Learning, unlearning, pausing

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan on strike. Image source. We stand in solidarity with GEO and encourage you to pay solidarity dues to the union if you can.

We are incredibly appreciative of all the scholars who shared their expertise and ideas last week during the two-day #ScholarStrike. We highlighted a few of the talks that we found useful on our Twitter account during the two days, and we are excited to check out more on the Scholar Strike YouTube account over the course of the next few months. 

As the Carleton term starts and we both start our first terms of online teaching, we’re committed to keep learning about racial justice and abolition. At the same time, we are also committed to continue reflecting on what we will need to unlearn–ideas that have been ingrained in us as residents of a White Supremacist capitalist society. And that definitely takes time and effort. 

We are going to take a break from blogging for the duration of the term to ensure that we have time to focus on our teaching and on our own learning/unlearning.


We are still open to publishing guest blog posts, though, so BIPOC folks, definitely send us an email at dosprofx@gmail.com if you want to publish something.

Crisis pedagogy

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Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective.

“Did we connect curriculum to this moment? Or did we continue to show that the curriculum is totally irrelevant to our lives? Did we acknowledge trauma in this moment? The curriculum must be connected to the moment, must be relevant, must be impactful.” 

Kevin Kumashiro posed these questions in his brilliant recent seminar on how higher education must step up in a moment of crisis if colleges and universities are interested at all in being institutions that are about social justice. He started the webinar by saying, “What we do in the midst of a crisis should actually take us closer to the vision we have for higher education, not farther.”

While we started this series of posts inspired by the words of Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals calling for all of us to imagine a different future and society in the face of the racial justice uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic had already set into motion discussions about how to re-imagine education in a moment of crisis. 

While neither of us had the experience of teaching online this year because of leaves, we did hear from many of our friends and colleagues about their experiences, and we engaged (sporadically) with conversations at Carleton this spring about what should happen next fall: Should students return to campus? Should faculty continue to offer online courses? What shifts needed to happen to our curriculum and pedagogy because of the pandemic? 

In line with Kevin’s questions about connecting curriculum to the moment, Anita had posted the following comment in May on a Carleton online forum about teaching in the fall in response to a comment about the potential for team-teaching: “This is perhaps a much more ‘out there’ suggestion but (sort of) building on this notion of team teaching, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be if Carleton used this next year to be completely bold and innovative. Rather than having traditional courses, what if we used a liberal arts interdisciplinary lens to create teams of faculty who could collaborate to create learning experiences for students around the theme of PANDEMICS! Maybe we would do shorter terms to give us a time to plan, or maybe we’d stick to the same groups the entire year and do it all online. I can’t think of a single discipline that doesn’t have some bearing on the topic in some way. What better way to show that the liberal arts approach matters, that subject matter expertise matters, than by actually tak[ing] on a topic that matters to/in the world in a more immediate, substantial way and by responding to the world as it is?”

Before Anita posted this comment, the two of us had exchanged a series of text messages where we had fleshed out some of the possibilities. We first started by expressing some of our frustrations about the framing of these conversations that faculty were being asked to engage in as well as the neglect of expertise about infectious disease (the college has since brought in an epidemiologist to campus). We provide here an edited transcript with some notes added in italics as we’ve learned more about the effects of the pandemic and people’s response to it (edited mostly for clarity…and um, colorful language!)

Adriana: The framing is just all wrong…it’s imagining that somehow things are “normal” in 6-8 months… or that there’s ANY WAY to bring students back to be in a college community that is SAFE. Nightmare scenarios don’t make for good learning. [A recent nationwide survey found that 18-25 year olds have been the least likely to follow pandemic hygiene.]

Anita: Also, why are any of us weighing in on this to begin with? Asking me for my view on how to do social distancing or whether it’ll be safe is like asking my students to “weigh in” on whether race is biologically real. I don’t have that discussion with them. I have them read social science research about the impacts of people having that false belief.

Adriana: YES. 

Anita: That’s what I wanted to write…this discussion is basically undermining any defense of why places like Carleton or universities in general are necessary. If we can all be “experts” because we’ve read a few things, then why should families pay us $70,000 for our subject matter and pedagogical expertise? We just need YouTube and TED Talks.

Adriana: The one thing I found interesting is some folks talking about team teaching online — I love that idea. 

Anita: Yeah, I’d love to do a version of the structured gap year but a cool, liberal arts interdisciplinary one where a team of faculty collaborate to create learning experiences around the theme of pandemics. And we would do shorter terms, to give us a month to plan and then two months to work with students.

Adriana: OMG – an AMST sequence on pandemics would be amazing.

