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“The Fire This Time”: Penn State Class Examines Crisis in Ferguson, Missouri

Ronald Sullivan addresses the class as Professor Paul Taylor looks on.
Erin Cassidy Hendrick

Eight months ago in Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown. Since then, the nation has been rocked by protests and debate. In response, the African American Studies department at Penn State University Park is offering a class to help students analyze what happened in Ferguson.

Professor Paul Taylor greets students and introduces today’s assignment -- discussing a grand jury hearing. But not one found in a dusty history book – they’re exploring the grand jury decision that declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.

“Our burden here was to help each other get into a more productive relationship with the complex and peculiar events that began last fall in Ferguson, Missouri,” Taylor said.

In the months that followed those events in Ferguson, racial tensions and protests became national news. Students at Penn State held several “Black Lives Matter” protests. 

In light of the interest, Taylor, who heads the African American Studies department at Penn State, worked with other professors to construct a class on the topic. Their efforts ultimately became the course “Understanding Ferguson: The Fire This Time.” Each session is meant to stimulate discussion about the controversy surrounding Michael Brown’s death.

“This is a window onto a broader issue and it’s something like this that happens in many, many communities around the country. And we need to figure out ways of talking about this,” Taylor said.

Each week of the course highlights the case through the lens of a different discipline. This session examines the legal aspects of the case. To present a well-rounded analysis, Taylor plans to feature experts from varying fields.

He explained, “We will have video interviews from psychologists, criminologists, sociologists, people in English who will talk about the narrative dimensions of the Ferguson affair, the way we construct a story around that and sort of slop people into characters. So it’s interdisciplinary in that sense, people will be bringing a lot of different disciplinary resources to bear on the course.”

This week, the class is joined virtually by Ronald Sullivan, a professor at Harvard Law School. Speaking over a webcam connection, Sullivan adds legal background and analysis as students type away.

Interest in the class was tremendous. It reached full enrollment before it was even advertised. Natalia Tyndall is a junior majoring in English. She’s one of the thirty-some students who got into the “Understanding Ferguson” class.

“I enrolled in this class because the topic really interests me. I have an emotional response obviously, to the events that happened in Ferguson and I wanted to know what other people thought about it, so it’s interesting that it’s been put into a class format,” Tyndall said.

Once the class has ended, Taylor hopes students learn to approach issues in a more critical and balanced way. “It’s about shaping our students, or helping them shape themselves, to be people, citizens who can engage the world responsibly. So we hope they get a sense of what it means to engage an event like this, critically, carefully and responsibly, not responding immediately in knee-jerk ways,” he said.

Taylor believes this class will become a permanent offering, especially as racial politics continue to make headlines in the United States. 

Erin Cassidy Hendrick was an associate producer at WPSU. She produced the programs “BookMark” and “This I Believe” for the station.
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