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Burden

From WSO:

I’ve heard from many minority students here at Williams and throughout my academic life about the “burden” of representing their respective minority group in a class setting. More specifically, the situation that may arise if they are in a class talking about a particular issue and are looked at to provide insight on their views as a member of whatever minority group to which they may belong. This is done in order to help others understand that particular minority perspective. Obviously this is not a good way by any means to understand a perspective of any culture, but it does suffice as a short term solution in the classroom. While it may seem as if this idea is “racist” or “intolerant” or whatever term you deem appropriate, I think that this act is so natural that no one can truly be judged for doing so.

Read the whole thing.

1) This always generates a dilemma for the professor leading the discussion. Anytime you think a student has a different perspective on topic X, you want to ensure that the other students benefit from that perspective. (This applies in all sorts of contexts, not just race/gender/class/whatever.) How do you ensure that the student has a chance to speak (if she wants to) while not forcing her to speak (if she doesn’t) and, at the same time, encouraging her to speak if she is initially indifferent or even hesitant? Hard to do, especially in the middle of a free-wheeling discussion that covers many topics.

2) The primary (legal) justification for affirmative action is precisely this sort of diversity-educations-all-the-students argument. Michigan can admit less qualified black students as long as it can plausibly claim that those black students, because of their life experiences, add to the education of the students admitted without regard to race. But, of course, if the affirmative action students do not “provide insight on their views as a member of whatever minority group to which they may belong,” then the rational for affirmative action, at least according to the US Supreme Court, collapses.

3) It is easy to understand why some students would find such perspective-sharing a burden. “Why does the professor always turn to me when some African-American related topic comes up? Just treat me like all the other students in the class. Is that so hard?”

In any event, with luck Claiming Williams has generated many honest conversations about these issues. Any reader reports from the various events?

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#1 Comment By JeffZ On February 4, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

From the second I saw this (very thoughtful) student post scroll by on Eph Planet, I started the mental countdown until DK’s inevitable post here. The man does not let me down!

#2 Comment By rory On February 4, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

*facepalm*

David,

It actually isn’t much of a dillemma as a teacher necessarily. t’s something that teacher has to prove through their teaching throughout the course. The key thing for the teacher is to make the classroom a space in which the minority member does not feel like their contribution is seen as unique, special, or necessary just because of their race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality. Instead, they offer it because they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts in the classroom. Which is based on how the teacher controls and pushes the dialogue forward–is everything challenged? Is nothing challenged? What happens when students disagree–does that teacher foster the disagreement, try to move past it quickly, etc.

There’s a nuance to creating a classroom space that works well in this regard. For one, don’t only address the minority students when issues that are clearly racial come up. Second, make sure to engage them in dialogue instead of them saying what they think and taking that as “the black/female/gay word” on an issue. It’s Rachel/Shawn/whoever’s idea, informed by their background (just like any idea in a classroom). Third, make sure the minority isn’t the one who has to field their classmate’s ignorance. That is, when a fellow student says something racially naive, don’t make it the black (or asian, or hispanic, or whoever) duty to answer. Make everyone share in that duty. And sometimes, when race comes up, don’t go to the black perspective. Letting them sit one out is helpful in proving they are being treated as individuals as well.

On the other hand, doing things like bringing in the supreme court and affirmative action writ large whenever something like this comes up is a means of enhancing the burden, for example.

#3 Comment By David On February 4, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

*facepalm*

Is that directed at me? Please pay attention. Many (?) minority students at Williams are complaining about the “burden” placed on them by current Williams faculty, not by me. To the extent that you have a charming little lecture about how all the best, right-thinking professors solve this problem, direct your *facepalm* at them, not at me.

#4 Comment By Ronit On February 4, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

This post would have been 100% better with 60% fewer words.

#5 Comment By David On February 4, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

Ronit: Which words? Feedback is always welcome! I thought that making point 3) was quite inclusive of me, but should I have cut it? Or maybe 1) should be dropped? As a teacher, these are real dilemmas that one has to wrestle with, and I hope that some readers want to read about that perspective.

#6 Comment By Parent ’12 On February 4, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

I think the crux to Rory’s point is that it’s the teacher’s burden to make students “feel comfortable sharing their thoughts in the classroom.”

This is especially true for the hidden minorities: the orthodox Jew in a room full of secular students, the observant Catholic who’s against abortion, etc.

Actually, Dave, assuming you’re much more politically conservative than the “typical” Williams student, how would you facilitate discussion in the classroom. What would your old student self have wanted?

#7 Comment By rory On February 4, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

@David: *facepalm* x2:
“On the other hand, doing things like bringing in the supreme court and affirmative action writ large whenever something like this comes up is a means of enhancing the burden, for example.”

now you get it? that got the facepalm. that type of trite political point bullshit (yeah I cursed, I’m annoyed) is the type of idiotic response to the problem that creates and perpetuates it. bravo .

/anger. i decided to be nice and also add to the discussion by explaining what i’ve seen works as a teacher and a student. smh. i thought i was quite civil. i coulda been a lot sterner. Nor did I say anywhere about how many faculty I thought address that issue well. You’ve misinterpreted my post entirely.

@Ronit: exactly.

#8 Comment By Derek On February 4, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

David:

So this is your response to someone who has thought through these questions and who will actually have to deal with them on a daily basis:

“To the extent that you have a charming little lecture about how all the best, right-thinking professors solve this problem, direct your *facepalm* at them, not at me.”