Anita: What better way to show that we matter, that liberal arts matters, than by actually mattering to the world and responding to the world AS IT IS?

A couple of days after this discussion, Anita posted her comment to Moodle…mostly to silence (cheers to a staff member who emailed their support!). When Anita mentioned this idea to a friend who teaches at a large state university, they asked what such a scenario might look like in more practical terms.

Friend: Can you sketch out a more detailed plan? How do you see interdisciplinary work working?

Anita: The whole point is that we would need to do it together!

Friend: Sometimes you need to sketch out the idea so people can conceptualize it

Anita: Fine. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios. Let’s think about how the pandemic has made worse inequities through the disciplines of education, sociology, biology…Let’s think about the metaphor of pandemics in literature: English, Spanish, Latin, all the languages.

Friend: I make those kinds of suggestions in my program a lot. If I taught in a liberal arts school, I’d say let’s do it!

Anita: Exactly! We’re supposedly all about doing this kind of innovative teaching but we mostly do it on the edges, in small ways.

Friend: Yes. This would reconfigure how you approach a problem. I like the interdisciplinary approach because how else can you approach big problems? You could create interdisciplinary learning groups with students and profs. What’s the number of students versus professors?

Anita: 2000 students, maybe 200 faculty. And if we include staff (librarians, tech folks), maybe another 50 instructors

Friend: What?! That would only be like 10 students per instructor. If you grouped 3-4 instructors, you are still talking about a small student/teacher ratio. You could create an overarching framework to consider what should be accomplished but then each group could design their own learning plan and outcomes. That’s so totally doable! You could have a research fair at the end to highlight outcomes.

Totally doable, but only if we have the will to imagine it. 

For example, rather than each university bringing back their students back to campus, what if universities coordinated regionally to use dorms and dining services to serve people in the more immediate communities who need housing and food? One reason that Carleton cited for their recent decision to bring back 85% of students to campus in the fall were inequities in students’ ability to access online learning. Of course, this inequity is a much larger and systemic one. What if campuses opened up their spaces for students in immediate communities, including K-12 students, to access better Wi-Fi services? And if this kind of access was coordinated regionally and nationally, our students might have access to housing, internet, and other necessary services, along with the thousands of others in their communities with the same needs. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from businesses that have pivoted to serve community needs, such as this Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis

We’re not arguing here that these ideas are THE ideas. As Anita noted to her friend, the point is to work on such ideas together as a community. Kevin notes in his webinar that the point is not to agree or disagree with the specific ideas that he proposes, but rather to ask different questions about what this moment allows us to do, compels us to do. Rather than asking how we can tinker with our curriculum and pedagogy to get us as close to “normal” as possible, what if we asked instead, as Kevin does, “How should universities better serve community capacity building, democracy building, and movement building?” How might we answer that question in this moment of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings? How might those answers then shift fundamentally our visions of who our institutions should serve and to what purposes?

Kevin calls out faculty, and we would say perhaps his challenge is especially relevant for those of us with the security of tenure, for NOT protesting more robustly against our institutions for failing to live up to social justice standards, especially in this moment of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings. He urges us to organize and collectivize. There are small liberal arts colleges that have started to move in this direction.

We’ll admit that the two of us are at a loss about how to do so at Carleton. Given our own histories of feeling stymied in our efforts to influence systemic institutional change, we have focused instead on what we can do in our classes, with our research, and in our communities outside of Carleton. So we don’t have a neat, inspiring ending for you about what we have done or what you should do. 

We would, though, love for all of you to share with us your ideas or ideas that you’ve encountered from others that you find particularly intriguing, ideas that move us closer to dismantling educational systems that reinforce and reproduce White Supremacy and economic inequities.

More than a Reading List: Challenging Anti-Black Racism in the Field of South Asian Religions

Note: This guest post by the Auntylectuals asks scholars in their field–South Asian religions–to reimagine what it means to be an anti-racist scholar. While their call is to a specific academic community, we think that there is much to be learned from their post as all of us reimagine our teaching and research to become more anti-racist. You can contact the group at auntylectuals@gmail.com and find them on Twitter @auntylectuals. Take it away, Auntylectuals!

In response to recent horrific acts of murder and police brutality against Black people, we have seen a new interest in racism arise in the field of South Asian religions. On listservs, pedagogy forums, and elsewhere, colleagues have made some excellent suggestions of reading lists, films, and resources on racism. But this relatively new attention to race among scholars of South Asian religions also arouses some concern and frustration. There is something important missing from the well-intentioned conversations about racism and anti-Blackness that now pervade a small corner of our field. What is absent is deep self-reflection on the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have determined who participates in our discipline and our institutions, and how racism factors into the ongoing power-dynamics and orientation of our work. The elephant in the room, virtual or otherwise, is that a large portion of our field is still made up of white scholars of Christian background, as well as South Asians who can leverage the privileges of caste, gender, and race. Our field is embedded in complex histories that cannot be disentangled from racist endeavors and agendas. 

