Friday, October 1, 2010

Pedagogical Failure? Epic Face Palm Moments of Teaching Race in the Age of Obama

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 a face palm a moment of pedagogical failure where the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.

"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?


olderwoman said...

Ah, teaching. You ask for responses to moments like these. 1) Context. Pay attention to all the students who have gotten the point. Don't let the resisters blind you to the others. 2) Remember, students are whole people with their own backgrounds and interests. Some are strongly motivated to resist. No matter how well you teach, you cannot overcome motivated resistance. Remember how you felt & responded in classes taught by instructors pushing conservative/racist/sexist etc. agendas. 3) If you are trying to influence someone who disagrees with you, first you have to understand their perspective and then see if you can offer persuasion that makes sense from within their framework. This doesn't always work, no matter how hard you try. 4) Students are equally bad at understanding other things we teach, like what a median is or what interests are.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I cannot imagine what it means to speak so passionately & to receive such incomprehension in return.

However, I will say it's possible that you will reach some of them. I am currently working through this issue in my own soul. It's unbelievably hard to see what is right in plain sight, and it can take many lessons, but eventually - some of us start to get it.

For me, the sad thing is that it is so easy blow this off as I have been doing.

But it's something I have to do.

Robert said...

The exact same thing happened when I showed a friend the Wiener's Circle clip. Maybe Ira Glass should consider doing marketing for the Tea Party?

Historiann said...

I never heard of/saw the Wiener's Circle clip--thanks for the tip.

I was once a clueless white student who was resistant to the lessons you're teaching. But, I changed. I learned more, and thought more, and saw more of the world. Have faith that you're planting seeds, and that some may sprout and grow when the soil can support them. I'm not saying that you shouldn't engage students when they say things like that, BTW. It seems like a "Is that the lesson you took from that clip--that the Wiener's Circle has good food?" or "Are you arguing that Latinos have earned white privilege? Can you expand on that idea for us?", asked earnestly in order to draw out the student, might be a place to start.

Big Man said...

I have no tips. I'm not a teacher but I have attempted the sort of interventions you discuss in real life, and I've met with many of the same results.

I am lost.

ben said...

I was a TA for a big intro class on World Politics and we were discussing the issue of torture. I ask whether students believe that it happens because people believe it to be useful. One person replies:

"I know it can be. One time my friend hid my car keys, but then I punched him in the face and he gave them right back"

I suppose it would have been worse for us to have the discussion on torture on then next week for him to come back telling me he'd applied the lesson in such a way, but I still had no idea how to deal with this. But I felt like I had a responsibility to try something.
I guess I feel like I'm teaching them a way of thinking which they can accept or reject when the class is over, but whilst the class is going on I at least want them to master it. And if that way of thinking includes a prediction "people who reject this way of thinking even before the class is over tend to do so for a particular set of reasons" then there's no way to do that without sounding like you know students better than they know themselves, and perhaps that's what they're worried about?

Anonymous said...

Helooooooo???? waiting for your next post

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Thanks all. I was out of town and just got back.

@Olderwoman--I am reading the assignments from these classes. I don't know if they are telling me what I want to hear, or there is something else afoot, but I am pleasantly surprised.

@Anon 1--You wrote, "I cannot imagine what it means to speak so passionately & to receive such incomprehension in return." hmmm, don't underestimate your own experience. I bet this happens in your day to day more than you notice. We are all teachers.

@Robert--Be nice ;)

@Historiann--You have more experience than I do. I am very bad at managing silence. I offer lots of softballs so to speak in my classes. Nevertheless, I am still amazed at the confused looks. How do you manage these moments of the obvious that are met with silence?

@Big Man--I bet you have some ways to persuade. Share, pretty please. Be nice though 'cause we negroes are mighty sensitive...

@Ben--How did you work in such a large section in these moments? I have a hard time dealing with any class bigger than 25 or so. After that I try to dissuade people from staying. Yet, they are self-flagellates! Is that a complement or a curse?

@Anon 2--Posted. Was traveling. And got more to come. Thanks for making me feel wanted though. I am flattered.

fred c said...

That was me, that "my family came after slavery" thing, I was forty before I realized that it did nothing to get me off the hook. Maybe if I'd had a professor like you I'd have gotten the point sooner, but I was pretty dense back then, I thought that I knew it all. It's possible, though, that what you teach them now will sink in later, after life has had a chance to throw in some experience, and, one hopes, wisdom.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Fred C:

How did it sink in later? There are lots of folks whom for various reasons don't own their social location in a given society. They acknowledge things like power and privilege in the abstract, but don't confront what it means to have it in the present, and the real.


gordon gartrelle said...

This reminds me of a funny incident back in college.

I came across an offensive flyer for a party thrown by one of the many racist white frats on campus (Kappa Sigma, for anyone who cares). The party was called "Jungle Fever" (although, no black people were invited, of course), and the flyer showed a caricature of an "African savage." For me, the worst part was that the same frat had been "disciplined" by the university for the same thing the previous year. The only difference between the 2 years' flyers was that they added a mask over the caricature's face.

So, a good friend and I are all up in arms, making copies to distrubute around campus, hoping that folks would share our outrage and push for some kind of action. We show it to a kid we knew, like, "look at this shit, man!" He reviewed the flyer and said, "Yeah, this looks tight, I might have to check this out."

In hindsight, this was probably the event that caused me to lose that naive, college outrage activist spirit and to take off my racism chasing shoes for good.

fred c said...

See my comment to the post above this one. I think my late, but welcome understanding came after many years that included many meaningful interactions with less privileged people, mainly Black and Hispanic (I lived in New York, then Los Angeles). I always thought that my personal record was good, but I listened to lots of stories, and I said some stupid things and was called on them, and finally the pieces came of a pattern, and it was check-mate for my smug feeling that I could avoid responsibility.

Anonymous said...

I think that most of the faculty in the anthropology department where I TA tend to discourage students from reasoning from personal experience for precisely this reason. If the frame for what the student is talking about is 'other people' or better 'other people, as represented in this text' (as opposed to 'me') you can flatly tell them they're wrong without it becoming a judgment on them personally.

Failing that, one technique which can work is 'parsing' -if a student says something really,er, representative of the problem at hand, you can just literally say nothing, insert an awkward silence into the conversation. Obviously, this requires pretty firm control over the conversation in the classroom, but it encourages the other students, as well as the person in question, to reflect on what was just said.