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A USC office removes 'field' from its curriculum, citing possible racist connotations

An office within the University of Southern California's School of Social Work announced it is removing the term "field" from its curriculum.
Frederic J. Brown
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An office within the University of Southern California's School of Social Work announced it is removing the term "field" from its curriculum.

Updated January 14, 2023 at 6:48 PM ET

An office within the University of Southern California's School of Social Work says it is removing the term "field" from its curriculum because it may have racist connotations related to slavery.

The newly renamed Office of Practicum Education, formerly known as the Office of Field Education, within the university's Suzanne-Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is making the change in order to be more inclusive, according to a memo sent out to faculty and students this week and obtained by NPR.

"This change supports anti-racist social work practice by replacing language that could be considered anti-Black or anti-immigrant in favor of inclusive language," the memo reads. "Language can be powerful, and phrases such as 'going into the field' or 'field work' may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign."

The change at the USC school comes as a growing number of entities take steps to remove terminology with ties to slavery or racism. Within the computer science field, some people are ditching terms like "master" and "slave," while the Girl Guides of Canada recently renamed its "Brownies" branch. And two offices within the Michigan health department announced this month that their employees will no longer use the term "field work," according to a memo obtained by NPR.

Mildred Joyner, the president of National Association of Social Workers (NASW), said she applauds the USC office for its change — and while she isn't aware of other universities doing the same, she disagrees with those that say the office is going too far.

"I don't know what going too far means," she said. "Does that mean going too far to treat people with dignity and respect and remove all language that oppresses people? Then kudos to that department."

The NASW has publicly acknowledged the role the social-worker profession plays in perpetuating racism, citing examples like discrimination in the child welfare system and disparities in health care.

"We have certainly made mistakes, but we are also a group of professionals committed to helping, lifting up, and advocating for oppressed and marginalized groups of people and fighting injustice in society," the NASW said in 2020.

The memo from the USC office, which quickly gained attention on social media, is being met with both support and derision. And students within the department are also split over the decision, according the Daily Trojan, a campus newspaper. Students told publication that they were unsure whether the term "field" truly had racist connotations, and some considered it to be a stretch.

A USC official told NPR that the decision is being made from one office within the department and not the university as a whole.

"The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words," Elizabeth A. Graddy, the university's interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said in a statement to NPR. "We will continue to use words – including 'field' – that accurately encompass and describe our work and research."

The School of Social Work's interim dean, Vassilios Papadopoulos, echoed the same sentiments. He told Fox News that because the Office of Practicum Education is not a department, "its name change was not subject to a formal review process."

In the memo, the office also said that it would continue to hold students accountable to its values and principles.

"We know that changing terminology can be challenging, and a complete transition will take some time, but we thank you in advance for joining us in this effort and for your patience as we transition," the memo concludes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.