I am a pragmatist. I believe that education can have a transformative effect for some students. I do not believe that I am some collegiate version of Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. My only expectation is that my students meet me (at least) halfway and take ownership for their own learning--and at some bare minimum grapple with the ideas presented in class in an intellectually honest and rigorous manner. Nevertheless (and despite our best intentions), we may encounter
"Do you remember when?" is usually the most banal form of conversation in existence. Nevertheless, for my purposes today a trip down memory lane proves most instructive. One of my favorite professors (we will call him Dr. Kurt) in college relayed a story to me when I was contemplating graduate school. This wise soul of Sociology told me about one of his best students, a young man who was curious, excited by the material, and eager to absorb all that my then mentor had to offer. Dr. Kurt had found a holy grail: What is seemingly a dream come true--a padawan to our Yoda; a Mr. Miyagi to our Daniel. Said student absorbed everything taught in his classes on race, class, and gender. And he was especially fascinated by the politics of housing segregation and the built environment.
Dr. Kurt was both pleased and gratified. Years later, Dr. Kurt would meet his protege at a class reunion. Excited to share how his life had been indelibly marked by Dr. Kurt's classes, said student explained that sociology was the basis of his career success. My mentor was overjoyed. "How?" he asked. Our young friend explained that "I work in real estate. All that stuff on redlining and blockbusting was so useful for me. I apply those techniques and I'm now a millionaire because of how well I use them. Thanks!"
Dr. Kurt laughed as he told the story, the laughter a complement and mask both to, and for, his intellectually infused gallows humor. As a newbie I didn't understand the nuances of the tale. Finally, I think I am starting to "get" Dr. Kurt's wizened wisdom. For in these last few weeks I have witnessed the following episodes...what could be great fodder for a never to be written set of memoirs:
Race in the Age of Obama Pedagogical Failure Moment Number One: In one of my classes, we are discussing the spatial dimensions of neighborhoods, segregation, and how race is a cognitive map, a floating signifier that organizes our world, and that white supremacy is still a real, trans-historical, social force. In what I thought was an accessible way to demonstrate the power of this point, I showed my class the infamous This American Life episode on the restaurant Weiner Circle, where white racism is on full display when the mask of civility is dropped in the whee hours of the night at this legendary Chicago eatery. The next class session one of my students was visibly excited as she exclaimed, "Professor, I went to Weiner Circle over the weekend with my friends! The food looked so good in the video I just had to try it. It was awesome!" Epic. Face. Palm. Moment.
Race in the Age of Obama Pedagogical Failure Moment Number Two: I spend a great deal of time on racial formation theory. Accordingly, I go for the jugular and don't flinch. Whiteness is the center of the conversation. The relationship of Whiteness to power is the frame. How white ethnics earned their bonafides as fully White citizens by hating, distancing themselves from, and participating in often violent rituals against black Americans is the ugly history that we will confront together.
Some students are enraptured. Others are sitting nervously with the "did he just go there?" look on their faces (I hold my breath waiting for my evaluations each year by the way). With great passion, a young quasi-White student raised his hand. Upset he offered, "my relatives have done everything we have read about. I am so frustrated. Why haven't we, Hispanics, earned our whiteness and white privilege! This is so unfair." Rendered. Speechless. Despite. Intervention. Moment.
Race in the Age of Obama Pedagogical Failure Moment Number Three: There is often a disconnect between what students read and how they believe it does (or does not) apply to them. If it is positive and reinforces their priors about how wonderful, grand, great and post-racial said students believe themselves to be, this information seems to be retained. When this information challenges said priors, or calls their own behavior into question, the data is discarded. Often, despite the best efforts of some to dismiss challenging information, students often prove the very logic of the theories of which they are so suspicious.
Several of my assigned readings focus on the scripts that white folks in the age of colorblindness use to deflect charges of racism specifically, and of the overwhelming power of race to over-determine life chances, more generally. As a daily task, I ask my students to critically evaluate their readings for a given day. Not surprisingly--and perhaps most depressingly--many of them deploy the same tactics highlighted in the readings for the class. "I am not a racist, but..." "I have black/brown/Hispanic/gay/minority friends and..." "My relatives came to America a hundred years ago and we never owned slaves so..." And my favorite, "Okay, all this stuff may be true but it doesn't apply to me or my friends and I don't really believe it and..." No. Comment. Not. Ever.
In the interest of transparency, my worries are not that the disconnect between teachers' intent and students' reception is anything new. These are common laments across time, culture, and generations. But, how do we go about teaching race, and the realities of colorblind racism in the Age of Obama? When for the post-Civil Rights generation to even talk about race is itself "racist?" How do we overcome this gap in language, understanding, and application?
More generally, is this is a classic story of a gallon's worth of information being poured into a pint size glass size of intellect and preparation? Or are these moments an example of a collective failure on the part of teachers, universities, and colleges? Moreover, are the expectations we hold for our "millennial" students too high?
Pray tell my fellow teachers, students, and other allies, how do you respond to these moments of utter pedagogical disconnect? Tips, suggestions, or strategies?