how to teach a course on race and gender

Finally! In response to Pitseleh’s bleg for advice:

I am less excited about teaching Ethnicity and Race in the Spring. Actually, to be quite honest, I’m terrified of it. I don’t know this area, hardly at all (outside ethnic enclaves, social capital, Latino/a immigrant literature, racialization) While I know that is something I can learn and prepare in time, I’m also terrified of teaching mostly white, middle class, conservative students that haunt this Midwestern town. Teaching Social Problems (as a TA), I found that racism and sexism where thought to no longer exist. Challenging these assumptions was equated with preaching and trying to push my political beliefs on my students. I am also concerned with debate running out of control in the classroom, like the occurrence summarized by Drek (although I hope I would handle it much better than she did, I’m untried, so who knows?). Also, I honestly have not spent as much time analyzing my own sexist and racist beliefs, unlike this very brave post that made me start thinking of this in the first place. (I’m thinking of having the students read that post with the unpacking the invisible knapsack thing?). How much is being a white woman going to affect how students listen to me, or are willing to challenge me? I’ve read some articles in Teaching Sociology that indicates this is a huge issue.

Besides the syllabi on the ASA website, do you (oh wonderful readers), have comments, sources, and advice for me? Books that you have used that you like a lot? Assignments that seem to work? Any activities from Teaching Sociology that have worked for you? I’ll love you forever for any help you can give me.

Here are my brief reflections on my brief experience TA’ing for “Race and the Law” for the African American Studies Department and “The History and Politics of Affirmative Action” for the Chicano Studies Department at the university affiliated with my old law school (not the current one).