In their recent “Down With Brown” post, Anita and Adriana have suggested that confronting our complicity and the ways racism permeates our work requires “changing our imaginations.” This includes revisioning how we position our scholarship. Rather than researching and writing in silos, what this moment and what being anti-racist require of us is reimagining the boundaries of our disciplines, seeing the intersections between various fields and their relationship to forms of power. As we reimagine, we hope to unearth and undermine racism, ultimately rebuilding our discipline. 

As feminist critical race scholars of religion who are also racialized academics, we are reflecting on our relationship to the study of South Asian religions. We have been informed by and continue to learn from the work of Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, and Brittney Cooper, who have been engaging with and thinking through questions of race for decades. In 2018, after more than a year of exploratory discussions, we founded the seminar in Intersectional Hindu Studies within the American Academy of Religion, which is a collaborative five-year seminar with eleven other racialized scholars of Hindu studies. We see our work as being in conversation with similar interventions in Religious Studies and other fields that are challenging white supremacy in academia and beyond. Working from a feminist framework of collective labor and collaboration, we have carved out spaces for us to study and support each other. We have worked to create places for researchers of color in our field to talk about their experiences of marginalization and privilege, and to identify ways in which we have been complicit in the racist structures of academia. 

We agree wholeheartedly that we should integrate gender and race into our classes and research, but a reading list is not enough. Developing bibliographies is not new to academia; it is the bread and butter of our fields. But reading some new books cannot be confused with making personal or structural changes. In order to avoid the additive model, where we just augment our study of religion with readings on race, we must reflect back on how our discipline emerged as part of the colonial project that gave rise to categories of religion and race simultaneously. The formation of our discipline is predicated on white supremacy, brahminical supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy. Thus, racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, casteism, Islamophobia, and orientalism inherently inform the scholarship on and pedagogy of South Asian religions. 

As South Asian savarna (with caste) women, this reflection requires us to examine our own positionalities. We are aware that being perceived as “model minorities” shields us from the brutal violence that is so painfully common for Black people, granting us conditional privilege in the hallowed halls of academia. We also recognize that this model minority status is rooted in anti-Black racism. We need to look no further than United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) to see how South Asians have leveraged race and caste in paving the road to conditional acceptance and citizenship in the US. Thind’s lawyers argued that “the High-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint” explaining further that “[it] would be just as disgraceful for a high-class Hindu to marry a member of one of the lower caste as it would be for an American gentlemen to marry a member of the negro race.” Claiming that he was a member of the Aryan race, Thind invoked racial and religious purity narratives that undergird white (and brahmanical) supremacy by invoking white and upper-caste anxiety around miscegenation. Savarna South Asians in North America continue to participate in racist and casteist systems required to maintain our precarious privilege. 

As scholars of South Asian religions, we know that a tremendous amount of training is required to translate a Sanskrit or Tamil text, interpret a ritual practice, or conduct ethnographic research in India or Trinidad. That same kind of specialization is required to bring critical race theory, gender, and sexuality studies into our classrooms and our research. It is not uncommon for people to presume that simply because they are personally and politically committed to addressing issues of racial injustice, or other forms of marginalization, that they are prepared enough to raise these issues in classrooms. 

In no way do we wish to discourage people from working on these issues, but we ask that our colleagues proceed with care and caution. Critical Race Feminist Theory asks that we don’t just announce our positionality and situate ourselves with respect to our work and teaching; it demands that we engage in acts of critical self-reflection and scrutiny. It necessitates that we continually interrogate our positionality with respect to race, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality as we take action. We are all complicit in forms of white supremacy, and recognizing that is difficult and uncomfortable.

Ibram X. Kendi invites us to think about antiracism as an active, intentional and ongoing action: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, ‘I am not racist,’ while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.” 

The road to becoming anti-racist scholars requires an examination of whiteness and white supremacy in a transnational frame. Simply adding comparisons between caste in India and anti-blackness in the US may create the semblance of awareness, yet it does not do the work of anti-racism. It is imperative to do the labour of reflecting on how access to privilege has served, even unintentionally, to capitalize on and reinforce anti-Black racism in our classrooms, research, and institutions. One of the many ways that anti-Black racism is apparent is the near absence of Black scholars and students in our field, which is otherwise dominated by white and savarna South Asian scholars. 

