Let’s Talk about Race … in the Classroom

By Marybeth Gasman

I am fortunate to work in a school of education that cares enough to examine itself in terms of its treatment of students of color.  That said, I recently sat through a school-wide faculty meeting in which the results of a survey of our students of color were discussed. For anyone who knows the research in the area of race and teaching, the results of the survey said nothing new:

  • some students of color don’t feel represented in the curriculum
  • some faculty members are not equipped to handle conflicts around race in the classroom
  • some students of color feel singled-out
  • alternative perspectives are not welcome or encouraged by some faculty

These same issues surface over and over, but what do faculty members do about them?

Some faculty members ignore these issues, claiming that they amount to identity politics. However, these folks forget that if students say they had an experience, they had it and felt it. There are faculty members who long to change the way they are teaching – to be more inclusive – but they have no idea how and are often afraid to ask for help. Of them, I ask how much damage are we doing to students of color (and majority students, for that matter) by remaining silent?

And, there are still faculty members, regardless of their racial and ethnic background, who think that they know how to facilitate discussions around issues of race, but do more damage than good.  Often these professors are more focused on facilitating conversations in which students merely vent rather than working toward real solutions. Although having a safe space for self expression is important, creating solutions to racial problems and divisions is much more powerful.

Regardless of academic discipline (and I mean that), there are ways to create an inclusive classroom. In terms of syllabi, it is possible to include articles written by individuals from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and about issues that touch the lives of people from various racial and ethnic perspectives. One can bring in examples that are relevant to everyone in a course rather than just the majority. In terms of assignments, one can keep an open mind in terms of the diversity of answers to most problems. And, of most importance, when racial incidents arise in the classroom, faculty members need to speak up, facilitate helpful discussions around the incidents, and provide support for those who are offended and the offender (otherwise the offender doesn’t learn).

This last point is perhaps the hardest part of creating an inclusive classroom. However, there are numerous resources for increasing one’s ability to lead discussions about race (see an example below). In addition, most colleges and universities have a teaching center with experts trained in handling conflict in the classroom. Also, most institutions offer workshops and presentations for faculty and students on issues of race and how these issues manifest in the classroom (these workshops aren’t typically well attended but should be). Lastly, one can ask a faculty colleague who is known for good teaching and facilitation of class discussion for advice. As professors, admitting you don’t know it all can be risky, but doing a disservice to our students, in my opinion, is even more risky.

Resources:

Maher and Tetrealult (1997), “Learning in the Dark: How Assumptions of Whiteness Shape Classroom Knowledge,” Harvard Educational Review.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

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One response to “Let’s Talk about Race … in the Classroom

  1. Since moving to South Carolina 18 months ago I have thought a lot more about race than I ever had previously. I taught a “University 101” course last semester and we read “A Hope in the Unseen.” When I chose the book I had no idea what the gender or racial make-up of the course would be. It turned out to be 17 White females and one White male (it was an education section). The discussion on race turned out to be less fruitful than I had hoped… I learned some lessons for next time though. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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