Purdue College of Liberal Arts logo THiNK Magazine logo

Course asks students to assess Indiana towns' inclusivity efforts


Fall 2019 | By Kirsten Gibson. Photo by Contributed.


Story's Main Image

On the Tuesday and Thursday mornings before finals week, Jay McCann’s class, a group of seniors on the brink of graduation, gave out varying grades – C-minus, B-plus, D-plus, A – to city councils, local businesses, and religious organizations.

The students analyzed the various aspects of civic life and how well they served growing immigrant populations in medium-sized cities across Indiana. They asked local libraries if they offered English-as-a-foreign-language classes, churches if they offered services in a language other than English, businesses if they sold goods that catered to immigrant populations.

The answer was often, “No dear, we do not.”

McCann, a professor of political science and an immigration expert, said he envisioned a senior seminar course that married scholarly research and current events. He wanted his students to use their research skills to dig deep while examining a largely ignored segment of the U.S. population: small- and medium-sized cities.

Ali Udell, a senior in political science, said she called all of the businesses and organizations she could think of that might serve immigrants in a suburban town close to Indianapolis. The results were disappointing.

“The results did surprise me because I expected something more shocking in regards to anti-immigration,” Udell said. “But ultimately it’s an ignorance-is-bliss mentality.”

The story, however, is not the same for every city audited. Frankfort, Indiana, is an example of what a city can do to integrate an influx of immigrants.

Luke Brown, a senior in history and political science, said Frankfort saw its immigrant population increase 100 percent between 2000 and 2010.

“Frankfort is set up for immigrants to get a job, get settled, and eventually create their own jobs,” Brown said during his presentation.

He gave Frankfort an A for its efforts.

“I didn’t see any barriers to immigration,” Brown said. “The only way I would lower the grade would be if there was something that took away from the existing inclusivity.”

This plunge into the systems and mechanizations of suburban cities, middle-of-nowhere oases, and industrial spinoffs was a way to show students that the intersection of political science theory and policy doesn’t just happen on Capitol Hill or at their state’s capitol.

“I wanted everyone to keep their social science hat on as we consider what is known about the drivers of migration and social prejudice, or the impediments faced by immigrants when trying to integrate into a democracy,” McCann said.

McCann began the class by taking students back to the 17th century and John Locke, and then to a century ago, when the last great wave of immigration occurred in the United States.

Layni Sprouse, a senior in political science, said she started to re-evaluate her own status as a citizen and what it meant to her.

“We read John Locke’s interpretations of citizenship and what it meant to be stateless,” Sprouse said. “Locke said that to be stateless is the worst thing a person can be. It really made me aware of what’s happening around us in Indiana in relation to the immigrant community.”

Without a formal guide for McCann to create the course – there are no textbooks or other pedagogical materials for this purpose – he had to build it piece by piece, incorporating current research on immigration and democracy.

McCann’s initial inspiration for the experimental course came from an unlikely source: bugs.

He adapted retired entomology professor Tom Turpin’s approach to teaching students about the creatures For each new student, Turpin assigned them a bug and a bug diary.

“An undergraduate who initially had no idea about bugs would really know a thing or two about bugs by the end of the term,” McCann said. “And that’s what I wanted the students to do: Adopt a city and gather extensive data to share.”