The anti-racist work we are asking you to do may begin with a reading list or bibliography, but it may not be the one that was generated by people who are already in power. How can a discipline that still follows colonial parameters of knowledge production suddenly become aware enough to reorient the field and become anti-racist? In the oft quoted words of Audre Lorde, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We ask our colleagues who are committed to challenging racism to resist simply adding race to a section of your course or designing a course on race and caste in South Asian religions, but to begin with serious study and self-reflection about the content of our courses, the nature of our research, and the state of our discipline and institutions. These first steps are critical since they reveal how white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate in every component of our society. It is a collective responsibility to do this labor and to unlearn the violence of white supremacy. We ask you to join us in this work.

Intersectional Feminist Hindu Studies Collective aka “The Auntylectuals

Shreena Gandhi, Sailaja Krishnamurti, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Tanisha Ramachandran, and Shana Sippy

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Reimagining K-12 schools in Minneapolis and beyond

Center High School students protesting mistreatment by school resource officers in May 2016. Photo credit: Andy Rathbun, Pioneer Press.

In this post, we want to signal boost a statement issued on June 7, 2020, by Education for Liberation, Minnesota Chapter, in support of the Minneapolis School Board’s recent decision to end their contract with the Minneapolis School Board. As this statement makes clear, taking cops out of schools is just a first step in moving towards developing curricula, pedagogy, and practices that truly educate and nurture Black and Indigenous students and students of color. 

Anita is a member of Ed Lib, MN Chapter, the first-ever local chapter of the Education for Liberation Network. Our chapter was started by core local organizers of the 2019 Free Minds, Free People Conference. Our goal is to be a network to bring together various constituencies in MN toward organizing for educational justice. Our membership consists of about 100 teachers, youth, activists, and academics. Our current emphasis is on designing a statewide mentorship network for BIPOC educators who are or want to teach Ethnic Studies.

Schools without police: Our vision for liberatory education in Minneapolis and beyond

The Education for Liberation Network, Minnesota Chapter, stands in solidarity with the youth, families, teachers, and community members who organized to push the MPS School Board to vote to end the district’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. We specifically want to lift up the Black youth who led this effort despite being constantly targeted by police in schools. The vote was a testament to the will of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) youth in organizations like Black Liberation Project, Youth Political Action Coalition (YPAC), Young Muslim Collective, and YoUthROC, among others, who strive, each day, to implore the district to live up to its rhetoric of equity and to truly serve the children of Minneapolis by providing an education they deserve. Ed Lib Minnesota recognizes that the termination of the racist MPD is just one stretch of a long road to justice that will take courage, imagination, humility, and will among the district’s leadership and its communities.

Simply removing police from MPS, alone, will not ensure the safety and well-being of Minneapolis’s BIPOC youth and families. The path forward must take into account the educational paradigm that allowed for police to have a role in schools in the first place. MPS must question the nature of educational structures that seek to justify notions of meritocracy, standardization, ability, and competition. Ending the contract with MPD should not be seen as a way to save money. The money needs to be reinvested in programs that nurture BIPOC youth. MPS must take bold steps to center trauma-informed practices and ethnic studies, and address racial disproportionality between teacher and student demographics in order to create an ethic of care across the district. The district must take a reparational stance to address the decades of racial animus faced by generations of youth of color, including making substantial financial investments in historically underfunded neighborhoods and funneling the most effective educators to the students with the most need.  In addition to the elimination of police in schools, the district must terminate teachers who consistently remove youth of color from classes, and administrators who ignore the data showing the evidence of racist practices occurring each day.

The district must fundamentally change its curriculum across all grade levels to center the histories, cultural practices, knowledge, and skills of its diverse constituency. No longer is it acceptable for students to graduate without a deep and profound understanding of Indigenous, Pan-African, Pan-Asian, and Pan-American studies. No longer can multilingual youth be treated as though they are deficient against a monolingual English standard. No longer can racialized disparities in discipline continue to push students out of schools. Youth who consciously or unconsciously resist racist educational contexts are not behavioral problems. They are the barometers who measure the toxic atmosphere of a district with a deep history of anti-black and white supremacist logics. 

Ed Lib Minnesota stands with the people of Minneapolis, and other communities, to demand that the cops who are being kicked out of the schools be replaced with BIPOC counselors and educators, rich and vibrant ethnic studies curricula, transformative justice practices, and translingual classrooms. Our organization would like to be a resource to help MPS transition toward this vision. Every child deserves to be the subject of their own educational journey, and not the object of an imaginary white norm. Police in schools are just one piece of a much larger white supremacist puzzle that must be taken apart and exposed for the lie it is.

