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Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

Sadness

Just learned of this today….

Ronald Takaki, pioneering scholar of race relations, dies at 70

BERKELEY — Ronald Takaki, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and prolific scholar of U.S. race relations who taught UC’s first black history course, died at his home in Berkeley on Tuesday (May 26). He was 70.

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End of semester blues

This is the last week of the semester; in a few moments I will go to my last class. The holiday parties have started today – profs treating students, students bringing treats (I recognize some of this a mutual bribing by way of evaluations and grades, but some of it is genuine fondness for one another. I’m grateful for that). I have had the sweetness of several students telling me today that one or another of my classes has been their favorite. Cynical me wonders if they are buttering me up, or if I perhaps did not push them hard enough. But mostly I enjoy hearing it. They don’t have to say it. It’s nice to be appreciated.

While I look forward to a break from the never ending drill of prep, presentation, grading, sprinkled generously throughout with shoddy student work and bogus student excuses, the truth is I mourn the end of every semester. When I first started teaching I was totally unprepared for what happens at the end of the term, and happens hard at the end of the academic year – they leave. I try hard to model what some of my favorite profs (undergrad and graduate school) did very skillfully – creating an atmosphere of community while doing hard work. I hope I succeed at it as far as students are concerned; as for me, I miss the heck out of them once classes end. Add to that the fact that in this part of the country, the sun ceases to shine round about October and only emerges again to a consistent degree in late March or April. No students and no sun? Double ugh.

Off to class.

p.s. – Just because I’m writing this sappy post about missing students etc now doesn’t mean I reserve the right to gnash my teeth and say bad words when I’m grading their papers next week. Just saying.

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I teach at a small, private college in the Midwest. While it is not the most expensive school in the area, it ain’t cheap. Many, many of my students are quite privileged. But there are some that are not. There are those that are less well off, of course. And then there are those that are poor. Maybe it’s new poverty – the divorced or never married single parent and other family drama induced poverty. Could be the lost my job/had a major illness or accident, and we were only a couple of paychecks away from real trouble poverty. Or maybe it’s familiar poverty, known all the student’s life. Often they are the first in their family to go to college. Often (but not always) they are black and brown.

Lack of money is not the only thing students who are poor need to deal with. Yes, that lack is a pretty basic, tangible part of it. Cities tend to lump poor people together, if they are not in fact pushing them out of the city altogether with gentrification projects. Poor areas of town don’t have the same type of services that wealthier areas have – things like access to good food; a full service grocery store within walking or biking distance that has fresh produce rather than fast food joints and corner stores that sell mostly cigarettes, alcohol, junk food and lottery tickets. A bank that will gladly handle small accounts rather than a pay day loan place. And schools. Schools that have resources enough for every student, resources that are current and relevant and useable. Teachers that have what they need to teach, and the resources both internal and external to teach the children who live there. It seems to me so many poor kids end up hating school because it seems to be a system that hates them first.

Students from these kinds of circumstances are familiar to me. My parents came to the north in the 50’s to escape the poverty imposed by southern segregation. They wanted to find jobs. During that time period, the “good” jobs for men, and, importantly, the ones open to black men, were in the steel and auto industries. My mom worked in childcare, first taking people’s kids into our home, then working in day care centers, and eventually becoming an administrator. As kids, we didn’t have a lot of extras, but we always had what we needed.

But the area of town we lived in, the schools we went to, the lack of services to the part of the city – the black part – that we lived in is also my reality. I went to a poor school where I was richly rewarded basically for staying out of trouble. I was a smart kid and was lucky enough that a couple of influential teachers took notice of me and challenged me to do more than just get by. We had books at home, I had a parent who read to me when I was young and shaped me into being a voracious reader. My mom was college educated herself, and I grew up with the expectation that I would go to college. I have no idea how my family financed my first couple of years of school. We had money enough that I did not qualify for need based aid. My parents helped me as much as they could, but eventually I was on my own. For that reason among others, it took me a long, long time to complete my degree.

A couple of years ago, in my Race and Ethnicity class I overheard a small group discussion that gave me pause. Our school is mostly white, so I usually have at least one or maybe two small groups (out of 6 or 7) that are made up of all white students. This was the case in the discussion I overheard. The students were making the assertion that African American students had it made, because of all the scholarships available to them simply for being black. So me with my ‘never quite poor enough to get a scholarship’ behind sat down with them to give them some facts.

There are assumptions made by students, and others made by faculty and administrators. What often gets interpreted as laziness, or disengagement – I see the product of an underfunded school system. Underfunded because our many of our public schools are supported by property taxes, and this puts schools located in poor districts at a severe disadvantage. I see students who did not read the same things their college classmates did, or go on the same trips, or play the same sports. I see students whose families still count on them for various things, and so they do not have the freedom to do what the other students may have the freedom to do. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t coddle these students. I kick their butts. But I hate that I have to do so. And I hope they know I understand them, and that I have their backs.

