“Experience teaching in a diverse setting preferred”: The pedagogical challenges of teaching at a predominantly white institution

Erstwhile’s managing editor Caroline Grego reflects on teaching at a predominantly white institution and how it has altered her pedagogical practices. 

When I first began applying to academic teaching jobs, I began to see this job requirement everywhere: “Experience teaching in a diverse setting is preferred.”

It’s a loaded request for a search committee to make, to be sure. What percentage of students who embody some form of diversity would constitute a sufficiently “diverse” student body? Does the university or college requesting that experience even demonstrate significant diversity themselves, and is asking that question when they have little diversity themselves a form of tokenizing? Is the search committee interested in racial and ethnic diversity, the numbers of first-generation or working-class students, or diversity in gender and sexuality, or neurological diversity – preferably all? Furthermore, just because a university has high levels of various kinds of diversity among its students does not mean that the administration and faculty fosters the kind of community that supports those students.

Finally, there’s one big problem: I don’t feel that I can claim experience teaching in a diverse setting, not without qualifying the statement and especially as a white southerner. Situated within a town that is 88% white, the University of Colorado Boulder is, to be fair, increasing its diversity within its student body. The report on the 2018 – 2019 student body shows some encouraging numbers that are roughly concomitant with gains at universities across the country. When I began my Ph.D. here in fall 2013, the student body was 75.8% white with 21% students of color and 6.2% international. In fall 2018, white students made up 65.9% of the total, with 9% international and 24% students of color. The percentage of first-generation students held steady, from 13.8% to 14.1% over the same period. But as CU Boulder students explain frequently, simply adding more students of color does not magically create an inclusive university setting, nor does it do much to reduce the university’s soaring tuition rates to improve access for students from low-income families.

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Image from the CU Boulder fall enrollment – campus total summary, showing the 2018 student body’s demographics by race and ethnicity. Find the total report here.

What, then, is a job market candidate from a predominantly white institution, or one with low levels of other forms of diversity, to write within their teaching statement? More importantly, what can those of us at schools like that do within the classroom to challenge and improve our pedagogical practices? Fortunately, I’d been thinking about this issue for years before I ever had to write a job application, and I have developed classroom practices and curricula around this very topic.

Much of my advice centers around a single, simple premise: that whiteness, or other forms of privilege, is not a position of neutrality. Historians of race and racism, for example, do not treat whiteness that way in their scholarship, and they shouldn’t in their classrooms either. Historians, then, should not just cultivate pedagogical practices for a diverse classroom, but should supplement them with strategies that confront whiteness and its history for mostly white classrooms – above all if they are themselves white. Many educators interested in critical pedagogy encourage professors to go beyond more facile maxims about embracing and celebrating diversity towards transforming classroom and university structures that reflect the principles of equity and justice. Below, I’ve listed a pair of suggestions based on my own experiences for implementing a pedagogy that addresses institutional settings with comparatively low embodied diversity. These should be helpful to get graduate students in a similar situation started, though they are far from complete.

1. Make it clear to your students that you do not view whiteness, or other forms of privilege, as either the default or as a neutral position.

As historians, we are most comfortable doing this through our curriculum’s content. I have taught American History before 1877 twice, as well as leading discussion sections for it for several semesters. Within those courses, facing classrooms that were somewhere between 75% to 90% white, I found it imperative for white students to learn about histories that might clash with what they grew up hearing or challenge their identities. As a white southerner whose work is driven in many ways by my sense of historical responsibility, I designed my course to help students understand the role of white supremacy and weaponized whiteness in American history. The course serves as a corrective to common myths about slavery, immigration, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and shows the long history of the construction of racial difference through political, social, cultural, and economic mechanisms.

I try to use this curriculum and my own position as a white woman from the South to speak with students about histories that may surprise them, not to shame them for what they did not know or who they are but to open them up to connections between history and the present. Learning history can be a broadening experience with deep implications for not only how students understand the world around them, but also their own identity. I am not always perfect in how I handle these difficult conversations, but each time I am in front of the classroom, I work to improve my skills as a moderator and educator at a predominantly white institution.

