Each Monday at 4 p.m. this semester, the 35 students enrolled in “History of Mr. Jefferson’s University” join Zoom or enter McLeod Hall to participate in a dialogue with speakers who have shaped the University’s history. The interdisciplinary class aims to provide students with a more nuanced understanding of the history of the University.
Each year, INST 1605 is taught by a pair or trio of members of the University Guide Service, a voluntary student-run tour service that offers both historical and admissions tours of the University. After completing an application detailing their motivations for teaching the class and applicable experiences, applicants are selected by the previous semester’s facilitators. Typically, only a few students apply each year.
This semester, the class is taught by third-year College students Reva Joshi and Eleanor Hawkes, who have both been members of the U-Guides since fall of 2019. Facilitators are not required to cover any specific topics, so each instructor is given the flexibility to highlight different aspects of the University’s history based on their interests. Hawkes and Joshi chose to incorporate their interest in student activism and Indigenous history during their sections this semester.
When asked about her initial motivation to teach the class, Hawkes discussed both her interest in gaining experience facilitating discussions — as she hopes to one day become a teacher — and her previous lack of depth when it came to knowledge of the University’s history. Following a semester of training for the U-Guides, Hawkes was forced to reckon with how little she knew about the University she attended despite walking by its history everyday.
“I was like, ‘How does every student not have to take this?’ It should be mandatory to know more [about the University],” Hawkes said. “You’re walking around on it everyday and so many of us — including me before I was a part of it, — just don’t know anything about it, so I wanted to bring that experience to more students outside of Guides.”
Joshi was inspired to apply by past students who have helped shape the University into the place it is today and hopes to convince students in the class that the history of the University isn’t over yet.
“I remember when I was trying out for U-Guides they were going to unveil the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers,” Joshi said. “I didn’t realize how much goes on at the University that most students who pass through don’t know or understand, and I was excited that there’s a class that formally facilitates [this learning].”
For Joshi, the ideal ending to the class would leave students walking away looking into the future and using what they’ve learned to think about what comes next.
“I wanted to introduce first years and other students at U.Va. to its history from a very critical lens and especially from the perspective that we are living in it, that it’s not over yet [and] that we have so much progress yet to be made that students are working on,” Joshi said.
Joshi and Hawkes note that the pervasive narratives surrounding the progression of the University require reframing and hope to provide students with the necessary tools to re-evaluate what they know about their University.
“The main narrative is that U.Va. is perfect and its rich history begins and ends with Jefferson — that his ideals of learning and the pursuit of knowledge shape U.Va.,” Joshi said. “Yet his ideals about slavery and hierarchy also shape U.Va. in a rather dark way, so we definitely need to reframe that and highlight that since the University’s inception, what are the things that have gone wrong and who has done the work to correct such things.”
The University was founded in 1819 by Jefferson, who sought to create a space where students and faculty could live and learn together. HIs plans for the academical village were brought to life almost entirely by enslaved laborers — the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University released a report in 2018 that acknowledged that “slavery, in every way imaginable, was central to the project of designing, funding, building, and maintaining the school.” Jefferson was “intimately” connected with slavery and believed it was important to educate students in an institution which supported slavery.
Third-year College student Audrey Shaw joined the class wanting to learn more about who built the institution she attends and gain a greater understanding about which narratives dominate the University’s history. As an American Studies major, Shaw felt as if the history of the University she attends was a crucial part of her education that had been missing until now.
Students are encouraged to use the class as a starting point for getting more involved with issue areas around the University they’re interested in. Kamya Sanjay, second-year College student and former student in INST 1605, wanted to get as many perspectives on the history of the University as possible. For Sanjay, the knowledge she gained in class is only the beginning.
“We have a painful history with Black and brown folks in particular and have a very complicated relationship with historic communities around Charlottesville,” Sanjay said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Education on the University's past transgressions is honestly the bare minimum for what we can commit to right now.”
Despite being taught as a hybrid class, both in-person and virtual students are offered an opportunity to engage with lecturers through the preparation of lecture questions each week and a discussion amongst the group at the end of the speaker’s initial presentation.
Third-year College student Kate Schneider, who’s majoring in History, took the class hoping that a nuanced understanding of the University’s history would help her become an effective and engaged member of the University community.
“Having a different guest speaker each week allows us to be introduced to a wide variety of topics by those most familiar and knowledgeable about the subject area, and the hybrid class format makes it more accessible for those experts to share their knowledge with us over Zoom,” Schneider wrote in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
With such a wide array of lecturers — ranging from Guy Lopez of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, a group which has roots originating in South Dakota, speaking on Indigenous history to Monticello Guide Brandon Dillard offering insight into Jefferson’s life — students report finding themselves constantly reinventing their conceptions of the history of the University. Lecturers are invited to talk about their relationship with the University — as many of them work at or attended the University — or general topics such as historical narratives, the history of oppressed minorities, and social activism.
Based on their personal interests and lived experiences, many students are drawn to one particular talk throughout the course of the class. For Sanjay, this was a lecture by previous University student leaders Bud Ogle and Tom Gardner on organizing at the University in the 1960s and 1970s.
While attending the University, Ogle notably used his position on the Student Council to call for a Black Studies Program in 1968 while Gardner helped lead efforts in 1969 to hire a Black assistant dean, increase wages for workers and make application fees optional for low-income applicants, among other issues.
“The Bud Ogle and Tom Gardner talk was incredibly inspiring and gave insight into generations of activism that have existed at U.Va., and how institutional memory has grown to create a community of support and radical love at U.Va.,” Sanjay said.
In light of the past year’s movements and protests for racial equality, renewed importance has been given to the act of dispelling harmful myths and uncovering painful truths. Though not probed to talk specifically about recent events in their lectures, Joshi noted that nearly every speaker brought up efforts for change being made over the past year, such as the protests and movements following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“People talk about U.Va. being a microcosm of history and it’s true — the things that happen around the country are reflective of U.S. history and the same can be said about U.Va.,” said Joshi. “It’s been a long time coming.”
When asked what is one message she hopes to convey to students by the end of the semester, Hawkes discussed that pride in the school you attend and continuing to critically evaluate areas of failure are not mutually exclusive processes. The history of the University is particularly nuanced, Hawkes said, and students must commit to educating themselves on the undertold, painful aspects of the University’s history.
“It’s okay to love this school, but we have to also fight to change what requires changing,” she said.
Intending to bring in a student or panel of student activists as the final guest lecturer of the semester, both Joshi and Hawkes want students to realize that fighting to better the University is an ongoing process. Joshi in particular wants students and all University attendees to know that they have the power to play a role in shaping the University.
“Students at U.Va. have agency — you have agency and you can shape U.Va. for the rest of its future,” Joshi said. “Student activists have changed U.Va. throughout history to the present day and I hope that people in my class recognize that they can shape U.Va. however they want to.”