Charming little lecture? Listen you hackish diletante, there are a lot of people here who are actually in academia and have to deal with these issues not as a way to grind their axes, but rather because it’s a serious part of being a professor. Unlike you, we are not merely hustlers who work their ass off to get quoted in the media on higher education issues because they sit at the head of a blog. Rory gave an honest and clear answer to the question from the students while still recognizing the fact that it came to him from a post at Ephblog written by someone whose record on matters racial is quite clear to most all of us.

dcat

#9 Comment By rory On February 4, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

Thanks, derek.

and, to be fair, it is still a dilemma…in as much as teaching is always a dilemma for a good pedagogue. Creating a good classroom dynamic is not something that can be perfected, but the basic goals/methods of a teacher who wants to avoid making people speak as “representatives” of an entire population aren’t that hard to identify. Putting them into practice is more fluid and nuanced. That was, perhaps, not captured well in my earlier responses, but, well, your original post and track record didn’t inspire me to be particularly reflexive.

Going back to being angry a bit, the insinuation that I don’t know that many students feel this burden at williams and similar schools is beyond ridiculous and why my last post was so aggravated. I hate to whip out the credentials card (especially considering I interact with the author of the book “The credentialist society” almost weekly), but I spend my days at the center for africana studies at my institution. This is what I do and talk about with undergraduates when not trying to work on my own research. I’m not just some random person on a blog, I’ve been addressing this very issue as both a student activist, a teacher, and a mentor for roughly 10 years almost non-stop. I can speak about the time a friend felt like her teacher didn’t stand up for her as a Black student, the time another professor tried to be provocative and ended up just coming across racist, and for the students who feel like they’ve transcended this problem before college and are struggling while there to deal with it re-emerging in their new college setting/after returning from study abroad.

If the student or anyone else (even david!) would like to continue this discussion without attempting to score political points but as an exercise in discussing what is and is not good pedagogical practice, I promise to do my best to avoid the snark while also engaging that discussion as best I can. I’m obviously not perfect at staying completely calm, but i’ll behave. To begin to do so, if that original student is reading this, I’d begin by challenging the analogy in the original wso post: is being Black or female or homosexual and at Williams properly analogized to being American during study abroad? Other questions will follow.

#10 Comment By David On February 4, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

Rory: I retract my “charming little lecture” crack. My apologies. I misinterpreted your *facepalm*.

And — unsurprisingly! — it seems we agree. I certainly second all his comments classroom dynamics.

Parent ’12:

Actually, Dave, assuming you’re much more politically conservative than the “typical” Williams student, how would you facilitate discussion in the classroom. What would your old student self have wanted?

All the stuff that Rory describes. The broader topic is: How to maximize the educational quality of class discussion? Not easy! Within that large topic, there are hundreds of special cases, only a handful having to do with minority group issues. I suspect that I would agree with Rory on how to best handle 99% of the issues that arise. I also suspect that, if he and I were to (invisibly) observe 100 Williams class discussions, we would rank their quality in a similar fashion.

But, one of the few things we would disagree about, I suspect is this:

“On the other hand, doing things like bringing in the supreme court and affirmative action writ large whenever something like this comes up is a means of enhancing the burden, for example.”

Imagine, for a moment, that EphBlog is the discussion class and that our topic is Williams. I am running today’s discussion. The reading is that WSO post. Should I bring up Supreme Court rulings about affirmative action in this discussion? For me, the answer is obviously Yes, but it is directly related to the topic and because many readers/students may not be aware of that connection. Rory may disagree.

#11 Comment By rory On February 4, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

@David: “Imagine, for a moment, that EphBlog is the discussion class and that our topic is Williams. I am running today’s discussion. The reading is that WSO post. Should I bring up Supreme Court rulings about affirmative action in this discussion? For me, the answer is obviously Yes, but it is directly related to the topic and because many readers/students may not be aware of that connection. Rory may disagree.”

Yes, i disagree. Look at what it caused. Were this a class, it’d practically be lost already because of that tangent. I cursed, you misinterpreted me and had to retract a statement, derek called you a “hackish diletante”. Not so successful, in my opinion.

The correct moment for that comparison to the supreme court is way later. Expanding outward from the individual experience/thought to larger societal issues is important but not where one should start. Rather, its something to let the classroom dialogue get to eventually. Maybe a student brings it up, maybe its the final thought as students leave, maybe its an email later that day to the class. But it’s not where I’d start, because it sends the exact signal you’re trying to avoid sending: hey non-white kids, you’re here to teach white people!

#12 Comment By Derek On February 5, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

David —
There are ways to bring it up and ways not to bring it up. At some point ina full class if it is relevant, of course you would bring it up. But were you teaching a class you’d also work on these topics as a career imperative.

We’re all so taken aback (or pretend to be — feigning outrage is America’s new favorite pastime) if someone pulls out credentials, I guess because going to an elite SLAC makes us all think we are experts in everything. But we’re not. And in the face of people who are experts in particular topics (the credentials are not a thing in and of themselves; they are evidence of a record of accomplishment in that area) I think some people need to defer.

Were Rory leading a class on these issues is a rather different question than if you are, just as the tables would be turned in a class on finance. Have you noticed, Dave, a pretty direct correlation between the amount you get hammered and the distance you stray from fiscal matters? You really should. It might prove instructive.

dcat