I’m worried that in this election cycle, there is much conversation about the middle class. I guess that’s who votes and so that base needs to be covered. But how can either major party say with integrity that they are about change when there is no substantial conversation about the poor?

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Classes begin on my campus this week – time to start dressing like a grownup again! I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom.

In the meantime, there are preparations to be made. Or at the very least, an attempt at one last day of truly unstructured time.

In the absence of a real post (I’ve got one brewing) here are a couple of academically inclined posts of interest that caught my eye today.

There is a Hurricane Gustav wiki up with lots of frequently updated information; it includes a page for college students.

Over at Anti-Racist Parent, Asha Jeffers contributes a guest post with tips for students of color at predominantly white colleges and universities:

… as a (very) recent graduate who attended one of those less-than-multicultural universities, I wanted to share some tips that helped me and many of my friends minimize the frustrations and maximize the good times of the university experience. I believe these tips are useful not only for students of color but their friends, families and professors who want to understand some of the issues they may face.

Profbwoman writes about a UCLA professor’s charge claiming too many black students are being admitted. Said professor stepped down from the admissions committee.

Ajuan Moore at Black on Campus writes once again, black people on Harvard’s campus are assumed to be trespassing.

Happy new school year, everyone. Going to sharpen my pencils…

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Today is Ruby Sales’ birthday. Ruby is a fierce warrior woman who spoke truth into my life several years ago and I am forever grateful to her.

Go read Dr. Renita Weems’ tribute to this beautiful, wonderful sister.

Happy Birthday, Ruby!

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From bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, (NY: Routledge, 1994).

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. (13)

When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive. ….When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, liking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. But most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit. (21)

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Last week Anxious Black Woman posted on Teaching While Black, and then a couple of days later made some reflections on Racism 2.0, or colorblind racism. If you haven’t read those posts, you should. Here are some questions raised:

And when my current crop of students this summer treat me as if I’m an impostor in my own discipline, and that the research and teaching that I do is so not worth their time and tuition dollars, where do we find the grace and the hope to “keep on keeping on,” as Jesse Jackson would say?

If I could ask the Obamas any question – if they read our blogs and if our nation was truly ready to ask honest questions about race and racism – it would be this: “How did you do it? How did you all get through Princeton and Harvard and your law professions, and now running a national campaign, and not lose your freaking minds?”

If I asked them that question, would they be able to answer truthfully before a live American audience? Because most of us who are people of color, we really want to know. We come very close to the brink. And God forbid we exhibit our frustrations with racism, we are immediately labeled “Angry Black Woman” (see this latest Fox News Video – htp Gina from What About Our Daughters).

I have given much consideration to being in this black female body and teaching mostly white students in a societal/cultural context in which all of us (people of color and white people) are taught to think in certain ways about certain people. For many of my students, particularly first and second years, I am the first woman of color they have had in any position of authority over them.

And I am standing before them talking about race, about how race and racial meaning is constructed, about how racism serves to provide power and privilege to the dominant culture (mostly those sitting in the classroom – who as students do not see themselves as having power and privilege – but when called upon they will use it – that’s interesting, don’t you think…)

I make my students uncomfortable. It is part of the journey towards understanding and dismantling oppression. The discomfort is unavoidable and necessary – I believe that it is in those uncomfortable spaces that the most growth takes place – if indeed it will. It is not dissimilar, I think, to the birthing process. I have a midwife friend who has explained to me that the mechanics of birth – that big old baby coming down that little old birth canal, as inefficient and cumbersome as it seems, and by the way as painful as that process can be, it is beneficial to the child in terms of being able to draw that first breath. Now, granted, sometimes things don’t go as planned and birth happens in other ways… for instance, the baby being removed from the mother via cesarean section. And sometimes children come to families in ways other than birth, by foster care or adoption, formal and/or informal. Having experienced all of those ways of building a family, which is an occasion for much joy, I can assure you (along with many other fathers and mothers) that none of them are without pain.

Of course students are not the only ones dealing with discomfort/pain; in fact it is not the student’s pain that Anxious focuses on in her post. Rather it is the pain that we as teachers of color bear. How is it that we sustain ourselves – living in a racist, sexist cultural context, teaching about that context and actively working against it, and then dealing with more of the same in the course of the teaching – because the students we teach come from the same context and have learned from that context? The responses from the students are varied, to be sure. Each response demands its own counter response. Each student needs to be taught, and needs to receive the best that I can give them, no matter how they respond to me. Sometimes that is …. really difficult. But I have to be mindful of not coming off as … the Angry Black Woman.

