Do culturally empowering courses matter? An exploratory examination of cultural identity and academic motivation among Black collegians.

Author:Chapman-Hilliard, Collette


Researchers contend that the creation of culturally empowering learning contexts, including African-centered pedagogy, is paramount to Black students' success. Participation in culturally relevant classes and programs has been associated with salubrious academic outcomes such as increased academic resilience (Belgrave, Chase-Vaughn, Gray, Dixon-Addison & Cherry, 2000), improved academic motivation (Adams, 2005; Bass & Coleman, 1997) and may also serve to debunk long-standing Eurocentric educational hegemony (Bell, 1994; King, 2004). Despite a developing body of literature examining the effects of culture-centered learning contexts on both cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes among Black students, few studies have specifically examined the impact of culturally empowering curriculum on these students' cultural identity development and academic outcomes. Hence, the goals for this study were twofold: 1) to determine group differences in academic and cultural identity outcomes by enrollment in culturally empowering courses (CECs)--courses with a primary content focus on the experiences of African descent people (e.g., Black Studies courses, African and African Diaspora history, etc.)--and, 2) to examine the moderating role of CECs on the relationship between academic motivation and academic performance among Black collegians.

Culturally Empowering Spaces

In recent years, scholars have highlighted the influence of culturally empowering spaces such as culture-centered intervention programs on cultural identity development and academic performance among Black students. Prior scholarship highlights characteristics of culturally empowering spaces, noting these environments: (a) act as a safe space, (b) stimulate a sense of connectedness, (c) provide a source of validation, (d) engender resilience, (e) foster intellectual stimulation, (f) encourage empowerment, and (g) can serve as a home base (Grier-Reed, Madyun, & Buckley, 2008).

They also emphasize cultural pride and the acquisition of knowledge related to one's cultural heritage and history. These spaces can provide affirming messages about Black people while often simultaneously debunking pathology-driven narratives associated with the Black community. In fact, among Black students, culturally empowering spaces have been discussed as counter-spaces or environments where notions of inferiority are challenged and where a growth-fostering atmosphere is cultivated (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000).

Previous scholarship establishes that counter-spaces can exist within formal academic and informal social contexts (Solorzano et al, 2000). While scholars have identified the positive impact informal counter-spaces, such as Black student organizations (Guiffrida, 2003), can have for Black postsecondary students, there is a dearth of empirical scholarship on formal academic counter-spaces. Consistent with the qualities of informal counter-spaces, CECs provide Black students with opportunities to challenge the status quo, critically engage with their history, and explore their cultural identities (Adams, 2005; Banks, 2004). However, informal (e.g., Black student organizations) counter-spaces differ from formal counter-spaces (e.g., classrooms) in that formal counter-spaces tend to provide greater access to content knowledge that serves to validate Black students' experiences and provide them with a language to articulate collective and personal narratives associated with being a Black student, particularly at a historically White college/ university (HWCU) (Adams, 2005). For example, courses utilizing African-centered pedagogy include a focus on cultural knowledge and the contributions of African-descent peoples (King, 2004; Shujaa, 1994), a knowledge base that has been hypothesized as essential to increasing academic performance and psychological well-being among African descent youth and young adults (Adams 2005, 2014; Chapman-Hilliard & Adams-Bass, 2015). Hence, exploring the influence of formal academic counter-spaces, such as CECs, on Black students' cultural identity and academic experiences seems key to better understanding pedagogies that promote Black students' success in college.

Cultural Identity and Culturally Empowering Spaces

Scholars have provided strong evidence indicating the significance of culturally empowering spaces in cultivating cultural identity among Black collegians, particularly among those students attending HWCUs (Guiffrida, 2003). In the current study, we operationalized cultural identity in terms of race centrality and ethnic identity. Specifically, race centrality refers to the extent to which race is a core or primary aspect of a one's self-concept (Sellers, Rowley, Chavous, Shelton, & Smith, 1997), and is conceived to be enhanced, in part, by culturally congruent experiences like those fostered in CECs (Carter, 2007; Sellers et al., 1997). In a complimentary vein, ethnic identity reflects the nature of one's affiliation with his or her ethnic group, and it is conceptualized to involve a process of exploring the meaning of one's identity, and a felt sense of belonging or commitment to that identity (Phinney & Ong, 2007). Research on culturally empowering spaces like African-centered rites of passage programs has been linked to ethnic identity related processes. For example, Brookins (1996) suggested that a rites of passage program strengthened ethnic identity among Black youth through activities that provided cultural information and promoted values congruent with the Black community. Further, learning focused on African descent history and cultural principles present in culturally empowering spaces has also been shown to boost critical and social consciousness among Black youth and young adults (see Belgrave et al., 2000; Watts et al., 2002 for examples), which are two constructs related to cultural identity development (Carter, 2008b).

Other research has demonstrated that Black students enrolled in CECs endorsed several attributes consistent with enhancing ethnic and racial identity development, such as stimulating a strong interest in issues related to Africa, honing an increased awareness of Black history and culture, and acquiring skills and knowledge to speak out about issues affecting Black communities (Adams, 2005; 2014). Formal learning spaces that encourage Black students' cultural identity development and facilitate cultural empowerment have the potential to galvanize Black students and inspire them to affect change in their personal lives and communities (Carter, 2008a). Further, enhanced cultural identity may also indirectly facilitate academic success among Black college students (Cokley & Chapman, 2008). Despite the potential of culturally empowering spaces to encourage personal and scholastic success among Black collegians, there remains limited scholarship on the link between CECs and cultural identity development or other areas relevant to Black students' academic performance in college.

Academic Motivation and Culturally Empowering Contexts

Academic motivation is, arguably, a key factor contributing to academic performance among Black collegians. According to the self-determined theory of motivation, a framework often cited to explain academic motivation (see Cokley, 2003 for example), people exhibit intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, or amotivation based behavioral styles (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000). This multidimensional framework suggests that intrinsically motivated behaviors are those guided by the pleasure and fulfillment one receives from engaging in a particular activity, and include three types: intrinsic motivation to know (IMTK), intrinsic motivation to accomplish (IMTA), and intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation (IMTES) (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Vallerand et al., 1992). Intrinsic motivation to know reflects engaging in specific behaviors for the pleasure one derives from learning something new. Engaging in activities because of the fulfillment one receives from achieving or creating something illustrates intrinsic motivation to accomplish. Intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation involves participating in an activity because of the experienced sensation one receives from engaging in the activity.

In contrast to intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation is reflective of activities that are performed with the goal of achieving some independent outcome or include activities having instrumental value. Deci and colleagues (1985; 1991) identified external regulation (EMER), introjected regulation (EMID), and identified regulation (EMIN) as extrinsic motivational styles. External regulation refers to behaviors that one engages in because of some external demands or to obtain a reward from an externally imposed contingency. Introjected regulation occurs when one engages in behaviors with the experience of pressure to avoid feelings of anxiety or to enhance or maintain one's self-esteem. In other words, these behaviors are externally regulated with a focus on self- and other acceptance. Identified regulation represents a more autonomous or self-determined type of extrinsic motivation in which an individual identifies with the value of a particular activity while also acknowledging external benefits. In other instances, an individual may neither be extrinsically nor be intrinsically motivated. This motivational style would be characterized as amotivation. These individuals tend to lack purpose or intentionality in their actions. Such behaviors result when a person does not value a particular activity or perceives themselves as incompetent to perform a specific task.

Together, intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation behaviors reflect a continuum of self-determined styles with intrinsic motivation being the most demonstrative of a proactive, autonomous and competent stance. Assessing academic motivation not only yields a means of examining what...

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