A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons — and Risks — to the Classroom

Katie Causey, The Hatchet

George Washington U. students staged a “die-in” last fall to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo. Scholars of race have seized on a series of racially charged events like Ferguson in the past year to enliven their courses, though the effort sometimes takes a personal toll.
August 07, 2015

For scholars of African-American studies, the police killings of unarmed black men in several cities over the past year have been personally searing and unusually powerful pedagogically.

"It’s tragic and terrible that these things keep happening," said Amani T. Marshall, a lecturer in history at Georgia State University, "but as a historian and a teacher, it makes my job so easy."

But making educational use of high-profile events in the news can also present pitfalls. Students can respond unpredictably, derailing class discussions. Faculty members often find they’ve let loose a flood of contradictory feelings in their students that they must expertly guide. Many professors of color must cope with similar emotions themselves.

The killing a year ago of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, has been followed by a grim procession of similar deaths: Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old in Cleveland; Walter Scott, in South Carolina; Freddie Gray, in Baltimore; and Samuel DuBose, in Cincinnati.

Each new event has forced scholars to make pedagogical choices. Some have made the incidents the explicit topics of a new lesson or course; others have used them as entry points to teach previously existing material.

Teaching the Discomfort

A team of professors at Pennsylvania State University took the explicit route. This past spring they offered a one-credit course, "The Fire This Time — Understanding Ferguson." Many of the 60 students in the five-week session enrolled because they wanted to make sense of a topic that was generating far more heat than light, said Courtney Desiree Morris, an assistant professor of African-American studies.

Most students in the course were white, she said, and admitted they hadn’t had many meaningful conversations with people of color. In addition to watching in-person and video lectures, writing essays on their reading, and having class discussions, the students produced multimedia presentations in which they offered ideas about how the police, community organizers, and federal officials might fix the underlying problems afflicting Ferguson.

Helping students view events from other perspectives was a major goal. "If we don’t understand experiences that aren’t our own," Ms. Morris said, "I don’t see how we’re going to transform the situation."

Other professors have incorporated current events into their existing syllabi. Historians, for example, have linked current developments in Ferguson and elsewhere to the Watts riots of 1965, to Reconstruction, even back to the slave laws established in the 17th-century colony of Virginia.

For some scholars, canonical works in their disciplines acquired fresh relevance. Chad Williams, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at Brandeis University, gained new insight from The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois. A chapter on the meaning of progress hit home. "What does progress mean," Mr. Williams asked himself and his students, "when we have an African-American president and there’s still systematic state oppression?"

That sense of dissonance, juxtaposing the promise of an idealized postracial era and the depressing reality facing many students, became an important spark educationally. Several professors, like Mr. Williams, wanted their students to embrace that confusion. "The goal," he said of his course, "was to come out more unsettled at the end of the semester than at the beginning."

Skillful Discussions

Adroitly moderating a discussion has always been a challenge in courses about race. After Ferguson, it has become even more important.

Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, takes time to build a sense of community in her courses. For the first 10 to 15 minutes of each class, her students, who reflect a mix of races, talk about whatever is on their minds. It allows them to get to know one another and affirm the ground rules for respectful and fact-based debate. It also sends the message that the professor isn’t always in charge.

Delegating that much power to students can be unnerving, but it can also lead to unexpected places. The day after a Missouri grand jury announced that Mr. Wilson, the officer who had killed Michael Brown, would not be indicted, emotions ran high.

Thanksgiving break was approaching, so Ms. Chatelain gave her students an unusual prompt: Would they bring up the subject during Thanksgiving dinner?

She wanted her students to look with fresh eyes at their own and others’ lived experiences. Many white students said they would never raise the issue because they felt awkward or uncomfortable. Most black students said they wouldn’t be able to escape it even if they wanted to.

Exploring their mixed emotions helped students develop more-nuanced positions over the semester, Ms. Chatelain said. Some black students, for example, acknowledged wanting to feel safe in their communities and saw a need for police officers, but questioned how much power the officers should have. Other students adopted less-doctrinaire positions on racial profiling: Support for it didn’t automatically signify racism, nor did disdain mean a disregard for law and order.

Some professors used other pedagogical methods to guide discussions. Jennifer C. Nash, an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University, relied on her training as a lawyer. Adopting what she called a quasi-Socratic approach, she learned everyone’s name in her 80-student course on race, gender, and the law, and cold-called on them.

