3. Residence Life, the Shaha Troupe, and Social Justice Education at U Mass Amherst

Tom Wood

Our posting of 11 December (below), "Psychotherapeutic Interventions, Transformative Learning, and the Dorms of U Delaware," was the second in a series that will attempt to assess whether and to what extent U Delaware's ResLife diversity training program might be typical of programs at other universities.

"Psychotherapeutic interventions" focused on Shakti Butler, the architect of that particular program. Butler stresses the importance of transformative education, according to which the educator must focus on creating experiences that result in a "deep, structural shift in thoughts and feelings," using techniques very different from those of traditional pedagogy. In this Butler is hardly unique. She is instead representative of a very widespread trend in higher education (called "living-learning"), in which experience-based, non-traditional forms of learning are used to blur and even erase the lines between classroom learning and residential life.

Since this pedagogy is new and will likely appear quite alien to those who are familiar only with the traditional, pre-postmodern one, it is best to cite some specific examples. In this posting, we begin with UMass Amherst. At UMass, the new pedagogy is well represented in the school of education and in residence life programs. Even more interestingly, UMass Amherst has to a great extent integrated the two.

 

SHAHA

At U Mass, the principal interface is a program called "Shaha." (Who knows what "Shaha" means? The web site does not say.) Shaha's program description is found in the Housing and Residence Life section of the university's web site. The site makes it very hard to discern exactly how the Shaha troupe is supported and organized. However, something like an organization chart can be constructed after considerable effort has been expended on mastering the Byzantine, and apparently unplanned, complexities of the heavily-interlinked pages that pop up from searching "Shaha" on the UMass site.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life (HRL) at the University supports something called the Residence Life Resource Center (RLRC). (This was formerly called the Center for Diversity and Development.) According to the Housing and Residence Life's "RA/ALA Online Manual," the RLRC is a "resource center for Residence Life staff and residential student leaders in their efforts to promote community, diversity, leadership and student development within the residence hall communities." It has "staff development tools (games, stress relief toys), bulletin board kits, an Ellison letter press, poster making supplies, computer and color printer, button maker, label maker and a black and white copier" that are among the "many resources available to staff and student leaders."

A page that describes the Resident Assistant Selection Process lists the reasons one would want to be an RA (Residence Assistant) at UMass. One of these is that one learns to be a "Programmer." This function is described as follows:

Programmer: Offering educational and social opportunities for residents is an important piece of the RA's job.
Programming requirements may vary from cluster to cluster however the departmental expectation is for each RA to offer one educational and one social program for his or her residents each month. By using campus resources and with the help of the Senior Staff members and the Residence Life Resource Center, RAs offer exceptional programs that enlighten and entertain thousands of residents each year.
The Shaha Storyteller troupe is one of the principal programs offered by HRL at the university. The members of the troupe are undergraduate students who participate in it and qualify for it by taking two courses (for credit) at the university. The troupe's primary purpose is to provide didactic theater for the residence halls on campus.

According to its mission statement, the Shaha Storytellers "support Residence Life's commitment to multiculturalism by providing learning opportunities to students around issues of inclusion, social justice, and multiculturalism through theatre-based peer education."

Any Amherst campus groups and schools within the Five College System may request a Shaha performance. For on-campus groups there is no charge for a performance. The Department of Residence Life is also willing to provide a limited number of performances by Shaha to universities and agencies off campus and outside the Five College System. The charge for one off-campus performance by the troupe is $200, payable to UMass Amherst - Residence Life.

The HRL promotional literature for the troupe is interesting. Why Diversity Peer Theatre, one might ask? Here is the university's answer:

 

Multi-sensory appeal
Theatre appeals to many senses and using this as a forum for education is unique, creative, and appealing to an audience who is used to learning in predominantly traditional lecture style.

Allows varying levels of involvement from the learner
Audience members can choose their desired level of involvement without any fear of judgment. At most diversity education experiences, high levels of participation and personal risk-taking is desired and a constructed part of the design. Students who choose to be silent participants tend to opt out of such experiences. In this setting, silent observation is considered just as "normal" as being vocal.

Comfortable balance between support and challenge
Audience members' viewpoints are indirectly challenged, but they are permitted to learn at their own pace without fear of being singled-out or confronted publicly by their peers.

Delivering the education at home
The performances can occur in almost any setting, including residence hall lounges. This increases the opportunity to impact the students who wouldn't go out of their way to attend events related to diversity issues.

Delivering education through entertainment
Probably the most popular strength of this medium. The combination of entertainment and education is rare, and keeps the students coming back.

The messages are portrayed using variations in emotions
Serious topics can be lightened; the seriousness of easily trivialized topics, and over-simplified issues can be portrayed in dramatically impactful ways.
 


