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The Teaching Exchange

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

A forum for teachers at Vanderbilt to share their pedagogical strategies, experiments, and discoveries

In this column, we highlight innovations in teaching across the campus. For this issue, we decided to use a teaching case that actually occurred in a Vanderbilt classroom and asked two professors to respond by sharing their thoughts about how to handle such a situation.

It was early in the semester, and my class was discussing a book. Specifically, we were talking about the author’s argument that race is an important determinant of the quality of education provided to students in this country. Toward the end of class, one student said, “Race doesn’t matter anymore in this country.” An African-American woman spun around and told him that she was really offended by his comment, and went on to talk about ways in which race did matter, and why he, as a white male, might not know that it mattered, but it did. He didn’t say anything else, and class time was over.

The question I would ask is this: Assuming that it hadn’t been the end of class, would you as a faculty member step in, or would you allow the class to debate this question of whether race matters? There were a lot of people who clearly had something to say, and it seems like an important question for them to work with. I believe that students learn best by talking through their ideas and by having their ideas challenged by their peers. In many difficult situations, I let students work with things like this on their own for a while before I say anything. In this case, though, I felt that the danger of people saying racist things (indeed, in my opinion, the original statement by the white student was racist) was high. Is there some value in allowing students to make potentially racist statements in the classroom, so that other students can point out their racism to them, and they can work with it? What are the dangers to the other students in doing this? What are the dangers of allowing students to manage such a conversation without me taking a central role?

From Cecelia Tichi , Arts and Science:

A class can come to a charged impasse over racial issues when one side – white student(s) – feel their black classmate(s) are hypersensitive and should “get over it,” all the while the black students(s) feel themselves to be in the midst of one more white racist moment. Both might look to the instructor to adjudicate, but the moment is also fraught for the instructor, who stands to lose credibility with one side or the other.

At such a moment in my class, I ask that we step back and consider the ways in which each person views the world through a set of “lenses.” I ask for patience while we consider several of these. I begin with life-cycle lenses, perhaps asking how a kid might see a roller coaster (e.g. as thrills and fun), then ask how a person of, say, seventy, with digestive illness, might see the same coaster (as a threat to health). How might a faculty member at Vandy see Rites of Spring (as a distraction from study); while through the student lens, the event is a welcome change from weeks of hard academic work.

We go through several sets of these lenses that include weather preferences of students whose homes are in hot or cold climates, plains or mountain states, and so on. Gender is also a good lens but must be handled with humor, lest the group tense up. Only when the group has practiced with several rounds of these non-provocative, varying lenses do I bring us back to racial lenses. At this point, I can pose the situation of a young person of color driving in a white neighborhood and seeing, in the rearview mirror, flashing blue lights. I can ask that the scene be viewed through a white lens, and then a black one. By this time, the group has participated in so many identities-by-lens exercises that personal and cultural relativism is able to be discussed openly and without hostility. It’s a step-by-step process, and the “lens” is, I find, a most useful teaching device.

From Michael A. Rose , Blair:

It may not be necessary to think of the first question in such a polarized way. I have found it possible to play a role as facilitator of a student debate, neither taking too obtrusive a role nor staying out altogether. One way to proceed in the case at hand would be to begin by asking each of the two students to exemplify his/her statement (“race doesn’t matter,” “race does matter”) out of their own experience, making clear that once examples are out on the table, the rest of the class would be free to respond and analyze and follow up on them.

The really difficult feature of this case is that through his act of saying something so wounding to his classmate, the young man may very well be expressing a sincere belief that American society has progressed to a point where race doesn’t matter, and may be able to offer evidence to that effect. The question is how to acknowledge the possibility that such an opinion may not actually be held in opposition to social justice, but rather be functioning as a premature and underinformed herald of social justice. In other words, while the African-American student may have a right to believe that her classmate’s remark was racist, there is an opportunity to show her that the young man may instead be holding an all-too-eager view of the end of racism – a social ill which he may deplore as much as anyone. Likewise, if the young man’s eyes have been kept blissfully closed to painful facts and circumstances that might help him toward a more carefully textured statement than the one he made, the controlled environment of the classroom might very well be the best place for this education to proceed. Both of them have plenty to learn from this encounter, and their classmates along with them. May the teacher have the strength and wisdom to open up the opportunities.

For sure, the question of students’ “rights” to believe in certain ideas is a terribly vexed one. I know in my educational heart that at a certain point, the teacher has the right to cry, “Hold!” “Enough!” “Ignorance cannot extend that far!” But where that point is depends so much on the matter being taught, on the environment of the class, and on the humility of the teacher with regard to his/her own knowledge base. More than anything else, I strongly feel that the teacher has a responsibility to maintain civility in the classroom, in fact to turn the classroom itself into a model, or crucible, for civil discourse – especially when the subject is so deeply fraught with tension. The teacher must be vigilant about this maintenance of civility, even at the risk of closing off a debate abruptly by taking the reins at an awkward point. Such acts of protecting civility even at the expense of pursuing knowledge into its darker corners have been some of the most haunting and troublesome of my teaching career. But I know this about my teaching: if I have taught nothing else but mutual respect and honoring differences among students and between students and the teacher, then I’ve earned my keep.