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Notes from the CFT Library: Gender and Race in the Classroom

This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Women in the Classroom: Cases for Reflection . Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University: 1996.

Race in the Classroom: The Multiplicity of Experience . Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University: 1992.

By Sharenda Holland Barlar

Two videos produced by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University provide an excellent starting point for conversations on diversity. Both come with facilitator guides that discuss in detail the themes encountered in the videos. I highly recommend these videos because they raise awareness of real situations that teachers and students face in the classroom. They are available for viewing or checkout in the CFT library and are useful for classroom viewing and/or discussions among faculty or graduate students about their teaching.

Women in the Classroom contains five short vignettes that bring up different issues that students and teachers may face. The facilitator’s guide provides a great introduction to the context of the video, exploring its purpose and the themes that will be discussed (voice, authority, position and role, male instructors/female students, race and political correctness). The guide anticipates questions that might arise during discussion, critiques itself and explains issues that arose after the recordings were made.

Each vignette features a group of students who volunteered for the video. The stories are real and there are no scripts. The first, entitled “I Feel So Stupid,” depicts a journalism class discussing the role of female journalists on the editorial page. This segment shows the different ways men and women communicate when discussing a difficult subject. Each has important, intelligent points to make but students feel unsure of themselves because they do not want to offend others. The second vignette, “Good. Perfect. Very Good,” depicts a lecture in Economics. The lecturer is a woman and the scenario shows how students respond to the comments she makes. Also, the facilitator’s guide discusses the lecturer’s behavior and studies what is gendered in her comments. Vignette three is entitled “Let’s Let Her Finish.” In this biology class, the male students dominate the discussion while the female students rarely say a word. The facilitator’s guide brings up several questions, including: How would we respond if we were the teacher? What is it like for the women in this class? How are the women contributing to the problem? The fourth vignette, “That’s Not the Point,” occurs during a seminar discussion of crime and punishment in a social science class. While watching the video you might ask yourself if the students’ responses are gendered because of the words they use to describe punishment, and observe how the teacher responds to the discussion. In the final vignette, “Sisterhood,” there are no male students in the class, which is racially mixed. The video uses internal monologues to explain the students’ feelings while they are discussing a provocative article.

Race in the Classroom contains five vignettes with themes such as diversity, race, communication, group dynamics and teaching. The video is also equipped with a facilitator’s guide, which discusses the purpose and objectives of the video and tries to anticipate questions that might arise. Like the guide for Women in the Classroom, it critiques itself and explains why these vignettes were chosen.

The first vignette, “I Don’t See Privilege,” shows a teacher leading a discussion on affirmative action. Students become very emotional, and the scenario raises the question: When dealing with emotional or racial issues, how should a teacher respond to loaded or controversial statements, and how do we create tolerance for conflict in the classroom? The second vignette, “Can You Help Us Out?” contains four parts. While discussing statistics about urban ghettos, the teacher asks a black student if she can “help us out,” thus raising poignant questions about stereotyping. The third scenario, “We’re Missing the Substance,” depicts a discussion on the death penalty. The teacher, a black man, introduces the topic of the importance of race in the way the death penalty operates, and he is challenged by a white male student. The fourth vignette, “That’s Just the Way She’s Been Brought Up,” features an active discussion in which all students but one, an Asian woman, participate. The teacher wonders if she is not speaking because “that’s just the way she’s been brought up.” The fifth vignette, “Dancing Around the Issues,” depicts a class discussion on the Lincoln-Douglass debates that focuses on issues of states vs. federal rights, when an African-American man suggests that the class should not avoid the moral issue of slavery.

Both videos deal with topics that virtually every instructor will encounter in the classroom, and the facilitator’s guides are an excellent supplementary resource.