Saturday, September 08, 2007

Difficult teaching: addressing race, class, gender, and sexuality

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

When I'm not busy blogging, I consult with higher ed faculty on how to improve their teaching. During a recent consultation, a faculty member who teaches what is largely acknowledged by students as the driest required class in her discipline asked me how she might "spice up" her 2-hour classes. She had been receiving what were, for her, low ratings in the end-of-course evaluations. We talked about her lecturing practices, about her visual aids, and about how she incorporated student contributions into her class meetings.

My observation was that she wasn't involving students enough in her classes. She wasn't allowing their voices to emerge sufficiently, nor encouraging them to interact with their peers. As I listened to her talk about her course, I realized she had largely forgotten to include actual people in her lectures--both the people listening to her lecture as well as the people behind the subject about which she was teaching. I encouraged her to anchor the course material more concretely in her students' lives.

There is, of course, in making the work of people more visible within one's discipline. It opens up questions about culture, and culture is messy. Plus some disciplines in higher education--as well as subjects in K-12 classes--just don't have time for culture.

But it's a huge mistake to leave culture out of class discussions.

That doesn't mean it's easy to talk about culture and cultural differences. It can be especially hard for students to step back and take a hard look at their own cultural assumptions, their own ignorance of others' traditions.

Take Dr. Crazy's class as one example. She recently blogged about one student's comment that a man kissing another man is "gross." Dr. Crazy explains in the post how she handled the situation:

I responded with a bunch of questions for the class as a whole to think about for next time - questions about the construction of masculinity in relation to notions about who gets to function in culture as an object of desire, questions about whether students would be similarly bothered by the sight of two women kissing - and if not, why not - questions about why homosexuality or homoerotic representation might pose a threat to heteronormative, patriarchal culture.

I don't know whether what I did was enough.

Dr. Crazy also asked for reader feedback. Go share your thoughts!

One of my big regrets as a teacher is a similar missed "teachable moment." I was working as an outreach educator for a science center; I brought science kits to K-6 classrooms and led students through some terrific hands-on lessons. On one particular day just before President's Day weekend, as I set up the different activity stations, a 2nd-grade teacher was reading to her students about George Washington. The picture book she was reading alluded to Washington's slave ownership.

The teacher paused for a moment and said, "Yes, George Washington owned slaves. Most people were really mean to their slaves, but George Washington was nice to his slaves."

My jaw dropped and my blood pressure rose. WTF?!?

At the time, I felt it wasn't my place to say anything. After all, how does one talk to 2nd-graders about the racist, inhumane practices of one of the country's founders? That's not my area of expertise. But today I wish I remembered that teacher's name so that I could send her a note explaining that slavery is, by its very nature, not "nice," and offering her some alternative ways of presenting that information that make clear Washington's culpability while still allowing the students to admire him for other accomplishments.

HappyChyck asked her students to write down any questions they may have about her English classes. While many of them were mundane questions about the workings of the course or the teacher's personality, a few stood out to me as really important questions, so go check out the list. Chief among these are "Is this class spontaneous?" and "What is the hardest thing you will teach?" and "How can you like teaching?"

To me, these three questions are related. IMHO, class should be spontaneous--yes, you usually need some kind of lesson plan, or at least a vague outline in your head of your objectives and what you'll cover in an hour of class--but you also need to leave room for discussions, in Dr. Crazy's example, of the gross things students say. Being spontaneous, of course, is hard--as is (for most teachers) talking about race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and all manner of differences. But these are specifically the things that can invigorate student learning because these are the kinds of things many of today's students are passionate about--they're the concerns they live with every day. They're the reasons, in short, that I like teaching, and I know of countless instructors who have talked to me about how exhilarating they find these difficult discussions, even as they worry, as did Dr. Crazy, that they've somehow said a wrong thing or two.

Or take, for example, a current (and perennial) issue in educational news: the way students dress. In France in recent years, Muslim students' headscarves came under fire. Today in the U.S., it's the way some (largely) urban African-American male students dress. How do we address such controversies in the classroom? How do we historicize them and make them teachable moments without making students who dress in such ways feel either directly criticized or unquestioningly accepted? (After all, isn't that the goal of most teaching, at least in the humanities? To make students comfortable with expressing their opinions and cultural assumptions while still asking them to question their own assumptions?)

I found Tom Kim's post in which he shared the wisdom of teaching guru Parker Palmer particularly useful in thinking about difficult teaching:

Good teaching is an act of generosity, a whim of the wanton muse, a craft that may grow with practice, and always risky business. It is, to speak plainly, a maddening mystery. [...]

Good teaching cannot be equated with technique. It comes from the integrity of the teacher, from his or her relation to subject and students, from the capricious chemistry of it all. [...]

Too many educators respond to the mystery either by privatizing teaching or promoting a technical “fix.” [...] Mystery is a primal and powerful human experience that can neither be ignored nor reduced to formula. To learn from mystery, we must enter with all our faculties alert, ready to laugh as well as groan, able to “live the question” rather than demand a final answer. When we enter into mystery this way, we will find the mystery entering us, and our lives are challenged and changed.

Good teachers dwell in the mystery of good teaching until it dwells in them. As they explore it alone and with others, the insight and energy of mystery begins to inform and animate their work. They discover and develop methods of teaching that emerge from their own integrity — but they never reduce their teaching to technique.

Powerful words, and right on when we're talking about teaching about culture. There are so many good ways--and so many terrible ways as well--in which to address difference.

How do you deal with the complexities that culture brings to the classroom? And how do you embrace the difficulty of teaching without letting it defeat you?

1 comment:

the rebel lettriste said...

Well, trillwing, thank you for this useful post. The George Washington moment was pretty priceless.

But here's an unrelated inquiry:
[and if I'm wrong, apologies, profuse ones]

Rural Iowa, 1996, George Barlow, poems. Could it be you? If so, hit me up at my blog!