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English department looks at classroom racial climate

Lily Angell/Daily
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By Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
Published March 18, 2014

Efforts to improve the racial climate on campus continued Tuesday as the English Department hosted an open-mic event to kick off a new effort to enhance diversity in the classroom.

Hosted by English Prof. Joshua Miller and graduate student group Integrating Diversity and Equality in the Academy, the event brought together undergraduate and graduate English students with faculty in the department to identify and look for solutions to issues regarding racial bias and sensitivity.

About 45 attendees gathered in an English Department lecture room in Angell Hall where students were given an opportunity to discuss experiences they had in English classes in regards to their race. Participants were also given a chance to contribute to the discussion through anonymous submissions before and during the talks, and group discussions were also facilitated among faculty and students.

Miller, who is also the director of undergraduate studies in the English Department, said Tuesday’s event is only the beginning of a broader objective to improve the racial climate on campus. He said the goal was to inform his colleagues of the issues students face inside the classroom and to begin formulating solutions.

“It’s a scary thing to hear undergraduates tell you what you’re doing badly or what you could do better in a class, especially when the stakes are as high as they are with the issues that were discussed today,” Miller said. “We felt like we had a choice to either do nothing or to try to do something.”

Of the many issues addressed, the two problems students consistently brought to attention were bias or underrepresentation of minorities within the course curriculum and poor facilitation of classroom interaction by graduate student instructors or professors. Anonymous submissions from students who had taken English courses cited incidents in which professors either made insensitive comments or allowed students to create unsafe environments.

Additionally, many submissions commented on the curriculum of most English classes, saying many classes focus entirely or primarily on white authors. Participants also expressed concern about the set of classes required for English majors, saying the classes focus on historical periods during which minority authors were non-existent or lacked influence.

LSA senior Rayonna Andrews, who identifies as Black, was one of the English major undergraduates to attend the discussion. She said the English classes at the University often make her feel uncomfortable or unsafe to participate in — a feeling that was echoed by other minority students at Tuesday’s event.

She added that as an Intergroup Relations facilitator, she has seen examples of healthy discussions on difficult topics such as race, but oftentimes observed professors or GSIs failing to create the proper environment and safe space for such talks.

“Most people can’t handle it,” Andrews said. “They feel like you’re attacking them or it can never be like this discussion we had here. It can never be a dialogue type thing, it has to be like a debate or there has to be some type of winner or somebody has to be belittled in the process.”

The group discussion portion of Tuesday’s event produced a number of possible solutions for faculty to use. Most of the ideas focused on creating a safe classroom environment to better facilitate discussion. Students suggested that professors be more candid in their ignorance of certain cultures and admit possible discomfort rather than try to navigate an unfamiliar culture.

Students had varying opinions about how to deal with tokenization in the classroom. Some argued instructors should avoid singling out the few students of color for “minority perspective” since it forces an unfair burden of representing an entire culture without any backup. Others said they would welcome a dialogue with teachers to help educate them and ease tensions. Another idea offered was for professors to include extra readings in their curricula to provide historical context so students do not have to be the spokespeople for their lineage.

Students also proposed instituting “trigger-warning announcements,” which would give students prior warning in the course guide or syllabus that some readings may be racially, sexually or offensive in some way, and would let students know what to expect. Several students commented that they often felt blindsided by racial discussions and unprepared for such taxing dialogue, which left them feeling unsafe for future discussions.

Megan Sweeney, associate professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies, academic program director for the English Department and director of DAAS undergraduates, said she has found many of these solutions to be helpful in her many classes that deal with race, and students were able to feel safe. She said it was important for professors to take on the difficult task of tackling these issues rather than shy away from or try to avoid them.

“The point is not to rely on students to do the work of monitoring or guiding these conversations but, at the same time, to recognize that students have a lot of knowledge and experience to draw on,” she said.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article has Miller referring to the "poor" racial climate on campus.


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