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Program Review


Ethnic Studies (ES) became a department in 1994, and the Academic Senate approved the minor in Ethnic Studies on January 18 of that same year—making Cal Poly the last campus in the CSU system to have an ES minor. The department did not have a major (Comparative Ethnic Studies) until November 2005, after the department proposed the major and it was reviewed and recommended at various levels of the university and approved by the Chancellor’s Office. The first internal transfer students for the major were accepted during Winter 2005, and the first new first-year and upper-division transfer class of majors enrolled in Fall 2006. About 100 scholars have graduated Cal Poly with a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Ethnic Studies (CES). As for currently enrolled students, there are 68 students with a declared CES major and more in the process of changing into the CES major or double majoring.10 We also have over 70 students minoring in Ethnic Studies.

As the protests during Spring 2018 remind us, student activism has long been foundational to the development of Ethnic Studies and our department. In response to a member of a Cal Poly fraternity wearing blackface, in particular during PolyCultural Weekend (April 2018), students protested the incident, the University’s response, and its history of creating conditions where racist acts continue to take place. The Drylongso Collective put forth student demands, compiled from online submissions by students, for addressing this specific incident and the university climate more broadly. Their demands reiterate the demands made in earlier periods of student protests against institutionalized racism at Cal Poly—for culturally relevant education, for campus demographics that reflect the state’s demographics, and for improving campus climate. It was student protests in 1968 that led to the creation of the first Ethnic Studies program at Cal Poly. And it was student protests in the early 1990s that led to the revival of the Ethnic Studies department (it had disappeared in the 1980s) and to the creation of the ES minor and USCP requirement.

Ethnic Studies, both as an intellectual project and a social movement, arose from the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The first academic programs were established at California State University, Los Angeles (Mexican American Studies) in 1968 and at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) and UC Berkeley in 1969, following student protests and strikes advocating for a way to give voice to underrepresented individuals and groups of this nation.

Within this same moment, students of color at Cal Poly—namely the Black Students Union, United Mexican-American Students Union, and Third World—advocated for an ethnic studies curriculum. The University, under President Robert E. Kennedy, created the Campus Wide Committee on Ethnic Studies, which included faculty members from departments throughout the School of Applied Arts. The Ethnic Studies Program was created in 1969, with the first coordinator Richard A. Martínez, who was also the first Director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), hired in Fall 1969. Ethnic Studies courses were taught by faculty in other departments in School of Applied Arts and School of Applied Sciences. The first courses with specifically an Ethnic Studies prefix—Eth S 105 (Introduction to Ethnic Studies) and Eth S 114 (Racism in American Culture)—appear in the 1972-73 Cal Poly Catalog. In the 1971-72 Catalog, the Ethnic Studies department is listed with David J. Sánchez as the chair; later David J. Sánchez would be the long-serving chair/coordinator of the department/program, which was in the School of Human Development and Education along with Child Development, Education, Home Economics, Physical Education, and Psychology departments. Then in 1990, Ethnic Studies moved to the School (now College) of Liberal Arts with Robert Gish serving as the Director.

In addition to the Comparative Ethnic Studies major, the department also has minors in Ethnic Studies and in Indigenous Studies in Natural Resources and the Environment (a joint minor with the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences department in the College of Agriculture). It also offers many of the courses that fulfill the University’s USCP (U.S. Cultural Pluralism) requirement for the baccalaureate degree, which was passed by the Academic Senate in 1992 as a part of the same movement that created the ES minor and department. Fifty years after its founding, the department continues to remain rooted in critical analysis and community building centered on social justice and equity.

Purpose and Goals

Ethnic Studies is an intellectual and political project that uses inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to understand and transform enactments of power, to which, in the modern era, productions of race and ethnicity have been central.

We understand “race” as a dynamic ideological and institutional framework through which exercises of power and oppression as well as struggles for liberation and self-determination are articulated and enabled. “Ethnicity” refers to a group identity based on a presumed common ancestry, language, history, and cultural practices.

The aim of the Ethnic Studies curriculum is to provide students with an understanding of the historical processes (including slavery, capitalism, genocide, colonialism, nativism, war) that form the United States as a nation-state and as an imagined community, and their differential impact on diverse communities within local, national, and global contexts.

Ethnic studies critically attends to research methodologies and frameworks of knowledge in order to examine how these legacies impact access to political power, allocate economic resources, and influence cultural expression. We understand that dominant Western modes of inquiry in the sciences and humanities constrain what kinds of questions we ask, what kinds of studies we pursue, and how we interpret phenomena. To challenge these constraints, Ethnic Studies courses draw from and engage with a number of academic fields, including: post/decolonial studies, cultural studies, human rights studies, Indigenous studies, migration studies, legal studies, environmental studies, gender studies, sexuality and queer studies, and science and technology studies.

Through a critical and comparative study of interlocking and intersecting systems of oppression embedded in the formation of the U.S. nation, students develop a greater understanding of the legacies of racism, discrimination, and inequity in the United States as well as of the movements for social justice. Students also learn about diverse peoples of America, specifically Indigenous Peoples, Latinx, and the African and Asian diaspora who have been historically displaced, disenfranchised, and silenced.

Emerging as a challenge to the university as an apparatus for reproducing relationships of power and rooted in decolonizing movements in the 20th century, Ethnic Studies seeks to provide a relevant education—one that has a deep commitment to justice, equity, and social and institutional transformation.

Program Learning Objectives

A. Define and apply key concepts, contexts, and scholarship in Ethnic Studies.

B. Demonstrate understanding of the specificities of heterogeneous communities shaped by and shaping the U.S. nation-state in addition to broad ethnic studies concepts and contexts.

C. Apply inter- and multidisciplinary, comparative, and intersectional approaches to critically analyze discourses, practices, and institutions that maintain structural inequality.

D. Communicate in writing and in alternative media one’s own arguments and the arguments of others within the field of ethnic studies and in at least one other discipline.

E. Design and implement research projects that account for the limits and potentials of humanities and social science methodologies and acknowledge competing frameworks of knowledge to understand US racial formations.

F. Apply acquired knowledge and skills toward academic, professional, personal, and community development.


Within individual courses, our faculty incorporate high-impact approaches to engaging with course content and concepts. Courses like “Hip Hop Politics and Poetics” and “Beyoncé: Race, Feminism, and Politics” bring together popular cultural texts that students know so well with critical and materially grounded understandings of larger topics like race and politics, black feminism, and cultural production. With these courses, students take what they have learned and produce a culminating campus event presenting both creative and critical works. A number of faculty incorporate service learning or community-based learning projects in their courses, bringing the classroom to the community and the community into the classroom.

Part of the pedagogical design of the degree program is to create an intellectual community, especially for a relatively small cohort of majors, so that there are more opportunities to be engaged with the ethnic studies content and concepts at a higher level. New CES majors are blocked into a smaller section of ES 112. They then take ES 114 together, a recently designed course where CES majors learn about the history and origins of the Ethnic Studies movement.

The Senior Project is completed over three quarters where students critically and comparatively examine research and fieldwork methods before determining their own research methodologies. The senior project represents the culmination of the program, with students designing and implementing their own research projects and applying the content and concepts learned from their ethnic studies coursework.

A key pedagogical approach of ethnic studies and our department is inter- and trans-disciplinary methods and engagement with the limits of disciplinary formations and with institutional and academic reproduction of power and the empowered. The courses and the program design more broadly address research and learning through different frameworks, providing critical perspectives and analysis on communities and identities that are too often overlooked or not understood.

Persistence and Graduation

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