A SUNY Geneseo professor offered her students extra credit to attend a Dec. 5 demonstration on the college’s campus protesting against the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Brown's and Garner's deaths, and grand juries' subsequent decisions not to indict their police officer killers, have drawn national media attention and sparked protest against what some view as examples of a widespread culture of police brutality against minorities.
Both Brown and Garner were black.
Jun Okada, a film studies professor in SUNY Geneseo's English Department, sent out a mass email to her students the morning of the demonstration, a little over an hour before protestors were to meet in the college's student union to organize.
“I will give extra credit to those who attend today's march,” read the mass email. “In order to get credit, I need a photo of you at the march – send to me via email.”
Hundreds of SUNY Geneseo students rallied on the College Green for the demonstration. Students also staged a “Die in,” between Milne Library and Newton Hall on the college's campus.
“It's a form of peaceful protest where people just kind of take over a public space and they lay down, mimicking and referencing what has happened to recent victims of police brutality,” explained Okada during a phone interview. “It's kind of bringing to attention, in a theatrical way, these injustices.”
Okada, whose scholarship focuses on film studies but whose classes often address social justice issues, said she thought the protests would be an excellent educational experience for her students.
“Most of the time, my courses have something to do with race or social justice,” said Okada, who's published credits include, “Cultural Odor in the Global Order: Intertextuality and the Raced Japanese Body,” and “Forfaiture: Photogenie, Race, and Homoerotic Homage in the French Remake of The Cheat.” “So it (extra credit) made sense to offer and I wanted my students to support this cause.”
Okada's students did not have another option to earn extra credit if they either did not want to attend the protest or did not agree with what was being protested.
Though she didn't offer a corresponding option to students who didn't attend the protest, Okada made clear that she offers extra credit opportunities throughout the semester. In addition to this, Okada said the amount of extra credit she offered was not enough to perceptively alter her students' final grades.
“It will add a little bit, maybe a point or two,” said Okada. “It's kind of like a slight incentive for students to get involved in activities on campus, whether it's a film screening or an event like this. I encourage them to go by giving them extra credit. Most professors will do this and that's how campus life is created; through these kinds of incentives.”
After speaking with the County News, Okada decided to remove the extra credit she awarded students for attending the event.
Speaking Monday, Dec. 15, SUNY Geneseo Interim Provost David Gordon explained that nature of the extra credit opportunity was not appropriate because it “wasn't directly connected to a course assignment and it seemed to be giving extra credit for students taking a particular side.”
“Extra Credit might be appropriate for attending and analyzing a demonstration, but not for what could be seen as expressing a particular position,” said Gordon via email. “An appropriate use, for example, would have students who attend a demonstration write an analysis or reflection in connection with questions, an assignment or a reading.”
Okada characterized the Dec. 5 demonstration not as a protest against grand juries' decisions not to indict Brown's and Garner's killers or the police who did the act of killing, but rather a statement to bring attention to “something not right happening in our society.”
“I don't think it's a political situation, I think it's a justice situation,” she said. “Even if you're sympathetic about the choices that the police made, I think at the end of the day when so many people are being shot regularly and they happen to be young, black men, there's something wrong. So I don't necessarily think there's two sides.”