In Solidarity,

The Education for Liberation Network, MN Chapter

minnesota@edliberation.org

Lessons from serving on the Community Board on Sexual Misconduct

Image source. The Green Dot Bystander program is a national skill-building program used across college campuses in the U.S., including at Carleton, that allows students and others on campus to learn how to intervene safely when they witness instances of power-based violence.

Note: We are excited to present our first guest blog post! This post is adapted from remarks made by our friend and colleague, Dr. Mija Van Der Wege, during a presentation for Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center. This presentation featured faculty, staff, and students who have served on Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct, which is the board that adjudicates cases of student-to-student sexual misconduct. The four presenters spoke about the impact of their service on the board on their teaching and learning, their relationships with students/peers, and the skills they have learned from that experience they find useful in other contexts. Take it away, Mija!

When I first came to Carleton, I used to try to build and maintain strong personal boundaries between me and my students. These boundaries helped me maintain authority, which could be challenging as a young, female, Asian faculty member.  It also allowed me not to worry about what was going on in my students’ lives outside of my classes, which made my job seem a lot easier. Students could be vessels into which I could impart my knowledge, and I just needed to figure out the best way to impart that knowledge. However, since then, I have learned that I can be a better teacher by knowing more about student lives. And being a member of Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct (CBSM)  has really enhanced that knowledge. So I’m going to talk (briefly) about what I’ve learned from being on this committee and doing this work.

First, I am a role model for my students. Being on this committee is modeling good citizenship for my students.I feel like I am doing vitally important work. And I constantly remind myself: if not me, who; and if not now, when.

Second, trigger warnings help some students embrace and learn material that is personally challenging. Like many women, I have my own history of sexual assault. Going through training to be on CBSM and reading the investigative reports was quite hard. I needed to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the homework and for the meetings. The work took an emotional toll, even when I was not actively engaged in reading or thinking about the cases.

My experiences on the Board have made me more reflective and thoughtful about how I include and approach sensitive materials in my classes. I remember that a few years ago, I assigned a chapter on eyewitness memory in one of my classes. It contained a first-person narrative account of a sexual assault. After the class discussion on the topic, one student talked to me about how she had PTSD following a recent sexual assault and was caught off guard by this section of the reading. I felt terrible and realized that a simple content warning would have helped her manage how and when she approached that section. And I felt terrible thinking about  the other students who may have had similar reactions but didn’t talk to me about it.

Sometimes, I hear talking heads, or op-ed writers, or even other faculty argue against trigger and other content warnings, the so-called “coddling” of the student mind. And I want to tell them that these warnings are not coddling; they are not an opportunity for students to skip vital opportunities for growth. They are granting these students an opportunity to embrace the material in a way that they would not be able to otherwise. Certainly, going through the training on sexual assault was challenging for me, and being able to set the time and place where I engaged with it was invaluable and helped me engage with, rather than ignore or dismiss, the materials.

Finally, being on the Board has helped me practice compassion, empathy, and listening. As members of the CBSM, we spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand why people might behave the way that they do.I like to think that I am becoming better at understanding  why people behave the way that they do in the kinds of situations that the panel hears. It’s never been as simple as just perpetrator and victim in any case I’ve heard. It’s mostly just people fumbling around, usually drunk, trying to figure out what the rules of the game are.   I feel that many of our students are doing that, not just socially, but also in class and in other arenas on campus. They are just fumbling around trying to figure out what the rules of the game are, increasingly so as our student body becomes more diverse and as many traditional social norms are being challenged and changed.

Having been on this committee, I pay more attention to this fumbling, trying to identify it, and talk to the students that are fumbling in one way or another in my classes and in my role as advisor.  Rather than just a pep talk, I try to ask about what’s going on. I let them sit in my office and cry. I tell them that they don’t have to be perfect all the time, or even some of the time. Many of our students are struggling, and they can also succeed, sometimes with a little positive encouragement, a friendly ear, or a little extra leeway. Our students look up to faculty and staff on campus.  If we present ourselves as monoliths of expertise and authority, that’s what they think that they need to be. I’m learning that letting students see the nuances and cracks and glorious imperfections that we all share is, in many ways, as valuable as imparting knowledge.

 

Racially charged words in the classroom

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In this blog post, we want to signal boost a podcast episode where Professor Koritha Mitchell (Ohio State University) talks about her approach to racial and other identity-based slurs that appear in the materials she teaches in her courses. She discusses her policy of developing a class “covenant” that expressly forbids students from using the N-word or other slurs. She talks about how having a clear policy allows her and her students to read parts of texts where slurs are used without avoiding those passages and most importantly, she argues that not saying the slurs do not prevent the students from being able to analyze the texts deeply and critically. In fact, she posits (and her students featured in the podcast affirm) that such a policy allows for deeper engagement because students are not worried about how to approach these texts. Her approach allows us (as teachers) to consider more carefully our learning goals and how the diversity of student identities, experiences, and backgrounds in our classrooms changes how we reach those goals.

