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Grad Student Sounds Alarms Over Penn’s Response to Online Attacks

Updated (10/19/2017, 4:52 p.m.) with statement from the university.

A graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania said administrators pulled them from the classroom over the use of a teaching technique, according to a set of messages on Twitter.

Stephanie McKellop, who uses they/them pronouns, wrote in a series of posts that are set to private that the university was going to condemn McKellop for using progressive stacking, a method aimed at offering marginalized students a greater chance at speaking in the classroom. McKellop, who is in the department of history, accused the university of caving in to the pressure of outside agitators.

“Hi Friends, the University of Pennsylvania is issuing a press release condemning me and my teaching practices. It comes out tomorrow,” McKellop wrote in one of the messages. “Because this involves calling on Black students more readily than white men, the white nationalists and Nazis were very upset.” The post containing the screenshots of messages was sent out on Wednesday night. In a different set of messages, McKellop wrote, “They did keep me from going to lecture with my students and they *cancelled* their classes with me this week.”

Steven J. Fluharty, dean of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, said in a written statement that the university recognizes the importance of making sure marginalized students have a chance to speak, and that it is committed to providing “respectful work and learning environments for all members of our community.”

“The university’s policies prohibiting discrimination are intended to reinforce our commitment to equity and inclusion,” he continued. “We are looking into the current matter involving a graduate-student teaching assistant to ensure that our students were not subjected to discriminatory practices in the classroom and to ensure that all of our students feel heard and equally engaged. Contrary to some reports, the graduate student has not been removed from the program, and we have and will continue to respect and protect the graduate student’s right to due process.”

Academics on Twitter rallied around McKellop as another case of a university administration’s bowing to outsiders rather than protecting its students or instructors. A similar criticism was made of Drexel University when it put George Ciccariello-Maher on leave after he received numerous hate messages and death threats, and was then pulled from the classroom. Some wrote letters for McKellop, while others expressed their support on Twitter. McKellop did not immediately respond to messages sent by The Chronicle on Thursday.

Nolan L. Cabrera, an associate professor of educational-policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona, offered an explanation of the term “progressive stacking.”

“In college classrooms,” he says, “it’s very common for people of privileged social identities to dominate conversations.”

The technique was used in the Occupy movement, Mr. Cabrera says, and as he understands it, it isn’t widely used in academic settings. Here’s how the technique could play out in a classroom. A professor asks a question, and a number of students raise their hands. That’s the stack. Typically, an instructor might call on students in the order their hands went up, Mr. Cabrera explains. If the professor instead uses progressive stacking, he or she might call on students from marginalized groups first.

The technique is sometimes misunderstood, Mr. Cabrera says. Some imagine it requires a professor to call on marginalized students who have not volunteered to speak, putting them on the spot. Others think it means not calling on white men. Progressive stacking is neither of those things, Mr. Cabrera says. It’s simply “an acknowledgment that traditional pedagogical techniques have silenced marginal voices.” Ultimately, he adds, it’s not much different from something professors do frequently — asking to hear from students who haven’t contributed yet, instead of allowing the same handful to dominate a class discussion.

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