Ms. Nash found it particularly effective to ask them to "perform" certain arguments. The students didn’t have to personally support a particular position, but they had to articulate it. What, for example, would an argument against meritocracy be? Performing an argument helped separate ideology from identity, she said, and allowed students to analyze ideas more dispassionately. She demonstrated the technique herself, she said, to show her students a range of perspectives.

In many courses that deal with Ferguson, white students still make up the majority. Mr. Marshall’s courses at Georgia State were often different. One of his sections of an American-history course had 46 students, but just six of them were white. Within racial groups, there could still be polarized opinions, which made for heated discussions.

On the day after the grand-jury decision about Mr. Wilson, for example, the tension was thick in Mr. Marshall’s class. A black female student, who appeared to Mr. Marshall to be reading from a blog, argued that the real problem was black-on-black crime, that black people commit a majority of crime nationally, and that this explained why Mr. Wilson had felt threatened and had shot Mr. Brown.

Mr. Marshall could see the hands of other students going up on the opposite side of the room. He heard sighs and the sucking of teeth. He recalled putting his hand up to acknowledge and quiet them.

He put her statistics into context, and mentioned the high rates of incarceration of black men. He drew a parallel to the history of the criminalization of black men since Reconstruction and the rise of mass incarceration since the 1980s. And he asked whether statistics like hers might be applied by the criminal-justice system to justify the use of deadly force on the black community.

When the other students started applauding, Mr. Marshall stopped them. He thanked her for raising the issue of the officer’s perceptions, and for her research. "But," he recalled adding that day, "I want you to question your sources."

Mr. Marshall, like many professors of color, said it can be difficult to keep cool when the discussion grows intense and can often feel personal. He and other faculty members said they must manage their own feelings of grief, danger, and sorrow, while often having to counsel black students through similar feelings, and making sure no one feels shut down in class.

"As an instructor," said Ms. Nash, of George Washington, "it’s utterly exhausting work."

A New Moment?

Incorporating current events into the curriculum can also present a different sort of challenge, to the enterprise of history. While such topics can persuade students to take a course they might not otherwise, historians are also wary of overplaying the significance of the now.

Many scholars sense that the year since Ferguson and the #BlackLivesMatter social movement will have true historical significance.

Christopher Cameron, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, regards the current moment as a turning point. "We’re seeing new directions for black intellectual history," said Mr. Cameron, who is also president of the African American Intellectual History Society. "It’s a new wave of black-power politics."

He has also perceived an increased willingness among white liberal students to talk about issues of race. Fault lines in the response to Ferguson may also be breaking down by ideology, not simply by race. Confidence in the police has sunk to its lowest point in 22 years, according to a recent Gallup poll. Liberals’ confidence dropped by seven percentage points and moderates’ by eight points during the past two years. Conservatives’ trust in law enforcement, however, has increased by three points.

"What we’re seeing today isn’t new," said Mr. Williams, of Brandeis, though he considers the energy and activism among students and young people as part of a watershed moment. "It remains to be seen what will happen," he added, "but the energy that’s been unleashed is not going anywhere."

That energy is also redefining notions of how social change occurs, said Calvin L. Warren, an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington.

Recent events have persuaded young black people that they will never be equal, he said. Instead of the sit-in that characterized past social-justice movements, students today stage "die-ins."

"In that choreography," Mr. Warren said, "there’s no hope for a better tomorrow."

Such changes reflect a debate in black studies on the discipline’s purpose. One side of the debate is called Afro-optimism, which holds that political engagement will lead to freedom, recognition, and justice. By teaching African-American history, the thinking goes, black people’s historical pain will be recognized as worthy of redress. That, said Mr. Warren, hasn’t happened.

The other side is Afro-pessimism or nihilism, a camp to which Mr. Warren belongs. Many of its adherents see themselves as realists. "My objective," he said, "is to deromanticize black history." Voting and petitioning the government to change, he said, may alter the faces of the people in charge, but not the laws and structures in place. "We’ve been voting for how many years now?" he said. "We’re as disenfranchised now as we were before."

Mr. Warren recognizes that his position unsettles people, but that’s what happens when one explores uncomfortable ideas. "Students ­really do want to hear something different," he said. "Even if it hurts, they want to hear the truth."

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com.