She repeats a phrase often in her explanation of why White teachers, in particular, are not more thoughtful about how they approach this issue, especially as it might impact Black students and other students of color: “White people are not being special or unique when they hold themselves to incredibly low standards in their interactions with people who are not White.” She repeats this idea of “low expectations” a few times, including how such low expectations apply to people of all kinds of majority identities (including race, gender, and sexuality). She also explains how the everyday violence of our institutions become normalized in moments where racial slurs are read or used in classrooms and workplaces: “When institutions are literally built on the denigrating and diminishing people of color, White people do not have to seem aggressive in order to do great violence. Denigrating and diminishing people of color might be said to grease the wheels that make our institutions and our country function.”

In the episode, Professor Mitchell starts by describing her experiences both with her students and with colleagues around the use of the N-word in classrooms and at her workplace, which, as she importantly points out, includes the classroom. As she notes, she has the right to expect a different standard of conduct in her workplace and for her students to have a different standard of conduct in their learning environment than at a hip hop concert or out on the streets. She then discusses specific passages from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native son,” which include the N-word and another racial slur, and how her policy allows students to read these passages without re-creating the violence of such words by speaking them and to dig deep into the meaning of those words.

The latter part of the episode features a thoughtful discussion among three of her students who talk about their experiences with the policy and the impact it had on their learning experiences in the classroom.

We recommend a listen whether or not you’re teaching texts with the N-word or other racial slurs. We found Professor Mitchell’s approach and her explanations useful, especially her reminders about how everyday experiences in White institutions can feel violent to students and faculty of color.

Finally, a shout out to our awesome colleague and friend, Marty Baylor, for telling us about the podcast!

How now down brown Take 5: Stereotype threat, gender pronouns and the gender binary

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In this post, we address a question sent to us by our colleague, Anna Moltchanova, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Carleton College. Anna asked us whether there’s a downside to having students introduce their pronouns in class and identify themselves as a particular gender in that it might introduce stereotype threat and affect their performance in class, especially since the first class of the term can set the tone for the rest of the term. She noted that philosophy is a field that is very gender-imbalanced and she wanted to know if there are ways to counter stereotype threat. She also asked, given the gender imbalance of the field, whether deconstructing the gender binary in such a context may cause some unintended retrograde consequences.

Thank you, Anna, for giving us a chance to think through this complicated set of issues that you raise about how to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all students, given how male-dominated the field of philosophy is.

As Claude Steele and other researchers have defined it, stereotype threat describes a situation where a person’s performance on a task is negatively affected by their concerns about how they will do on a task, because their identity group is stereotyped as not being skilled or capable of that task. Researchers have demonstrated that any group can be susceptible to such a threat–in this talk, for example, Steele gives the example of how a White man might be under stereotype threat when asked to perform in a rap battle! There are a few conditions where stereotype threat gets “activated”—the stereotyped identity has to be “primed” in some way and the person has to care deeply about doing well on the task. Is it possible then that being asked to share gender pronouns could “prime” a female student in a philosophy class?

From our understanding of the research on stereotype threat, that is not out of the realm of possibility, but we’d want to weigh this possibility against the alternative. Given how important it is for people to be recognized as the gender they are, in this case, we’d venture to say that the possibility of triggering a stereotype threat seems lower than the possibility of the harm caused by mis-gendering students. One of the main things we understood from the conversation that we had with our friend and former Carleton colleague, Tegra, is that asking for gender pronouns ensures that we’re not assuming people’s gender based on our perceptions of their gender expressions (you can check that two-post conversation here and here). In other words, the moment where we are sharing our pronouns is not the first moment in which we are gendered in a classroom. It is difficult not to automatically assign gender identities to everyone we encounter—in fact, that’s one of the hardest habits that we have to break in order to ensure that we’re allowing everyone to tell us their gender rather than assuming it. Given that, asking for pronouns allows individuals to claim their own gender identity.