  • Read this post, which is not exactly about teaching such courses to undergraduates, but rather about how to approach a dialogue about race. I found this useful.
  • I can’t say that I have a huge bibliography to recommend, although I certainly know a hell of a lot of books from my years in CRT. I would suggest reading Paolo Freire, bell hooks, and the father of critical pedagogy, Lev Vygotsky. For White studies, how about White by Law by Ian Haney Lopez, and Racial Formation in the U.S. by Omi and Winant. There are more things you could read, but you don’t have to become an expert in critical pedagogy. Some familiarity is helpful, but most helpful is to believe in yourself.
  • I am a 5’2″ petite Asian woman, and I TA’d and guest lectured for courses in departments that were not the Asian-American studies department. In many ways, despite my minority and daughter-of-immigrants status, I also had to confront issues of acknowledging my own privilege (I was born in the U.S., am accent-less, have “positive” model-minority stereotypes) while trying to establish credibility that was not based on shared racial identity. I actually asked this at the TA training session. The answer: just do it. Assert yourself, and don’t question yourself. Believe that you can do this. Believe that you can overcome your own privilege and lack of insight and shared experience to teach the course, which will not be based on shared experiences. You know how to teach, and that is paramount. Teaching a class is not an exercise in group therapy. There need not necessarily be “I also” in the lecture.
  • I was upfront about my credentials to the profs and the students, and they trusted my expertise in the subject matter. But I didn’t have to be, I don’t think. I was just preemptively defensive. I just had to stand in front of the class and assert myself. Part of what bothers me about the “impostor” syndrome that plagues women in the academy is that we spend so much time defending ourselves and our choices. There are so many threads on the law prof blogs about what to wear, hair up or down, etc. etc. I know it’s not enough to just get up at the lectern and do my job, but I wish it were enough. Often, when I just take that blithe, naive attitude, instead of fighting against my own projected image (or what I imagine it to be, very Goffmanian), it works out better. Once, I had a law prof who spent 30 minutes explaining to us why she felt more comfortable in jeans than suits, and her defense made her seem permanently defensive. It didn’t help that she was extremely abrasive and seemed to go too far in the other direction of not wanting to appear “soft.” I find it easy to project confidence and expertise, but difficult to be anything else than what I am: a short, soft-voiced (albeit vocal!) Asian woman. But I am smart and assertive, damn it! I have accepted that my frontstage presentation may not always comport with what I want it to be. Oh well, the students will deal. Just like they will deal with a non-minority teacher for their class on ethnicity and race. Your frontstage is what it is. The students will deal, and they will learn from you despite it. Actually, most students don’t seem to care, and so long as you are a good teacher (and I know you are), most will take the knowledge you impart without focusing too much on the racial/gender identity of the person imparting it in smaller self-selecting special topics courses on race/gender. Of course, not always. Some care, but there’s not much you can do about those students. In the legal academy, I have been told that there’s nothing much I can do, so just do the job and make some friends among fellow faculty whom I can go to for advice and support.
  • That said, what to do with the students who resist? I didn’t really have that problem, even though at the time some of my students were older than I was. That’s the trick with ethnic studies classes–sometimes they are “returning” students and so I was the odd 24 year old teaching 30 year old students. Also, one of the classes was open to graduate students, one of whom lived in my building. Again, no one really resisted on the basis of my personal identity–but they resisted the pedagogical project of the courses. Some, like you say, may believe that we live in a post-racial world. There is no “trick” in teaching resistant students. You just teach the materials, but in a way that carefully questions their assumptions without attacking them personally. If the basis of their contradiction is personal experience or anecdotal experience, counter with a study. If the basis of their contradiction is philosophical, then question their assumptions with a contrapositive argument that, assuming their premises, would lead to the alternate conclusion. Really, if racism no longer exists for Asians, because of the model minority myth, the endemic work ethic/focus on education, etc. etc., then how come this trend does not fit well with the experience of Southeast Asians, recent immigrants, etc? Then you start to talk about how socioeconomic factors interact with race and gender, and thus, while 4th generation Asians/____ experience less discrimination now than before, the pattern appears to repeat itself for recent immigrants. Also, there’s plenty of literature on the persistence of stereotypes, etc. etc.
  • Don’t be accusatory in tone. Question assumptions; insist that personal/anecdotal experience is not a sufficient basis for knowledge; teach that historical/sociological patterns over time for different groups is the way to approach this; and kind of start conversations with a “You make an interesting point, but let’s also consider…” or “Here are some statistics and sociological patterns. What do you think might be the reasons for the perpetual lack of representation or advancement of ____?” That’s a bit dangerous, but I find that starting a discussion is better than giving the answer “because of discrimination!” which may be reductive (there are indeed many factors), and would be interpreted as dogmatic, political indoctrination. I also make sure to have an objective grading criteria, do not take off points unless they are factually wrong, and tell students I grade by key and point scale. I type up comments to make it clear that I have carefully considered their work. I have never been challenged about the grades I have given, not even for students who wrote adamant anti-affirmative action positions on assignments in a class that was admittedly skewed more “pro” affirmative action.  Opinions and discussions are fine after the question (say, to report back what some author said on ____) is answered, and textual support is necessary.  But students were free to disagree, but they had to do the work to offer the counterargument.
  • Controlling the classroom discussion is your job. If it spirals out of control into ad hominems, personal anecdotes, etc. etc., take it back to the original lecture point. Even if it means being awkward and saying “OK, interesting discussion, but we have to get back to the lecture, and blah blah blah…” Having lecture notes helps. I actually taught by Powerpoint. Students knew I had a plan, and that we were sticking to it, even if I welcomed comments, questions, discussion. If it does go to ad hominem, then it is absolutely your job to say “let’s not get off course here, this is not about ____ and his/her beliefs. Focus on the question at hand: _____.”
  • Teaching gender discrimination can be a tricky project, especially because women are well represented in education nowadays. And yet, ten years out, we seem to hit those glass ceilings. Longitudinal studies of women in law firms show this. Same with women in science. Women in all the academic disciplines. Mommy-tracking. We appear to live in a post-feminist world, and yet I find that in talking about the long-range studies, we still appear to need feminism. If women are so well represented in education, as students can see just by looking around their classrooms or looking at cursory demographics of how more women currently attend college than men, why do we still earn less? Why are we not represented in the higher managerial ranks, why fewer tenure-track academic women, why so few deans, CEOs, etc? Gary Becker’s human capital thesis can’t explain everything, and doesn’t. It’s not merely self-selection at work. So again, question assumptions, talk about long-range studies, discuss history and situate the conversation beyond personal experience or cross-sectional analysis, and actually talk about the causes and persistence of discrimination. Some will find it hard to accept, but it’s hard to ignore the data, especially when they’re bolstered by qualitative case studies of particular industries. In a future post, I’ll try to put up some links to publicly available studies on the persistence of gender discrimination. (This paragraph edited–BL.)
  • That’s all I got for now.

Any other tips from fellow commenters?

8 thoughts on “how to teach a course on race and gender”

  1. “If women are so well represented in education, as students can see just by looking around their classrooms or looking at cursory demographics of how more women currently attend college than men, why do we still earn less?”

