‘Race in the College Classroom’
Minority faculty often face student resistance when teaching about race
Dealing with conflict in the multiethnic classroom — well, it can pose dilemmas that stump even the so-called experts.
An exchange during “Comparative and Collaborative Approaches to Teaching Multiethnic Literatures,” a panel at the recent Modern Languages Association conference, neatly illustrates the point. The question-and-answer period strayed into the territory of dealing with recalcitrant students, whereupon one panelist, Dr. Paul Lauter of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., triggered a wave of earnest head-nodding when he noted that there were times when the professor simply has to assert control over the classroom.
As much as professors may like to pretend otherwise, Lauter said, “no classroom is safe, no classroom is private, every classroom is a public space” — and professors have a right to expect and, at times, to impose a standard of civil behavior on their students.
The comment drew a quick “yes, but” from one observer. “With all due respect, sir, when you try to take control of your class, the students accept it. Maybe they’re grateful for it. When I try to take control of my classes, I get student evaluations that say ‘I’m mean,’ ‘I’m intimidating,’ ‘I make them uncomfortable,’ ‘I force my opinions on them,’ ” said an African American female professor to Lauter, who is White.
Since the mid-1990s, a raft of research projects has documented the numbers and status of faculty of color in the American professorate. But the exchange between Lauter and the Black professor got to the heart of the matter in a way that numbers, charts and graphs never could.
In a collegiate environment in which well over half of the menial or service positions are occupied by African Americans but only 8.7 percent of the faculty are from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the stereotypical image of a gray-haired White male professor remains.
It is known among most minority faculty that minorities who teach race and racism face resistance from their faculty peers.
“The bottom line is this,” says Dr. Maureen Reddy, professor of English at Rhode Island College and co-editor of Race in the College Classroom, “White professors who teach challenging courses about race get patted on the back — even when we get pretty negative student evaluations. But people of color who teach about race are frequently punished in very, very serious ways: marginalized by other faculty members, denied raises or promotions or tenure, largely on the basis of student evaluations.”
The fruit of this vexing issue is documented in Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in August, an often-searing series of dispatches from the front lines of today’s multiethnic college classrooms. While skirmishes with faculty and administrators are described in the volume, encounters with students — a rarely acknowledged “X” factor for faculty — form the heart of the volume.
“Honestly, I think we’re regressing,” says Dr. Bonnie TuSmith, of what she learned from the book’s 29 contributors. TuSmith is an associate professor of English at Boston’s Northeastern University and the book’s other co-editor.
Today’s students, TuSmith says, are “very P.C.”— excellent at policing their speech and the speech of their peers across the color line. “This stance often prevents honest intellectual discussion and open interaction in the classroom,” says TuSmith, who is also president of MELUS, the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.
But that civility goes only skin deep. Just below the surface is an emotional Molotov cocktail — part confusion, part misinformation shot through with resentment, fear and rage — that, when it explodes, more often than not backfires on the faculty member presenting the material.
Close Encounters with
Studies have shown that faculty of color are measured by a set of unspoken and covertly racist standards that each carry their own confusing set of punishments and rewards. For example, there’s what some scholars call the “Brown-on-Brown Research Taboo,” whereby an African American or other person of color doing research on people of color gets the message that their teaching and their research are not to be taken seriously.
What’s less well understood is the fact that students deliver the message, too. Kevin Quashie, an assistant professor in Smith College’s Department of African American Studies, got a hint when students in his introductory African American literature section treated the class as if it were the social event of the semester.
“OK, I’m young, I’m Black … and there’s all this hype around my presence on this campus,” Quashie says. But he still wasn’t prepared for what happened.
“Eighty students show up on the first day of class, 15 of them students of color. And there’s all this buzz, all this excitement. People are bringing their friends without asking my permission,” Quashie says. “So we have to have this conversation. I tell them, ‘I may laugh and joke, I may be a bit informal in my presentation, but this is not a show. It’s a class like any other.'”
Quashie believes he was dealing with students who were assuming ” ‘I know all this. I listen to hip hop — I just bought the CD.’ But of course, you’re not having a critical discourse while you’re watching MTV. You’re not getting the historical discourse, the aesthetics, the various ideologies, the issues of identity — all of which have their own disciplinary complications.”
Ninety percent of the students in Quashie’s class bombed the midterm. Still, Quashie says, he bent over backward to help them out. He re-curved the grades, began handing out written notes to supplement his lectures, started class early to accommodate student questions. It wasn’t enough. White students began coming to his office hours — not to ask for guidance on raising their grades, as the Black students had — but to ask to be allowed to take the class pass-fail.
Quashie was — and remains — incensed.
“I still can’t believe the arrogance, the sense of entitlement, of White people thinking our stuff is easy and when it’s not, they don’t have to change their attitudes, come to it with a sense of seriousness — they just get to check out.”