Once you or we have decided, then, that the benefits outweigh the costs of asking for gender pronouns, we can look at the research on stereotype threat that has shown that there are ways to mitigate its effects. It’s important, for example, to talk about doing well on a specific task or in a field as the result of effort and growth, rather than some idea that some people (or some genders!) are “naturally” better in philosophy than others. The idea of a growth mindset can allow women students to understand that philosophical intelligence is malleable rather than fixed. Studies have also shown that it’s important to think about the situational cues being given to students about who belongs in a particular department or field or what researchers calling “belonging mindset.” Promoting a growth mindset and paying attention to what implicit and explicit messages are being given to students about who “belongs” to a department or field can help encourage students from traditionally underrepresented groups (based on gender, race, socioeconomic class) to see themselves as philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Such messages are conveyed in myriad ways: the gender balance of faculty in a department; the identities of speakers in a department; whose voices and perspectives are included in the curriculum and so forth.

Finally, you ask whether incorporating the notion that gender is non-binary risks necessary attention to the ways in which women have been historically marginalized in the field of philosophy and continue to face such marginalization. We were discussing just this issue in a different context recently. Anita mentioned that she saw a post by an alum during the Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings about how the discourse around gender and sexual violence reinforced the gender binary and made invisible the experiences of trans and gender expansive survivors of sexual violence. For a moment, Anita was taken aback and annoyed–can’t women (and clearly at the time she was defining women as cis-women) not have the spotlight for just a moment to focus on their experiences of harm? Then she took a step back to remember that expanding our definition of who has been harmed doesn’t subtract from the harm that one particular group experienced. Indeed, as we expand our understanding of who has been harmed and how, we gain better insight into the way power is structured. It also allows us to build broader coalitions in the fight against power structures. In this case, it is not just cis-women who are harmed by patriarchal structures, but all women and all people who are seen as not belonging in philosophy because of their race, class, gender, and other social identities.

P.S. Neither of us are experts in the concept of stereotype threat, nor are we in male-dominated fields, so we welcome any anecdotes, experiences, strategies, and generous critiques you may have (especially if you’re in White/male-dominated fields).

Suggestions for further reading:

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 29-46.

Beasley, M. A., & Fischer, M. J. (2012). Why they leave: The impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Social Psychology of Education, 15(4), 427-448.

Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(2), 276-287.

Spencer, S. J., Logel, C., & Davies, P. G. (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual review of psychology, 67, 415-437.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 379-440): Academic Press.

The “problem” student/The student “problem”: Links round up

Image: Hopkins High School students staging a sit-in for sexual violence victims during the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh. (Image source)

As we’re settling into the fall term, we’ve been reading a new crop of articles talking about the “problem” of this generation of students on campuses and campus climate. Today, we wanted to provide links to two articles we’ve read in the past month on this topic. Of course, if you want to check out some of our thoughts on this topic, please see this previous blog post.

Sara Ahmed, one of our favorite thinkers on institutional privilege and power, argues in her new piece that we need to pay attention to the connections among

a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them, connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.

While her essay looks generally at how students who “complain” are talked about, she focuses specifically on how students who bring up complaints of sexual harassment are viewed and treated. She writes about the pervasive silencing of students:

I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learned of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticized as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have to testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.

The second article is a review of a book by the authors who wrote a well-cited and circulated article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In the review of these authors’ new book with the same title as the article,  Moira Weigel argues,

The core irony of The Coddling of the American Mind is that, by opposing identity politics, its authors try to consolidate an identity that does not have to see itself as such. Enjoying the luxury of living free from discrimination and domination, they therefore insist that the crises moving young people to action are all in their heads. Imagine thinking that racism and sexism were just bad ideas that a good debate could conquer!

We’d love to hear your ideas and questions on this topic–please comment on the blog site or if you have a question, you can send them our way here.

Educators on Strike

Image source

In this week’s links round up, we call attention to two sets of workers in the education field who have been organizing, striking, and demanding better working conditions: graduate students and K-12 teachers.

In the past few months, graduate students at various campuses across the nation have been demanding, among other things, better pay and better health insurance. Sometimes, as is the case at Columbia, striking for the right to unionize.

February 2018 Strike by University of Illinois at Chicago Graduate Employees’ Union

April 2018 strike by graduate student union at Columbia University

ct-met-university-of-illinois-strike-20180225

Image source

Graduate students have also been voting on different campuses to decide whether to unionize (in 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students are allowed to unionize).

April 2018 vote by Harvard graduate students to unionize

April 2018 vote by Penn State graduate students *not* to unionize

The other group of educators who have been on the news in the past few weeks have been K-12 educators who have gone on strike in various states, sometimes even in defiance of their unions, to protest low pay and school funding cuts.

These first two articles provide helpful background information to the teacher strikes and actions: Paul Krugman’s op-ed argues that the recent history of tax cuts have had a big impact on teachers’ salaries and benefits, leading us to this present moment where “teachers, the people we count on to prepare our children for the future, are starting to feel like members of the working poor, unable to make ends meet unless they take second jobs.”  This piece by Bryce Covert talks about how over the past decade, teachers have been asked to do more with less, and how this policy has led to the kinds of strikes we are seeing.