Assignments and readings can also be helpful in establishing the historicity of whiteness. I have developed a primary source reader with thirty documents for the survey, and it heavily features women and/or people of color who, within their historical moments, pushed back against racist and sexist systems. Readings like that help students understand that a favored phrase – “he was just a man of his time” – rings hollow if one considers any perspective beyond that of the oppressor. The reader also includes documents on, for example, the formation of the Confederate States of America. Those sources demonstrate to students that I am not putting some sort of spin on history if I describe the CSA’s founding principle as a dedication to enslavement at any cost, but am simply quoting what the Confederates themselves believed.

Furthermore, a simple tactic that I use, borrowed from Dr. Elizabeth Fenn, is to always be very specific about what group of people you are talking about and to encourage your students to do the same. If I am lecturing on “South Carolinians” in the antebellum era, am I really talking about all South Carolinians – or just white South Carolinians? Little adjustments to your and your students’ language can bring a precision that de-centers whiteness as an assumed default. Through a combination of tactics related to curriculum and classroom behavior, you can help involve students in a learning process in which whiteness – either theirs or within history – is not neutral.

2. Avoid tokenizing your students of color, or ignoring forms of diversity that are not as obviously visible.

All that said, I have never been in a classroom at CU that was entirely white or lacking in any form of diversity. With just a few students of color in each classroom, it is my role as the educator not to tokenize those students. Students of color or of other marginalized identities at CU can feel isolated, or as though they are expected to speak for their entire group. As the educator, I have to make sure that that doesn’t happen within my classroom. Most of all, I just don’t turn to students of color, for example, to explain certain dynamics related to their race. That isn’t enough, of course. I also moderate class discussions such that students of color don’t bear the responsibility of calling out other students, should they incur micro-aggressions, speak from a place of (nonetheless hurtful) ignorance, or say something racist.

One instructor can’t fix the deep-seated issues at the heart of such actions, nor is one person any substitute for large-scale institutional transformation, but I do work to ameliorate them in small ways in addition to those listed above. I also try to build the principles of equity and justice into how I approach my students’ individuality, needs, and learning styles, and into how I develop the course’s assignments. For example, my courses feature assignments that emphasize progress over the semester, take-home exams, frequent workshops on the skills of the historian, anonymous student feedback throughout the semester, and weekly low-stakes writing assignments that encourage student reflexivity. Furthermore, I do little things, like not requesting doctor’s notes for absences, which disadvantages students without access to healthcare, and simply being willing to listen and work with students who are struggling with mental health issues (though that, too, is not a whole solution). I also recognize that I could do more in the classroom to deal with the issues facing students who are underrepresented at predominantly white institutions, such as using pedagogical practices that deliberately give space to those students.

These practices can make the classroom experience better for all students and admittedly are in line with what educators who specialize in pedagogy already advocate. Within the context of my own university, though, I use them not only to improve student learning but specifically to provide space and to demonstrate empathy for students who feel that the institution can be a hostile place.

 

This pair of suggestions is by no means a complete toolkit for building a classroom that de-centers whiteness within a predominantly white institution. The scholarship on equity and justice in pedagogy is, after all, both rich and vast. But it should help graduate students within predominantly white institutions think about both how to expand their understanding of their pedagogy even if they can’t claim experience teaching in a diverse institution, and how to cultivate classrooms with curriculum and practices designed for the setting in which they find themselves teaching. Finally, I encourage graduate students to seek out resources at their university to improve their pedagogy. At CU Boulder, for example, the Graduate Teacher Program holds workshops for graduate instructors that address these issues and hosts a Diversity and Inclusion Summit. Working with other graduate students, supportive faculty, and programs dedicated to pedagogy can provide valuable assistance to help graduate students transform their classroom practices.

*A note of thanks and acknowledgement: Many historians write about pedagogy much more eloquently than I, and I owe a debt to those who do. There’s no way that I can name everyone here, so I’ll just point to two people who have been central to changing my understanding of the university history classroom, Natalie Mendoza and Kevin Gannon – click through to find them on Twitter. (Any way in which this post comes off as written by a novice has only to do with myself, not their expertise!)

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