The list of topics covered by the Shaha Storyteller troupe clearly shows its ideological orientation: 
 

One Liners
This skit is a short, quick look at some of the things we hear and think in regard to these issues -- some are offensive, others just questioning, and a few are inner thoughts or feelings that we might have that we are afraid to voice.
Issues explored: racism, sexism, gender oppression, ableism, heterosexism, classism

National Anthem #2
These skits are unique uses of the United States National Anthem to challenge some of the racist, sexist, classist, and exclusionary beliefs and actions that people experience regularly in the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave."
Issues explored: exclusion, lack of community, injustice

Would You Monologue
This is a monologue that explores complex issues of personal wellness and strength. A woman finding empowerment in self and reclaiming strength.
Issues explored: gender oppression, perceptions, strength

Excuses 101
Most us of have not been raised to engage in healthy dialogue around issues of diversity, respect, and differences. We have been more likely trained in ways to excuse or justify our behavior, languages and actions. This skit is a humorous play on these notions and exemplifies some of these defense mechanisms we hold in place to avoid real dialogue.
Issues explored: internalized subordination and domination.

Voices Behind
This is a skit that allows the audience to hear the inner voice of individuals wrestling with others who are different from themselves, and the inner thoughts when we are trying not to offend others but limit our ability to be authentic with one another.
Issues explored: socialization, racism, sexual orientation

Being of Lower Income Monologue
This is another monologue that further explores the difficulty of class and injustice associated with being of lower income in a middle class world.
Issue explored: classism

Survival! Of the Privilege
This is an entertaining, yet poignant skit touching upon systems of oppression that privilege certain groups at the expense of others. There is clearly a game show feel to the skit intertwined with factual cases that adds levity to the performance.
Issues explored: institutional oppression - classism, racism, religion

I'm Not Racist
This skit specifically explores white privilege, whiteness, and internalized domination around race that tends to occur all around us without the awareness of some of the white people who benefit from it.
Issues explored: white privilege, whiteness

Cold Within
This is a poignant poetry reading of a powerful piece that explores "human's inhumanity to human" and the consequences of such inhumanity.
Issues explored: racism, classism, religious oppression, exclusion

One Liners…Parting Thoughts
Much like "The Matrix" reloaded and revolved, we get the opportunity to "revisit" our One Liners skit. Where the original skit shouts out overly used oppressive statements, the revisited version shouts out under-used liberatory statements that we hope audience members will bring into their everyday language.
Issues explored: hope, revolution, liberation
 

Integration with the Ed School Curriculum: The "Shaha Course"-- Educ 258 and Educ 291e -- and Others

There is a page on the web site (also in the section entitled "House and Residence Life") that purports to provide "Shaha Course Information." It says: 


Wanna Be A Part of Shaha?
Criteria for Troupe Eligibility

All undergraduate students at UMass Amherst (and the Five College System) have the opportunity to become an active member of Shaha. The process is a two-part course enrollment that can be fulfilled simultaneously (with instructor consent) or is sequential semesters. The first course, EDUC 258, is required for all interested students (unless special arrangements have been made with consent of the instructor). For the second course, EDUC 291E, with permission from the instructor, those who successfully complete EDUC 258 may enroll in the practicum to perform with the troupe. If an individual has had similar or related training and is interested in performing with the troupe exceptions could be made after meeting with the instructor.


Below that, the page says: 

Below is a general overview of the two courses. Interested students are certainly welcome to contact the instructor directly for more information.
Contact Kathy Sisneros, Graduate Assistant for Community Development at:
413-577-1103 or ksisnero@gw.housing.umass.edu
Download a sample syllabus (pdf) to learn more about the course.
The complexity -- one might even say, the mystery -- deepens when one clicks the link to the "sample syllabus." The link leads to an undated PDF document. No author is given. The Document Properties sheet for the course syllabus, however, tells us that it was created on 11/19/2004. The author in the Document Properties sheet is given as ABOURBEA.
Searching for "ABOURBEA" on the web site yields the name of an Anne Bourbeau. A Google search tells us that Ms. Bourbeau is, or has been, associated with "gw.housing.umass.edu" and also with STUAF (abourbea@stuaf.umass.edu). STUAF stands for the Office of Student Affairs and Campus Life, which, among other things, runs something called the Community, Diversity and Social Justice Initiative.

