In Memoriam: Jeffrey B. Ferguson (1964 – 2018)

Education is an ancient undertaking. Socrates knew a lot, as did Confucius, the Biblical prophets, and the Talmud scholars. There are not a lot of new practices in education—and not many original teachers. For this reason, when a teacher (and a program) seem highly original, it’s worth paying attention.

Such was the case with Jeffrey B. Ferguson, the Karen and Brian Conway Presidential Teaching Professor of Black Studies at Amherst College. Jeff was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and received both his bachelor and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. In 1996, he began to teach at Amherst College, where he quickly acquired an admirable reputation.

Howard served on the Amherst Board of Trustees from 2009 to 2015, and Jeff came to speak to its members several times. On each occasion, he stretched the group intellectually. Jeff devised new ways of imparting academic skills in his Black Studies courses, and these tactics turned out to be useful for almost every student across a range of disciplines. We were fortunate that Jeff allowed us to study and write about his educational inventions. What started with one impressive professor in one course, grew into a three-course sequence which came to be known as the “Explicit Courses.”

Founded in rural Massachusetts in 1821, Amherst College is a small, private, highly selective institution. For most of its past, the college had an all-male student body with a strong focus on intellectual achievement and athletics. It was filled with graduates of elite secondary schools, and with professors who were recognized scholars as well as fine teachers. Amherst faculty and students were well matched…for the 1950s. Later, after considerable controversy, the college became coeducational. Then, under President Anthony Marx, Amherst expanded the diversity of the student body more dramatically than any of its “peer” institutions. The new makeup of the student body was supported by energetic fund-raising.

Rapid change has its costs. This demographic revolution led to a dramatic and largely unanticipated disjunction between many of the faculty and many of the students. Any student admitted to a highly selective institution such as Amherst College is likely to believe that he or she can read a book, write an essay, complete a research assignment, and defend any side of an argument. Faculty also assume that incoming cohorts possess the same knowledge and the cultural literacy as cohorts in the past. However, it soon became clear that this was not always so, particularly among less privileged minority students. For all their evident promise and aptitude, few had received a rigorous liberal arts training before attending Amherst in skills such as reading, summarizing, writing, analyzing, arguing, debating, and so on.

Enter Jeff’s Explicit Courses. The idea of these courses was to provide rich support—“scaffolding,” as it is sometimes called—for students who did not acquire these skills at home, at Phillips Exeter Academy, or at Scarsdale High School. The Black Studies Department reorganized its courses into a sequence—reading, argument, rhetoric, research—which we nicknamed the University of Chicago sequence, recalling as it did the efforts of University of Chicago professors Mortimer Adler, Wayne Booth, Stephen Toulmin, and their colleagues.

As a result of Jeff’s ingenious curriculum, students in the Black Studies Department began to thrive in their studies, not only in the their major but across much of the curriculum. In our interviews with those taking the Introduction to Black Studies course (which focuses on deep reading), students remarked at how much better prepared they were to participate in discussions of text in courses ranging from Creative Writing (What is my core argument? What are my common themes? How does my word choice affect my argument?) to Sociology (better appreciation for how to talk about minorities, policy disputes and implementations of programs). Then three intriguing things happened.

First, students from across campus flocked to Professor Ferguson’s courses. These were not only African-American students and not only the allegedly ill-prepared. Students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines saw the progress of peers who were enrolled in these courses. They did not want to miss out on the opportunity to cultivate and refine their own academic skill-set.

Second, other faculty in Black Studies began to adapt their own courses to fit this new model. This trend spawned the aforementioned “Explicit Course” series that we were able to observe in our study. The three courses are mandatory for Black Studies majors but do not need to be taken in any specific order. Majors from other disciplines can take whichever courses they prefer, and do not have to enroll in the full sequence. The first course in the sequence is BLST 111: Introduction to Black Studies. This course encourages reading agility and comprehension, as well as improved writing skills. The second course is BLST 200: Critical Debates in Black Studies. Students spend the first half of the course studying a six-part conceptual framework for making and analyzing arguments and the second half of the course engaging in classroom debates. In the final course, BLST 300: Research in Black Studies, students learn how to work through the formal research process.

With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, professors at Amherst in other fields have begun to use Explicit Course methods. Designing Explicit Courses is challenging. Such courses constitute an art form, with scaffolding in the early stages, followed by the gradual withdrawal of support. The courses require unusual commitment on the part of teachers and students. Such pedagogical immersion is probably easier at Amherst College than at a larger, less selective school—and the seriousness with which Amherst faculty have always taken teaching is contributory as well.

Like other seers, Jeff will not enter the promised land himself. It is up to those of us who were inspired by his charismatic example to practice what he created and to pass on the word.

Kirsten McHugh

Howard Gardner

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