicultural Literacy Fair Jan. 27 in Cotter Union.

Students develop an understanding of how privilege and oppression work in society and on campus. That changes their behavior, and their insights ripple through the student body as they talk in dining halls and dorms about what they’re learning, according to a number of students who took the course this year.

“Students typically come in having no idea of what the concepts of privilege and oppression are,” Howard said as the term wrapped up this year. “No understanding. They have never been taught that by their parents or their schooling. Never had a serious, critical conversation about issues of race, sex, gender, class, ability, and so on.”

Out of 21 students in Howard’s class this year, only two said they had any introduction or preparation in this area before taking Multicultural Literacy, Howard said. So it’s hardly surprising, he said, that students struggle with manifestations of privilege and oppression at work in broader society and uniquely at work on a campus like Colby’s.

“Our students don’t intentionally mean to hurt others, but because they don’t have the knowledge—the necessary preparation—they do it,” Howard said. “We have to help them become productive members of a diverse community, and that means not doing things that would alienate others or hurt others.”

Multicultural Literacy aims to help first-year students understand and respect differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social class, religion, and ability. The course also helps students master key theoretical concepts in the fields of diversity and social justice, and its goals are to help them communicate effectively across differences, manage conflict in positive ways, and intervene in negative situations. Howard told his students that knowledge is important, but understanding is what he really wants the Jan Plan to impart. “We can know a lot of stuff and not do a damn thing about it,” he said.

Some 2016 Multicultural Literacy Action Projects

Exploring the Racial Rift at Colby College

(Dis)ability on Mayflower Hill

Microaggressions at Colby

The Social Class Divide Between Colby and Waterville

Test-Optional: Ableism and Race

Sexuality in Athletics

Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

A 12-year Plan to Improve Diversity at Colby

Hook-Up Culture at Colby

Social Class and Athletics at Colby

Conversations don’t end in the classroom. Many students who take the course engage deeply in efforts to make Colby’s community more welcoming, equitable, and just, including those in several sections that have continued the work in weekly or monthly meetings through the spring semester.

One reason the course is so popular is word of mouth recommendations from students who took it in previous years. “I chose Multicultural Literacy because I heard from a lot of upperclassmen that it was a really good class to take during Jan Plan,” Rachel Leonard ’19 wrote in an email.

Leonard summed up her experience in a presentation that she submitted to Howard at the end of the month: “Now that it is January 28, the easy part is over. It’s time to see if we can actually apply what we’ve learned and make Colby a better place.”