I teach in a predominately white school, a small liberal arts college of about 1,000 students. In my class on race and ethnicity, there are usually between 35 and 40 students, which is a large class on our campus. Of those that register for the class, about half are there because it is a requirement for their major, or because it is one among a couple of recommended electives in their discipline. Other students are there because they are genuinely interested in the subject (this is also the case for many of those who are required to take the course, although not for all of them), some are there because they think it is going to be an easy class, and some are there simply because they needed the hours to round out their schedules and this particular class fits. Because of our campus demographics, most of the students are white; I may have 6 or 7 students of color at most. (Of those, there may be only 2 or 3 that are U.S. born, adding to the complexity of talking about racial categories and racism in different cultural contexts.) Many (if not all) of the students in the class will be uncomfortable with the content of the class along the way. I make no apologies for this; there is no way to really deal with the subject matter at hand without a measure of pain and some anger. In fact I make note of these dynamics at the first class meeting, although I’m not sure how many of them hear me when I say these words. I have come to anticipate what the really difficult moments along the way will be. By far, the discussions about whiteness and white privilege bring about the most anger from many of the white students (there are also other reactions, such as sadness and guilt… there usually is a combination of responses). Witnessing the anger of the white students, and often their denial about having privilege subsequently brings out the anger of students of color. Much of the time, the pain and anger the students feel then gets directed towards me. Sometimes the students’ feelings are reflected in my evaluations, so the fallout for me (and others in this situation) is not only psychological and emotional as I deal with students’ reactions, but it also has a potential effect on my ability to make a living in the field that I have chosen. I could teach the subject matter in an objective, distanced, “we are the world kumbaya” sort of manner… well – no, actually I could not do that at all.

I am committed to teaching and speaking truth when it comes to something that is literally a matter of life and death for so many people, even in 2008. And so we read about the history of lynching in this country, and why a noose hanging from a tree in the 21st century is not a joke. We talk about whiteness as a political identity, and how the meaning of whiteness and who can be white has changed over the course of the history what has become the United States. And we talk about gender and sexuality and class and physical ability, too, because oppressions intersect and overlap and support and uphold one another.

And through it all I have to listen to and teach them all. I can’t just teach the ones who like what I am saying, or the ones who are willing to set aside what they thought they knew about Group X or Person Y, and work at developing a new understanding of reality, or the ones who are willing to bring their own experiences/questions/intellectual curiosity into the classroom. I also have to teach the ones who tell me they will not read an assignment because it does not fit into their belief system; I have to teach the ones who tell me that I have a chip on my shoulder and racism is over because look, I am their teacher; I have to teach the ones that tell me that Muslims are all going to hell anyway, so why should s/he care if they are mistreated; I have to teach the ones that tell me I’m causing racism by talking about race; I have to teach the ones that tell me illegal immigrants and unqualified blacks are taking “their” jobs; I have to teach the ones that tell me that feminism is for man-hating hairy legged women (which, well, sure, but it’s for everybody else, too). And, it is not only the white students who resist the subject matter of the class. Students of color, for a variety of reasons, can and do push back.

I should say that some – many – of my students respond positively to the work we do in class, and become or remain active on campus working on these issues. Some have come back to me months, or even a couple of years later to tell me how their thinking has changed, or how something they actively, passionately resisted in class now makes sense to them and makes a difference in their lives.

So how do I sustain myself? Many times I’m not so sure. But… there are some things. Belonging to a community of resistance is primary. By community of resistance, I mean that I am in regular contact with people who are committed to doing the work of resisting oppression in all its forms, whether that is teaching, writing, organizing, preaching, working as a community activists, raising anti-racist children, working on immigration reform, etc. These are people that I see on a day-to-day basis or people that I may only get to see once or twice a year. They are people that I know, and people that I know of. They are people whose blogs I read, whose books I read, whose music I listen to. They are people of color and white allies, people from North America and across the globe, men and women, queer and straight, young folks and older ones. Having a broad range of folks to call on means I get to talk to people about this stuff who get it, and helps me maintain perspective – I don’t have to do all the work myself. There are others who have gone before me, there are many who walk with me, and I hope there will be plenty who come along after we get done.

As a person of faith, I look to the s/heroes of my faith tradition, and of other traditions to encourage me and to challenge me (that’s why I’m Harriet’s daughter). I try to let myself be guided by that which is unseen and unknown. I believe with all my being, along with Martin Luther King Jr., that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends towards justice.

I go out with my girlfriends and we get loud and silly… but sometimes that only comes after we shake our heads and cry.

And sometimes I just dance.

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