About a year ago I wrote a blog called “What Teaching Teaches Teachers” and am now moved to writing a revised version to report how much I have learned since then.
What I wrote then, was that if you were a teacher you wouldn’t be surprised about how much we learn from our students. I still have the privilege of teaching for the department of Art and Public Policy at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and each year, I have renewed respect for the work of teaching. Each year, I feel the responsibility for educating a new generation of artists and scholars even more intensely. I’m grateful to be on a college campus because they offer one of the best environments to discuss the state of education and the world. I cherish the time I devote to doing the research needed to revise my syllabus before the semester begins. I enjoy the work on weekly lectures that can lead to my including new materials or making adjustments depending on how students are responding to previous classes.
One of the most important conversations taking place on college campuses continues to be about cultural equity and inclusion – most often called “diversity.” Our public engagement with these conversations, led primarily by students, has educated us and enriched our community tenfold by alerting us to our failings. While these conversations are extremely beneficial to the institutions that have them, they are not by any means easy or comfortable and sometimes get rather heated. What is clear, is that “colleges are realizing that, in the social media-driven age, students’ voices are more powerful than ever before and must be heeded.”
Faculty of color have also shared their own concerns about diversity among their ranks and most often what emerges as one of the first issues is the condition of being the “only one” in the department or the only “one” representing any kind “diversity.”
Ironically, with all of the challenges facing faculty of color, a new study just emerged and what is says is that some faculty of color get higher marks with all students. Basically, the report reveals that “all students, including white ones, gave their black and Latino teachers better scores in a range of areas – such as their ability to challenge and care for them – than they gave their white teachers.” Needless to say this was a surprise to researchers but what makes perfect sense is that maybe “these teachers have a better understanding of what it feels like to be different, which helps them relate to and support students.”
So what exactly have I learned this past year? A great deal.
The topics include but are not limited to matters of race, ability, gender, ethnicity, religion, immigration and economic status and often two or more of these are combined. My students are thinking and talking more about intersectionality and we really need to understand the importance of combined identities like #afrolatina. Put another way, identity matters in the classroom. Difference matters in the classroom and in each of these spaces there are many different experiences and points of view present. The friction comes when we as faculty represent mostly one group and the materials used only represents one group. As I have been reading through the growing number of articles about these conversations, I have become incredibly aware of how fortunate I am to be teaching in a department and school where differences are not only recognized but celebrated.
One of the conversations that I followed on twitter was #BlackOnCampus and some of the most salient points made there have sharpened my focus as I participate in these on-going conversations at NYU. When asked what our students want, my reply is to show them this tweet…
“When I’m represented in every promotional brochure, but not in any syllabi, curriculums, faculties, boards of trustees…”
In the space of my own class, I can have lengthy discussions about how the construction of the other has everything to do with “Whiteness” and white privilege. With my colleagues I engage them with this tweet. “White Privilege is your history being part of the core curriculum and mine being taught as an elective.” For years now, as part of my reading assignments, I have used Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and still do. The long list of things this privilege affords is revelatory, but requires time to read and time for engagement. In conversations, this tweet says it succinctly.
Here is the revised list of things I’ve learned over the years. Granted I teach in an art school but most of these are relevant to all disciplines.
• To ask students what name they prefer to be called and not just go by their official name on the class roster.
• To ask students how they would like to be referred to. It’s not just he and she anymore. We need to get educated.
• Not to assume anything about students by the way they appear, not race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.
• To examine my own historical and cultural references and get to know theirs. We need to change some of our examples to be more inclusive and effective.
• To know my institution’s internal conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion and find out where students go to have those discussions.
• To pay close attention to things in the media that affect students and engage it where appropriate. Get to know their hashtags (#)
• To remember that it’s ok to not have all the answers to everything all the time.
• To apologize if a student is offended by something I say.
• To avoid over-explaining or justifying a comment as part of the apology.
• To tolerate being uncomfortable with some of the difficult conversations students want to have.
• To resist the urge to ask a student to over-explain their upset. It is probably best to reach out after class.
• To remember that I am modeling behavior for all of our students, not just a way to understand the material. The classroom is also a way to understand the world.
I am not perfect, we as teachers are not perfect, we make mistakes and we don’t know everything. Owning that has empowered me and gives us as teachers a pathway to continue our own education. Of course this can at times be difficult. But think of it this way, just as we need to update ourselves with regard to our fields, the examples we use in class, we also need to do so for a changing world and in that process our use of language is the first step. My willingness to change, change my examples, what I say and how I say it has indeed made my classroom better for all of us.
“As a poet and writer, I deeply love and I deeply hate words. I love the infinite evidence and change and requirements and possibilities of language; every human use of words that is joyful, or honest or new, because experience is new… But as a Black poet and writer, I hate words that cancel my name and my history and the freedom of my future…” June Jordan