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Notes from the CFT Library: Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom

This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Lucila Vargas, editor. Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom . Peter Lang Publishing, 2002. 350 pages.

by Derek Bruff

“What is it like for women of color to teach in predominantly White college classrooms?” This is the basic question addressed by the anthology Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom , edited by Lucila Vargas. The anthology features personal narratives by sixteen women faculty of color. In an introductory chapter Dr. Vargas presents recent statistical information on faculty gender, race, and ethnicity in higher education as well as a summary of research attempting to explain the slow progress of women faculty of color in the academy. Following this chapter, Dr. Vargas presents her own personal narrative.

Dr. Vargas is an associate professor at a state university in North Carolina who teaches in the area of media and communication studies. She is also a Mexican immigrant and a first- generation college graduate. Although she had taught Spanish at the Extension School of Mexico in San Antonio, she found herself facing significant challenges in the classroom when she assumed her first full-time faculty position at a U.S. university.

Dr. Vargas assumed the challenges were a result of her poor teaching skills, but she soon realized that the problem was rooted in the fact that she, a woman of color, was teaching in a predominantly White college classroom. Vargas uses the term “White classroom” to refer to a classroom dominated by “non-Latino White/Caucasian persons, their culture, and their institutions.” She turned to research on diversity in higher education for assistance, but found that most of the literature addressed student diversity. Furthermore, it seemed to be intended for a White, and sometimes male, audience. She found some research on minority faculty members, but most of it focused on institutional issues and not pedagogy. Feminist research illuminated the impact of gender in the classroom, but she found that much of the research ignored the role of social differences other than gender.

Based on what relevant research she found, Dr. Vargas initiated a research project which featured interviews with women faculty of color (Vargas, 1999). One conclusion she drew was that each professor’s experience was unique. She chose to expand her work on this topic by editing Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom .

The contributors to this anthology include both U.S. native-born and immigrant faculty members. Academic ranks of the contributors range from lecturer to full professor. Most contributors have more than five years teaching experience, and all are from the humanities and social sciences. The narrative styles used vary considerably. Some contributors write more personally and informally; others write in their own disciplinary style or include frequent references to relevant research literature.

One of the more personal contributions is by Priti Kumar. She describes her journey from growing up in a small town in India to teaching English at a university in Utah. She emphasizes the many cultural borders she had to negotiate in her life and how these personal experiences affect her teaching. She writes of her border crossings as experiences she can draw upon to help her connect with students whose cultures are different from hers.

Lisa D. Chavez, a Chicana Mestiza, writes of her experiences teaching English in Alaska, where she was often mistaken for an Alaska Native. She informed her students of her cultural background, but she still faced racist speech in her classroom from a few students holding negative stereotypes of Alaska Natives. She writes of the importance of challenging such speech, the role emotion plays in such confrontations, and the need to inform students about the privileges they take for granted.

Rashmi Luthra’s narrative focuses on her teaching philosophy. A communications professor of Indian descent, she describes her teaching as liberatory pedagogy. She prefers to relinquish her role as authority and giver of knowledge, emphasizing instead a less hierarchical model featuring the co-creation of knowledge by student and teacher. She also encourages her students to examine critically all perspectives presented in her classes and the assumptions upon which they rest. She writes of the difficulty of enacting this philosophy as a woman of color. “Authority can be relinquished more easily,” she writes, “when its presence can be assumed in the first place.”

An African American English professor, Lou-Ann Crouther takes a more practical approach in her essay. She writes of her sixteen years of experience teaching at a state university in Kentucky. She encourages other women of color to find pleasure in teaching despite the challenges, and she offers practical advice for doing so. Much of her advice focuses on ways in which to establish respect for both teacher and learning in the classroom.

One reason cited by Dr. Vargas in her introduction to the anthology for the slow progress of women faculty of color in the academy is the lack of appropriate mentoring available to these faculty members. This anthology should make an excellent resource for young faculty members in need of such mentoring. Women Faculty of Color in the White Classroom is also recommended further reading for those interested in some of the issues discussed in this newsletter.

References

Vargas, L. 1999. “When the ‘Other’ is the Teacher: Implications of Teacher Diversity in Higher Education.” The Urban Review 31 (4): 359-383.

From: Teaching Forum 5:2 Spring 2003 CFT Newsletter


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