Thursday, April 2, 2009

Some thoughts on the d-word

I spent the last couple of days preparing for interviews for teaching positions in history at a number of community colleges. For those of you who have never interviewed at a two-year institution, the process is a bit different compared to the 4-year college interview. There is a standard set of questions that applicants can expect to be asked by almost any screening committee and on the top of the list is usually a question about your approach to “diversity.” I have encountered this question in different formulations. Once, for example, I was asked how I would “define” diversity in the classroom, another time, how I “adjusted” my teaching style to reach diverse types of students, and yet some other time the questions was put to me as “What is your understanding of diversity in the classroom?”

Considering the extremely diverse student population one finds at community colleges, I know of course that it is important to check whether a candidate has put some thought into this issue. But I have to admit that I find the way the question is framed perplexing. I assume that by asking me to articulate my understanding or definition of diversity, the committee wants to test the degree to which I -- a person not trained in a junior college setting – am aware of it? Or am I missing some deeper issue here (which is entirely possible and in that case please tell me)? In any case, I am not at all sure how well I am handling “diversity” in my classrooms, so bear with me, please, while I reflect on how I deal or have dealt with this issue in my actual life as a teacher.

I sincerely aim to be sensitive to, and accommodate, diversity. And here I realize that I am dealing with diversity of various kinds. On the one hand, students come from diverse backgrounds. On the other hand, they often differ widely in regards to what they expect to get out of their education and the extent to which they are prepared for college level work. As I believe that students learn best when they are able to feel a connection between the subject matter and their own lives, I try to communicate that I value the experiences they bring by virtue of their particular backgrounds to the study of history. This, I believe, is not some touchy-feely effort to bond with a class but a perfectly legitimate approach to teaching college level history. Many students from minority backgrounds, for instance, (especially those of non-traditional undergraduate student age) have had history classes that made no reference whatsoever to their communities. On the basis of this, they might approach the study of history with a certain amount of resistance. So, if I make a special effort to ask for stories they or their families can add to the historical narrative, I believe I am doing a good thing.

Well, okay, sometimes this turns out to be a good thing. Because to be perfectly honest, I have at times been overly deferential to students who argued on the basis of insights grounded in their own experiences. For instance, I once taught a class on modern U.S. women’s history that was composed mainly of traditional-age, white, female undergraduates but that also included a non-traditional-age, African American, female student, who moreover self-identified as a veteran of the women’s liberation movement. Great, I thought, this is the perfect set-up for a discussion of “feminism,” or “women’s issues” across different generations. Considering the historical marginalization of black women in the so-called second wave, I was also glad that my younger students would learn about women’s liberation from an African American woman and not just from their white/pinkish teacher. In actuality, however, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to discuss second-wave feminism in this particular classroom. The young women deferred to their older peer’s authority although from observing their behavior during breaks and after class, I knew that there was a lot that they wanted to say. They kept censoring themselves, however, and I was too slow to respond and too clueless to change the classroom climate.

What silenced students in this particular class, I believe, was the fact that culturally literate, young white, women, whose education had made them aware of their own race privileges, met upon someone who had clearly experienced racism and sexism in the past and in the present. My older student spoke not just with authority but also with an undertone of bitterness. My younger students shied away from discussions for fear of coming across as insensitive, or naïve, or even sexist or racist. And I, meanwhile, had the same intense self-consciousness about the fact of racism and my own privileged position as a white college instructor that I did not dare tell my older student that her visible emotional baggage was contributing to the shutting down of classroom discussions. So, I guess here would be a case of diversity management that failed. I wonder what I as the instructor could have done to create a classroom climate better suited for a discussion of various viewpoints?

As one result of this dynamic, I fear that we as a class never had a chance to appreciate our true diversity. I myself learned only at the end of the term how truly multifaceted the backgrounds of my students were. I was conscious of the few clearly identifiable minority students but failed to see that behind the whiteness of the majority was also an incredible diversity in terms of regional, class, family backgrounds, and personal histories. Had I been conscious of this earlier, I probably could have used it to talk about the fact that no one particular group has a monopoly on victimization, or injury, or whatnot.

Of course when a community college screening committee asks you about your approach to “diversity,” they also want to learn about your strategy to teach classes with students who not only vary greatly in the degree to which they are ready for college-level work, but also come to class for various reasons. Most of them want to get something very concrete – a grade, a degree, a piece of paper that they expect to translate directly into an economic gain. Many have no problem if the class also ends up teaching them how to think and write analytically, especially if they do not have to invest a lot of time (of which they don’t have a lot) into cultivating these skills. Especially in hard economic times like this, however, I think students are more and more interested in getting a concrete return from their investment in their education and are put off by lofty-sounding course-objective statements that sound a bit like “oh this class will so enrich your live.”

I realize that the notion of education-for-the sake-of-education is a pretty elitist concept. But I have to admit that my ideal -- imagined -- student indeed has no mundane economic motives for going to college. This Disneyland student in my head wants to learn for reasons of personal enlightenment and to become a better person. Disneyland student also leaves college not to enter the corporate world with degree in hand, but to subvert the status quo and to work for social reconstruction. (So far, I have managed to keep this Yoda part of my philosophy of teaching to myself when talking to screening committees.) So how do I reconcile realism and ideals? How do my peers do it?

I could go on and on at this point but I fear the post has already sprawled hopelessly out of focus. In any case, I am curious to hear about others’ attitudes about and experiences with diversity in the classroom.


The Daft Laird said...

Thanks for sharing this, AC. We are in many ways still so bad about dealing with race in this country. Part of me thinks that the post-1960s (or earlier?) it-isn't-polite-to-say-that response to racism has been nearly as bad as explicit racism itself. It reminds me (and sorry if I've already recounted this story here) of the comment in a dissertation defense by a faculty member at LPUN. Faculty member works with school of ed students working in local schools and told us that the school system instructs the student/teachers not to talk about slavery in the classroom. Reason? It makes the black kids angry and the white kids feel guilty.

As AC's post reminds us, though, it isn't just some bad ole administrator that deals poorly with race, it's us as well!

Teacher Scholar said...

AC, I have somewhat similar experiences in my courses. My institution is extraordinarily white. Native Americans comprise the largest minority group on campus and their proportion of the student body is in the single digits.

I can often get vigorous debates about race in my courses--except when there is a strong African-American personality in the class. Note that it is the strong personality, not the fact that there is an Af-Am student in the class (in fact I have observed that quiet black students only affect discussion in this way if it is a very small group). Much like with AC, students will not disagree with Af-Am students with commanding personalities, frequently even if they make wildly fantastic assertions. When those personalities are absent, white students behave quite differently. When s/he (they) return, suddenly we are back through the looking glass.

I have to admit that I have not had much success in overcoming The (Racial) Happening among my students. In part I think it is, like AC explains, that students are aware of (or aware of arguments about) their racial priviledge. However, here I also believe that many of my white students do not know how to act or behave around black students. Almost all of them grew up in working-class communities of (far) northern European heritage where diversity is measured in shades of pale. White students who best bridge this behaviorial gap are athletes who have black teammates. Unfortunately, the chummy report between the teammates has not served as a vehicle for other white students to chime in (for the most part).