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From: Beckie Supiano
Subject: Teaching: When Students Resist Learning About Racism
You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.
- Teaching students about race comes with a host of challenges. I share strategies from a sociologist who’s taught such courses at three predominantly white institutions.
- I share findings from two recent surveys of students’ and professors’ experiences of emergency remote instruction.
- I pass along some perspective about colleges’ fall plans.
Handling Student Pushback
Public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has grown dramatically since the death of George Floyd, whom video footage captured pleading for his life while a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. One result: a surge of interest in books that unpack racism and white privilege for those without a lot of background knowledge. This, in turn, has created a debate about where an uninitiated — so, probably white — reader should begin. Should they read white authors writing for a white audience, or Black authors whose scholarship is informed by experience? Overviews on the bestseller list, or scholarly works?
Earlier this summer, Jennifer Patrice Sims shared her perspective in a tweet: “Some of yall with big opinions on what newly aware white folks should read first to learn abt structural racism have never taught Intro level race classes to hundreds of racially illiterate white students,” wrote Sims, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, “AND IT SHOWS.”
The comment piqued my interest, especially because adding a required course focused on race is a frequent demand of student activists. I interviewed Sims, a Black scholar who has taught courses on race at three primarily white institutions, for perspective on how difficult this material can be to tackle in the classroom, and how colleges can support the professors who take it on. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
When professors teach about racism, some white students push back. That pushback can happen in the moment, Sims said, or after the fact in student evaluations or complaints to the department chair or dean.
When Sims started teaching, she would take her glasses off, leaving her able to see only the engaged students in the front of the room. “I just could not continue to concentrate,” she said, “seeing the rest of the auditorium with other students glaring, or rolling their eyes, or whispering, or shaking their head when I literally just gave a statistic.”
Over time, Sims — who wears her glasses in class now — developed an approach that seems to help. She has crafted a syllabus statement explaining that she is teaching sociology, a social science built on empirical evidence and data, not her opinion. The fact that she also teaches research methods, Sims adds, helps bolster the point in students’ eyes.
That pushback can impact professors’ careers. Sims feels that her department and college back her up when students complain, she said. Still, teaching about race can mean getting dinged on end-of-semester student teaching evaluations. Colleges must go beyond simply acknowledging this, Sims said, and instead take steps to protect instructors’ careers from being held back by those evaluations.
Evaluations, after all, provide a limited view of effective teaching. Sims recently heard from a student she taught in 2013, at the beginning of her career, who wrote that she now realizes how well the course equipped her to discuss race with family and friends.
How she handles racist moments in class. Earlier in Sims’s career, after she explained all the social reasons that marriage rates vary by race, a student commented that Black women were simply less attractive. At the time, Sims responded by turning the discussion back to the facts.
A Black woman in the course later emailed Sims, saying she was unable to focus on her classes the rest of the day. The incident helped refine Sims’s thinking on what it means for students to feel safe expressing their opinions in class.
Sims’s stance today: In a social-science classroom, opinions are subject to scrutiny to see whether they fit with the facts. If a student made a similar comment now, Sims said, she would turn it into a question to probe: What do you mean by attractive? “I’m not going to straight up say your opinion on who is attractive is wrong,” she said, “but I am going to have you interrogate critically what you mean by attractive, and show you how this is your opinion that is not shared by everyone on the planet, and therefore it is not an explanation to these empirical trends that we are seeing.”
How nonexperts can handle racist moments. Sims thinks that race should be taught across the curriculum. There should be dedicated courses taught by experts, and professors teaching other subjects should highlight the places where they intersect with race. Those professors, however, might not be prepared for students making racist comments in class. How should they respond?
Sims draws an analogy from her own teaching. Sometimes students will raise questions or make comments about physiological characteristics and race that fall outside the bounds of sociology. When that happens, Sims will say that their comment sounds like it might have some unfounded assumptions, but it’s outside the scope of the class. Then she’ll point them toward other resources, like a book or another course.
If a student makes a problematic or racist comment and a professor just isn’t sure what else to say, Sims added, it’s always better to say aloud, to the whole class, that the statement sounds off-base before moving on.
Don’t stop at one book: Sims thinks that books like White Fragility that cover the basics of race and dispel common misunderstandings can be a good place for students to start. But they shouldn’t stop there — those books give students a foundation to take on more advanced ones, especially those by Black writers and other writers of color. You can read Sims’s back-and-forth with other instructors about how best to introduce students to race in this thread.
Professors’ Perceptions Versus the Student Experience
For students, spring semester’s emergency online instruction presented a host of challenges. At Georgia State University, 42 percent of students reported being too stressed or busy to give enough attention to their coursework, according to a survey from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
Thirty-three percent of students said they lacked a dedicated space for online learning. More than a quarter lost their job or had their hours reduced. Twenty-two percent said their instructors were not responsive enough when they had questions or problems. Nineteen percent lacked reliable or sufficient internet access; the same share reported having to care for a child or dependent.
The center also surveyed professors, who had troubles of their own. Still, I was mostly struck by some of the comments respondents shared, describing challenges like students who “had to be prodded to complete the work” and reducing academic dishonesty. The center also asked professors if they’d taken steps to reduce the likelihood of academic dishonesty; more than 60 percent of instructors said they had. Between the lines, it felt like students and professors were describing two very different semesters.
The Indiana University system also surveyed its students and instructors about remote instruction. Its report makes a few student-informed recommendations meant to guide professors in their planning for fall courses. Among them: “Assign classwork judiciously, and in alignment with clear learning goals” and “foster a sense of virtual community through student-to-student communication.”
An Online Fall?
Since April, my Chronicle colleagues have been tracking colleges’ plans for reopening in the fall. The majority have indicated a preference for in-person instruction, with a host of ambitious plans for making it happen. In recent days, however, the tide seems to have turned: A growing number of colleges are shelving those in-person plans and announcing an online fall, as my colleague Lindsay Ellis reports.
Still, it’s not as if the people working at those colleges haven’t already contemplated the possibility that their plans would unravel. Faculty developers and centers for teaching and learning have been pushing all summer to better prepare professors for online teaching.
And I was struck by this finding in a new survey of colleges’ chief online officers from Quality Matters and Eduventures Research: Even though many colleges have released plans to offer at least some in-person instruction, “the great majority of COOs are preparing to roll out improved remote courses should events force their hand.”
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