Reflections on Teaching II: (White) Elephant in the Room

This is a post about race. In general, I would encourage you to read someone else on this topic—consider, for example, these blogs. Candidly, I’m not sure if the problem is that white males don’t talk enough about race, or if they talk too much and don’t listen enough. Either way, I’m thinking out loud about it, because race—I’ve discovered, to no one’s surprise but my own—is an ineluctable part of teaching.

My final act this semester was to address a re-grade request from a student who expressed his frustration with the white male theorists of the course and, only slightly more indirectly, the pedagogy of the white male TA who had been teaching them. He insinuated racism. I defended myself by noting the efforts I had made all semester to address inequality in the classroom. I’ve  realized too late that the latter claim in no way addresses the former; that is to say, whatever my intentions, racial bias almost certainly was part of my teaching.

I don’t want to fetishize the diversity in my course. Public universities are not representative of America, but in the long-bending arc of justice, I think they will eventually become more so. First the undergraduates, then later the graduates and TAs, and then—all too slowly—the faculty. Yet even if the demographics of the classroom may begin to represent the “new” America, the hierarchy—a white man in front, talking at people of color—will continue to look like the “old” one. I will, for my entire career, by whiter than my students, and yet the worst thing I could do would be to use that to wash my hands of teaching about race.

To be clear, I’m not weighing in about “identity politics” and “political correctness” or expressing some dismay about trigger warnings or having to tip-toe around gender pronouns. My student wasn’t complaining about language, but his grade—something which has real, material effects on him. The more generalized suspicion my students have towards my teaching doesn’t seem to be a result of “liberal” indoctrination or emotional fragility, but experiences exclusion and discrimination. So I wonder: how can you be an ally in the classroom, when you’re not really an ally, but a product and (willing) representative of an education system that is anything but your students’ ally?

– – – – –

I should be clear that, in writing this, I’m thinking about what I can do in the educational syste more-or-less as is, rather than what I’d love to see in some post-revolutionary Freirian utopia. One thing I need to do is to “own” my grading standards, and be honest about what I can and cannot control about them. As I wrote in my last post, I spent much of the semester encouraging students to critique the readings and connect them to current events. Yet in my oh-so-objective spreadsheet, with metrics of participation and blind-graded exams, I followed very different standards, those passed down from above and which, given my academic pedigree, seemed natural to me. When I went through the distasteful—but, it seemed, important—process of looking at the racial, class, and gender breakdown of my grades, it was clear there was a spread. Even with an unrepresentative sample, I can’t help but think that some students incorrectly took me at my word when I said I was looking for critical thinking, while others knew that, when presented with a grading rubric, I was just going to reward those who knew how to play the game.

Second, I’ve thought about the way I homogenized my students of color. I tried to compensate for a skewed syllabus by raising contemporary issues that, I thought, spoke more directly to students’ experiences. I steered us towards #BlackLivesMatter, to racist frats in Oklahoma, and over to the Civil Rights Movement. We were helped along by a few authors of color from the syllabus (Fanon and DuBois) and a few I threw in (Collins and Davis). But as one of my students pointed out, whenever we talked about race, we talked about African Americans, and through a lens of victimhood and oppression. I lumped my students of “color” together, and set them as a unified block against an equally unified mass of whites. Some were excluded and others were “othered” as the passive foil of American racism.

Third, I have learned from this—or perhaps, just learned what I need to learn. Sociology is a fragmented field; it’s impossible to be conversant in everything from Mathematical Sociology to Human-Animal Relations. Sometimes, I’ve felt that since our interests are arbitrary, it’s fine to bracket off some sub-fields: “you know about poverty, I know about mental health.” But there is no discussion of the social world that can evade race, class, and gender. Teaching sociology doesn’t require just attentiveness to racial dynamics in the classroom, but a deeper ability to see how they permeate everything we see, read, and discuss. And if our syllabi don’t reflect that, we nontheless need to be ready to point our students in the right direction to find these ideas.

Finally, and, I think perhaps more in contravention of the logic of ally-ship, I think we need to challenge our students to avoid unconvincing and easily dismissed arguments for diversifying the curriculum. Often, students demanded more authors of color—full stop—and one insisted she could never learn anything about inequality from someone who hadn’t “experienced” it (she assumed, incorrectly, that a certain white author had never experienced “symbolic violence.” Just being an author of color—say, Thomas Sowell or Ernesto Caravantes—doesn’t mean quality scholarship or liberatory insights on race. This is where I get on tricky ground—isn’t “excellence” in research, after all, defined by the dominant culture? But if we’re serious about social science—which, at its most basic level, insists that we accept that some perspectives on the world are more accurate than others—we have to accept that personal experience and social position is a source of data, but not a guarantee of truth.

W.E.B. DuBois was certainly excluded from the classical sociological “canon” because he was black. Many of his greatest ideas—the “second sight” or “double consciousness”—could not but have come, in part, from his blackness. But he should be included on our syllabi not just because he was black, but also because he was great, because he did serious empirical work, and because his claims remain generative for scholarship a century later. And I think that pretty much captures the dynamic I’m grappling with: students who have been excluded, students who have profound insights from that exclusion, but students who also deserve access to the best ideas of a discipline I still believe in.

Even if, for now, the bearers of those ideas are too often white males.


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