This blog post is an adaptation of Joan Middendorf’s “Making educational use of difficult moments” post previously published on our blog, with support here from Madeleine Gonin and Megan Betz. We have refreshed the content here as we begin developing programming and building support for instructors that is responsive to our current national moment, as we collectively confront police brutality and anti-Black racism.
As Elwood Watson explains in “More Crucial Than Ever,” some fields have long been engaging with race and justice on campus–and have been marginalized and critiqued for that work. While some, including Stanford students, are calling for these programs to gain prominence and recognition for their work, more fields are examining their own histories of engagement–in the classroom and beyond–with the concept of racial justice. Efforts led by Black scholars and scholars of color, such as #BlackInTheIvory, are demonstrating the need for this explicit engagement with the realities of our classrooms and the practice of our disciplines. Here, we offer an argument for why now is the time to include discussion of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in your classroom and share three approaches for getting started.
150 years after the Civil War, the impact of slavery still affects American society. Black and Brown people are kept down by structures on a daily basis and face bodily harm. In the light of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent uprisings, instructors realize that the things we didn’t think we had to teach, we have to deal with. Now, every instructor is being looked to, to address the white supremacy hidden in plain sight. Many instructors do not yet feel prepared to address it in the classroom. But what we have learned from this moment is, we can all begin to do the work and can increase our preparedness and our comfort with the vulnerability required. What are some basic approaches to bring anti-racist practices into the classroom? What follows are three different approaches for teaching about the effects of racism in America.
Use disciplinary frameworks. The mental moves (Middendorf & Shopkow, 2018) for addressing injustice, such as racism and sexism, are already as an explicit part of the curriculum for some fields. Examples include:
- Sociology—Use social stratification to analyze racist violence.
- English—Explore the rhetoric of hate groups.
- Gender Studies—Present statistics on sexual assault and discuss sexual assault as a crime.
- AAADS (and all of the ethnic studies programs)—Dispel the myths and expose the attitudes that perpetuate racism in America.
Thus, some fields are prepared to show students how to apply a disciplinary analysis of the issues at hand.
Question: Does my field have disciplinary tools as a part of the explicit curriculum that I can bring up now? If so, which ones will I bring to my courses?
Address the issue through course content. Even in a course in which racial justice is not the topic, we can use materials to expose students to the topic. For example:
- Statistics—Introduce reasons racial violence affects the lived experience of Blacks by applying a new statistical procedure to data about deaths of Blacks at the hands of police in the US. Or, use the debate about social policies for LGBTQ people to frame a statistics course.
- Biology—When relaying key biological insights, don’t leave out the women and people of color. Don’t just teach Watson, Crick, & Wilkins, but also Rosalind Franklin.
- Finance—A white, male instructor might highlight the bottlenecks in finance by playing brief, well-taught videos on difficult concepts by a black woman. Note, we are not tokenizing scholars of color by only using their voices and work to explore race, but highlighting their expertise and success in our field.
Even when our disciplines have wrongly skewed to rewarding white males for the work of others, we can begin to correct for it now. We can explore the history of research in our field—who got to do research and on whom? Who is invited to collaborate on research projects? How is funding allocated for research? How are research results shared? This work can begin prior to entering the classroom by reflecting on the politics of citation in our syllabi. Whom are we citing? How are we determining who is prominent or expert in our field, and what sources does that mean we may be missing?
Question: Where will I locate content that engages with the concept of justice, or bring different representation into the instruction of the classroom? How can I diversify the scholars and experts represented in the readings, media, and content I share with my students?
Talk about it. Ask students how they feel about current issues; break students into small groups if the class is large. Remind students of class discussion guidelines and expectations for respectful classroom interactions, and consider inviting students to collaboratively lay the working agreements for these discussions with you at the start of the semester. Then, learn some explicit discussion structures to explore challenging topics. At the end of such a discussion, ask students to reflect on what they learned from someone else during the discussion; use their points to synthesize main ideas.
If nothing else, we can take the first five minutes of class once in a while to bring up justice issues, modeling for students why and how these matter in our discipline or to us personally. Let them know that we realize this may be affecting some of them and that we are open to talking about the issues outside of class.
Question: How can I structure a discussion about racial or other justice issue in my class?
Students wish their teachers better knew how to make educational use of racial (or other) tensions in the classroom. (Harper & Davis, 2016).
While it may feel like addressing justice issues deviates from the ways we previously taught courses, a great deal of learning can result. We don’t do this enough, and students appreciate it when we do. Many instructors ask students to share how course concepts apply to their own lives. Similarly, ask students how they think justice issues affect our discipline
To create a contingency plan or develop a discussion on a racial justice topic, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harper, S., & Davis, C. (2016). Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms. Academe, 102(6), 30.
DiPietro, M. (2009). Diversity content as a gateway to deeper learning: The statistics of sexual orientation. Diversity and Democracy. Association of American Colleges & Universities, 12(3), pp. 12-13.
The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching has a number or resources for inclusive teaching, such as Setting the Tone for Inclusive Teaching.
Note: This post is adapted from Middendorf, J. (2017). Making educational use of difficult moments. Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning @IUB Blog.