Della Gatta Mentoring Discussion and Talk

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Worksheet from English Department Faculty Meeting 4/16

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Faculty Meeting: Discussion of classroom climate 

April 16, 2014

1. Acknowledging institutional racism and understanding “racial climate” in classrooms

“Growing up, I did not have friends of color.  I went to a predominantly white school, where issues of race rarely came up.  I was excited to come to UofM to finally encounter diversity and engage in cultures other than my own.  That’s what college is for, right? I am not a junior and I am ashamed to say my encounters with social justice issues have been few, to say the least.  If I was the only black student in my class, I wouldn’t be able to speak up either.”

“I’m surprised at the prevalence of overt racism at UM.  I never knew it was this bad.  My world seems insulated now.  I want to know what positive steps can be taken by the administration to address this.”

 

2. Questioning courses that contain no texts by authors of color; courses that tokenize those texts

“My English 298 (Introduction to Literary Studies) class did not contain a single book written by a person of color. Considering the fact that the course is supposed to be an introduction to both “literary studies” and the English major in general, I was really disappointed. After that class, realizing what the actual requirements of the English major were, and browsing the course guide to see what sorts of classes were offered, I actually decided not to declare English at all, and given stories I hear from friends of mine who are English majors, I can’t say that I regret my decision.”

“Once, a friend and I went through and looked at all of the different possible classes you could take as part of the major. We realized that you could graduate with a degree in English without ever having taken a class that focuses on literature written by people of color, and based on some of the syllabuses we looked at, you could probably get through the major having read less than a handful of (tokenized) books by people of color. If one of the goals of the English major is supposedly “to survey and analyze the broad range of texts in the English language,” why do we read such a narrow range of literature?”

 

3. Addressing uncomfortable, hostile, or misdirected conversations on race in the classroom

“In several English classes I’ve taken, the topic of race will occasionally come up, and the professor will either be very uncomfortable, or will end up entertaining students’ racist thoughts and ideas either because they don’t realize that it’s racist and triggering, or for the sake of keeping the discussion “objective.””

“I brought race up in a discussion, and the instructor responded negatively. Instead of engaging in a dialogue, they got defensive, dominated the conversation, and then dismissed me. They told me that my views of social justice are antiquated and old-fashioned, and that we’ve progressed beyond having to think about “those things,” i.e. race, anymore.  I found the entire conversation triggering and hurtful. My concerns were discounted and ignored.  When I turned to the rest of the faculty for support, I found none.  Teachers were closed-off to having conversations, and accused me of trying to misdirect discussions.”

“I am terrified for other students of color, who have to silence themselves in order to protect their academic careers.  This happened to a great friend of mine who challenged an idea about Race and Sexuality in an English class and our mentor told him to stop because she feared that he would get a bad grade in the class.”

 

4. Understanding why students feel forced to “educate” others on race

“I am tired of being forced to educate my classmates (and sometimes, my professor) on basic concepts related to race and social justice in classes where I’m trying to learn, too. Inevitably, the class is much less enjoyable and valuable for me because my classmates’ learning occurs at my emotional and mental expense.”

“I’ve really only so far had one professor who seemed to know how to handle discussions of race in the classroom… I especially appreciated that she was able to step in when my classmates’ said racist or triggering things; she managed to handle them well, and in a way that made me feel like I didn’t have to constantly be on guard or prepared to educate my peers about my own lived experiences, and because I knew she would be supportive, I was actually more likely to step in and say something.”

“As a professor, I feel caught — no student should ever have to educate his/her faculty about these issues, but it seems an inevitable bind.  As a white woman, I must necessarily be on a growth path.  How do I do this without sacrificing my students along the way?”

 

5. Understanding why students feel uncomfortable “representing” their racial/ethnic identities in the classroom

“It’s really uncomfortable being the only person of color in a class, or one of few, and having the professor glance at you every time something race-related is mentioned, or look to you as a definitive representation.”

“Here’s the thing: I am an English major for a reason.  I love literature, I always have.  But its so hard, when you walk into a room and you’re the only person of color and its very, very obvious.  So maybe you feel kind of weird, so you sit in the back, participate as much as you can.  And then, one day, the topic of race comes up and suddenly, fwoop! 35 heads whip around to stare at you.  That’s uncomfortable.”

 

Resources on Race and Diversity in Higher Education

  • Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. Print.
  • Gutiérrez, y M. G. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, Colo: University Press of Colorado, 2012. Print.
  • hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
  • “Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Full-Time Faculty at More Than 4,300 Institutions.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
  • The Michigan Daily. “English department looks at classroom racial climate.” The Michigan Daily. N.p., 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
  • The Michigan Daily. “From the Daily: Let’s Talk about Race.” The Michigan Daily. N.p., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

 

Campus Resources

  • The Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR)
  • Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT)
  • National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID)

Pictures from the Open Mic Forum on Race and Social Justice

1, 2 — Event reflections: notecards and evaluation forms

3, 4, 5, 6 — Anonymous reflections during the open mic

7, 8, 9, 10 — Anonymous testimonial sent via our google form