    Since when is it a professor’s job to “convince people” of gender discrimination rather than to present alternative perspectives and stimulate thought? Perhaps a frank discussion of Warren Farrell’s thesis on Why men earn more” would bring a radically different perspective to the class?

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  2. belle lettre, this is a really helpful post, thanks ever so much!

    I have no experience teaching R&E, nor would I agree to do so since it’s not my forte. But I do make sure to include work on systematic inequalities in my intro and theory classes. White UNC undergrads are a mixed bunch, but there’s certainly a significant group who are actively hostile to even considering the effect of race and ethnicity independent of “trying hard” and other delightful tropes. My line is that I insist that they understand the arguments being made and how to think about the evidence in the context of those arguments, and that the claims they make in class and in their written work live up to those standards. Their opinions don’t amount to a hill of beans; their arguments do. This absolves me from being “preachy” while forcing them to take the evidence and claims seriously.

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  3. 1: Eeesh, “convince” was a bad choice of words. I wrote this hastily and did not go back to edit, and clearly, I was trying to avoid “indoctrination.” Valid point.

    2: Thanks!

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  4. I’ve taught an upper-division Race & Ethnic Studies class twice, and will teach it again in the fall. I also TAed for it twice as a graduate student. Here are a few miscellaneous tips (probably not so coherent as I’m struggling with editing a paper at the moment):

    – An important part is setting the tone right at the beginning. I get them talking on the first day, by asking why they’re in this class, as well as what are some of their preconceived ideas about race and racial inequality. Race can be a tough thing for white kids to discuss, and I’ve learned both through my teaching and from my advisor, that getting them talking right away is key. I also state up front and in my syllabus that talking about race can be difficult, so respect for others and their opinions is a must.

    – Belle: “Don’t be accusatory in tone.” This is absolutely true. I know people who teach race who openly admit that they want to make students uncomfortable. I disagree, and tell students that we’re not here to blame anyone (however, I end the course with a discussion of what we can do as individuals). The first section of the course deals with the historical development of race and racial categories, which not only lays the groundwork but also seems to put students at ease, in that we’re not diving right into controversial topics that are divisive or put white students on the defensive.

    – The second day of class is a summary of racial inequality in various domains (health, wealth, income, work, etc.). I’ve found that hitting them with the statistical realities right away stuns them a bit. (Hey, I’m not just some hippie, liberal professor — there are facts involved!)

    – “Rethinking The Color Line,” edited by Gallagher, is a great reader. Many of my students have told me they planned to keep it rather than sell it back. “Race: The Power of an Illusion” is a fantastic film for use in several spots in a course.

    – One difficulty is not having the course become too negative and heavy, especially if you’re on semesters. I’ve revised my syllabus twice now, to replace some topics on inequality with less depressing ones. And I’ve changed my focus on topics that can be taught in a positive light. For example, my first class on hip-hop was on colorblind ideology and whites in hip-hop (the Rodriquez piece in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography). I’ve changed that to how hip-hop has been a force for empowerment and counter-hegemony.

    – Relatedly, there’s a fine line between convincing the white students while not overburdening the students of color. I deal with this by being upfront with the latter, and by checking with them throughout the course. So far, so good.

    – I have only had a couple overly resistant students. When I do encounter them, I retreat to the research findings and ask how they would explain them. I’ve yet to find a white student willing to argue that blacks are genetically or culturally inferior. Usually when I discount the example of some lazy dude they went to high school with by reminding them that we’re focusing on patterns, I get a lot of mumbling and then silence. Ok, then.

    – I’ve been fortunate so far: no major arguments, no meltdowns, many good discussions. Mostly, students rave about it.

    – I’ll be happy to share my syllabus (just let me know where to send it) or answer any other questions. Hope that helps.

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  5. First, thank you for all your comments. Really, by now, it seems that belle should start a PitselehRulz section over here at scatterplot… or rules for me anyway. I’m going to print out all these comments and put them in my Ethnic and Race Relation teaching file. Very helpful.

    @Dave: I would love a copy of your syllabus:
    pitselehsbackstage@gmail.com
    Your comments, even in the throws of editing a paper, are very helpful.

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  6. Ditto the whamming them with a bunch of statistics on the second day of class.

    The key is to show the students–and continually emphasize–the difference between quantifiable trends of inequality and political beliefs regarding the reason for those trends. I think that’s an important distinction to be made.

    I’ve only taught two classes, but both times I found that emphasizing the general pattern versus personal example, and showing actual bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, research findings, etc, really helps.

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