Sometimes the checking out starts before the semester does. After nearly two years at Wabash College, an all-male, mostly White campus of around 800 students located in Crawfordsville, Ind., halfway between Peoria and Indianapolis, Dr. Lori Pierce, a visiting professor in the history department, didn’t think she was doing anything out of the ordinary when she agreed to teach the Black history course. Offered every year, the course typically drew 35 to 40 students. It appeared to be well established.
But apparently the course was not established enough.
“The enrollment is now 13 students, and I don’t know what I’m to make of that,” Pierce says. “Is the course just experiencing an off semester or are the students looking at who’s teaching it and voting with their feet?”
And then there’s the nightmare student, the one who can hold an entire class hostage for an entire semester, offending most classmates with his/her opinions on race.
“I think it actually ended up working out for the best, because by the end of the semester, the other students were actually talking back to this student — formulating arguments to counter her, which was good for them,” said a White visiting professor at a small, private college in the Pacific Northwest who, because she doesn’t yet have a tenure-track job, asked that her name be withheld.
But the cost was high. The professor feels she decisively lost the power struggle with this particular student. The student directly flouted the professor’s authority — refusing to leave the class though everyone had been told that if they failed to complete a particular assignment, they would not be allowed to participate in class discussion — and suffered no consequences.
“She told me, ‘I’m paying too much for my education to be told that I cannot come to class,’ ” the professor said, then followed that command performance with a visit to the dean’s office. The dean refused to back the professor up. “Her attitude was, ‘You really need to be able to teach every student in your class.’ “
Even now the encounter makes her fume: “People complain about the problem of grade inflation, but it starts with ego inflation. You can’t say anything to students that suggests anything they do is less than perfect.”
And even worse, say Reddy and TuSmith, faculty of color face a mostly unspoken — but sometimes clearly articulated — demand that they be careful of White students’ feelings.
Indeed, at least one of the contributors to Race in the College Classroom was asked in a job interview how they would ensure that White students were comfortable with the (ethnic studies) course.
Are HBCUs racial utopias?
Given the intensity of the confrontations over race at traditionally White campuses, historically Black colleges and universities can often seem, by way of contrast, like veritable racial utopias.
For example, Frank Wu, an associate professor at Howard University School of Law and author of the recent book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, can’t say enough nice things about the HBCU experience.
“What I find is a tremendous diversity of viewpoints” on race and racism, Wu says. “Some think racism is waning. Some don’t. Some think self-help is the most appropriate remedy, while others favor protest, and still others have given up. It’s very much like being among DuBois’ ‘talented tenth’ and that whole conversation he started.”
Wu says what HBCUs offer that traditionally White universities can’t is freedom. “By and large, it’s easier for people to discuss race and easier to have a diversity of opinion because you’re not — and never will be — the lone student of the color in the class bearing that heavy burden of ‘representing the race.’ “
But while resistance to talking about racism may be uncommon, all is not perfect. Dr. Carl Patrick Burrowes, an associate professor of mass communications at Howard, finds that Black students have trouble thinking “outside the box” on racism.
“For many of us, we simply assume that the way we’ve understood racial identity is the only way,” Burrowes says. “There’s a way in which race, racial identity, is taken for granted — and taken for granted in ways that are in keeping with the dominant perspective.”
For example, African American youth can tend to see “Black people” as an undifferentiated mass, remaining relatively clueless about regional differences, or differences in national origin, or religion, or even sexual orientation. At the same time, say Wu and Burrowes, they can display a good bit of resistance to thinking outside the Black-White paradigm.
Burrowes thinks it is up to the schools to sponsor more organized opportunities to wrestle with the new racial paradigm. “Traditionally, I think Black colleges tend to assume that’s a problem for the rest of society and not one that we have to be concerned to address,” he says. “But the question is, do we acknowledge these issues and raise them to the level of discussion, so that people are confronted with the ways they speak of identity and ethnicity that are taken for granted and call them into question.
“One shouldn’t simply go around talking about ‘good hair’ without having to think about what that means,” Burrowes says.
Charges of discrimination by non-Black or non-Black American faculty have exploded into lawsuits at Howard University, Virginia State and Virginia Union, and, most recently, at Delaware State University (see story on page 19).
An Intractable Dilemma
The bottom line is that faculty teaching race and racism face an intractable dilemma.
“White students enter my multiethnic literature classroom thinking that they can come in without any background or training, peek into exotic cultures, be entertained for a brief time,” says TuSmith, “then leave without having truly engaged in the course material.”
Consequently, many students leave without having any of their core values or assumptions challenged, which places them on a collision course with their faculty who tend to view the teaching of race and racism with an almost missionary zeal.
Says Smith College’s Quashie, the course evaluation “becomes this moment where students are not only critiquing your teaching but also articulating all their feelings about race or gender.”
In academia it has not been widely acknowledged the degree to which feelings of resentment about being forced to confront issues of race can bleed into the evaluation process.
“Traditional methods in pedagogy and our evaluation processes have not caught up with the reality of college classrooms today. And this is affecting people’s lives — their merit raises, promotions, tenure. Something has to be done,” TuSmith says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com