The "sample syllabus" (pdf), to which our attention has been invited to learn more about the course (the course itself not being otherwise specified or tied to the university's catalog or general list of course offerings in any way), gives the following contacts for more information about "the course":
Instructors:
Tanya Williams (primary contact)
Teaching Assistant
Doctoral Student, Social Justice Education
Center for Diversity and Development Grad Office
7-1103, tanyaw@educ.umass.edu
Office Hours: TBA

Chase Catalano
Assistant Resident Director, Webster-Dickinson
Doctoral Student, Social Justice Education
7-4103, dcatalan@educ.umass.edu
Anjali Singh

Adjunct Lecturer in Education
Community Development Specialist
Center for Diversity and Development
577-2119, asingh@gw.housing.umass.edu

The "Exploring the Crossroads of Diversity Education and Peer Theatre" document appears, then, to actually be a kind of prospectus, drawn up by a dean or assistant dean of Housing and Residence Life, or perhaps the Student Affairs Office, for a course that was designed, at least in part, to support and develop the Shaha Storyteller troupe. Though the "sample syllabus" is found in the Housing and Residence Life (HRL) section of the university's web site, there is no evidence that HRL offers any courses for credit at UMass, or that it ever did. This must mean that the "sample syllabus" actually outlines a proposed course that eventually became EDUC 258, which is offered in the School of Education.

The following is the Ed School's description of the course EDUC 258: 

EDUC 258 1 ED SJ DIV PEER THEAT [Education: Social Justice Division: Peer Theatre]
Students in this class develop dramatic scenarios to engage their peers with issues of diversity and social justice. This class explores social justice issues on personal, institutional and societal levels, as experienced in schools, families, neighborhoods and on this campus. Students completing this course continue in later semesters with the theatrical troupe "Shaha: the Storytellers." 

EDUC 291E S-THEATRE SOC CHANGE [THEATRE SOCIAL CHANGE]
"Shaha: The Storytellers", a diversity peer education troupe is a theatre-based program that is educational, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Shaha members perform short scenarios touching on issues of social justice and oppression that many of us are faced with in our day-to-day lives. This seminar is part two of a year long commitment involving two components: a training course in the Fall, and a performance course in the Spring. The Spring course is primarily the performance portion of the Shaha experience. 

These two courses are components of a larger educational scheme. They are "complemented" by other offerings. It is worth our while to examine some of these, since, like EDUC 258 and 291, they show the same emphasis on personal change and experience-based learning rather than anything that is even remotely recognizable as traditional pedagogy. 

EDUC 292A 1 S-VOICES AGNST VIOLN [VOICES AGAINST VIOLENCE]
The Voices Against Violence model is focused on a "bystander" model that empowers each participant to take an active role in promoting a positive community. … At the heart of the Voices Against Violence model is the exploration of real-life scenarios through interactive discussion and role-plays. Participants learn that there is not simply "one way" to confront violence, but that each individual can learn valuable skills to build their personal resolve and to act when faced with difficult or threatening life situations. 

EDUC 293A 1 S-LOVE AND WORK
This class will develop the skills needed to begin to understand the complex components of human relationships, career decisions and life values, with an assumption that part of being an effective adult is an ever-increasing self-awareness of one's strengths and deficits. Students will also increase the ability to make self-aware and intentional decisions about work and relationships in order to become more successful and happy adults

 

There are also the following workshops and practicum:
 

EDUC 392D 1 S-SOC ISS:RACISM [SOCIAL ISSUES: RACISM]
Workshop addresses the dynamics of racism on personal and institutional levels.

EDUC 392E 1 S-SOC ISS:SEXISM [SOCIAL ISSUES: SEXISM]
Workshop addresses the dynamics of sexism on personal and institutional levels.

S-SOC ISS:HETSEXISM [SOCIAL ISSUES: HETEROSEXISM]
Workshop addresses the dynamics of heterosexism on personal and institutional levels

EDUC 691G 1 S-PRAC REFLCTVE PRAC [REFLECTIVE PRACTICUM]
The practicum is designed to provide an opportunity for participants in the Social Justice Education Reflective Practitioner Development Program to reflect on their development and increase their levels of self-awareness as Social Justice educators. Participants apply liberation and oppression theory in the design, development and delivery of weekend workshops on the "ISMS." Participants demonstrate knowledge of workshop design, practice facilitation skills, and work with others to demonstrate increased team capacity building.

 

COMING UP

Housing and Residence Life has gotten us started on answering the question, "How many Delawares?" HRL - UMass Amherst shows pretty clearly that U Delaware is not unique. Although the Shaha troupe and the courses developed around it and for it are not mandatory, many of the same pernicious and sinister elements of Shakti Butler's U Delaware program can be found at UMass. One of the most worrisome, it seems to me, is the disregard in both of any notion that a university is about imparting critical skills and transmitting enough of the significant intellectual and academic heritage of mankind to enable graduates to navigate in the wider world. That is, it is not simply the obvious and overwhelming ideological bias of these programs that is worrisome: the whole pedagogy that supports it does not belong in the university.

Perhaps future postings will uncover more of this stuff.

Stay tuned.

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