Teacher Pay

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Information about the some of the specific teacher strikes:

West Virginia

Oklahoma and Kentucky

Colorado

Arizona

We stand in solidarity with our colleagues in graduate schools and K-12 schools as they organize for change.

 

How now down brown Take 3: Social justice on campus

In today’s post, we take on a question sent to us by a Carleton alum: “How do you navigate higher education institutions and be committed to social justice when these spaces are often antithetical to social justice?”

Our first reaction to this question was “Higher education institutions in the U.S. are often spaces that are antithetical to social justice because U.S. society is often a space that’s antithetical to social justice!” A long line of critical social theorists, including Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis and Pierre Bourdieu & Jean Claude Passeron have argued that educational institutions reflect and reinforce societal inequities, especially along socioeconomic lines. Carleton College and other higher educational institutions are no exception.

There is, however, an additional factor that might make higher education institutions seem particularly antithetical to social justice and we think it might be due to what Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. González describe as “the contradictory culture of academia.” As they write in the introduction to one of our favorite books about higher education, Presumed Incompetent, “On the one hand, the university champions meritocracy, encourages free expression and the search for truth, and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the better of society–values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. On the other hand, women of color too frequently find themselves ‘presumed incompetent’ as scholars, teachers, and participants in academic governance” (p.1). Another contradiction might be the lofty rhetoric of diversity and inclusion that is commonplace these days in colleges & universities that sit alongside ongoing inequities and differences between the experiences of marginalized students, faculty and staff and those of race, class and gender privileged students, faculty, and staff. We’ve written in an earlier post, for example, about how our identities as women of color are valued and appreciated as bringing diversity of representation to the college but the diversity of ideas and experiences we bring and champion often is not welcome.

Now we get to the hard part of your question: how do we stay committed to social justice and remain part of these institutions?

First, while our commitment to working towards more socially just schools and societies remain steadfast, we know that we do not always live out these commitments. Often, we fail to speak up and act in ways that align with our principles for many reasons, including fear, fatigue, and ignorance. These moments of failure lead us to develop a sense of patience and generosity–we understand that people and institutions fail in living out their commitments to social justice, as we do.

Second, the key difference between being a student at a small, residential college and being an employee at such a place is that while work is a part, an important part, of our lives, we do have lives outside of the campus! We do not have to eat, live with and hang out with our colleagues in the way that students have to eat, live with, and hang out with fellow students. We get to create communities outside of work that sustain us in the ways that we need. We get to take advantage of being in or close to the Twin Cities with their diverse racial and immigrant communities. We get to be part of a community of women of color academics, for example, in the Twin Cities who provide support and critical perspective on our work lives.

Third, working at an academic institution differs from the student experience in another way: temporality. We are here for the long haul (whether at one particular institution or in the larger apparatus of academia). That perspective means that we can see and feel the change that does happen, and we can participate in small or significant ways in its propulsion. For example, academic freedom means that we can generally teach what and how we want. Both of us see our classes as spaces of interruption that ask students to examine the way systems, institutions, and even nations do their work; we ask them to be willing to see not just the aspirations, but the costs involved. Teaching often offers moments of joy as students start to see structure and can then imagine better possible futures. For Anita, getting tenure has meant that she can pursue more participatory and collaborative research like her recent project working with five Carleton students on student experiences in STEM departments. Honestly, students–their willingness to learn; their excitement to teach us; their energy and curiosity; their diverse range of experiences–are a big part of what helps us stay in higher education.  

Finally, our persistence in the institution leads us to invest in changing it in ways that are often  invisible to students. We sit on committees, participate in tenure reviews, read and review manuscripts by colleagues, help lead national conferences, get involved in reading groups, try out new ways of learning and teaching, and develop programs that matter to us (like Critical Conversations at Carleton). In other words, we contribute to the workings of the institution. Sometimes that’s frustrating, when the wheels are turning in ways that we cannot stop or shift, but mostly it’s empowering, because we have chances to question the status quo and contribute to change.

When it comes down to it, we are both educators at heart. What we mean by that is that we believe in change. If we didn’t believe that individuals could grow or that committees could rethink their methods or that institutions could reassess their systems, then we would not be here. (Hmm, what else do you all think we would be doing if we weren’t teachers?) Our honest and deep belief in change keeps us going even when we get frustrated by these spaces that often seems antithetical to our commitments to social justice. In other words, what keeps us going is being together in the struggle …and having matching winter hats! 😉