Complexity in the Classroom

In this series, we offer case studies in classroom complexity. Race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, politics, socioeconomic class, canonical variety — you name it, it’s in the classroom. How can we diagnose and understand what is really happening in the classroom, and what strategies can we develop for responding? How do you allow space for diverse viewpoints? Address the personal experiences and beliefs of students and TFs, as well as multiple knowledge bases and skill sets—all while also guiding students toward mastery of course material? There is no “right” answer for how to respond to these case-study scenarios, and we invite you to share, in the comments, your thoughts and suggestions. We will respond to your comments in next week’s follow-up post.

Today’s scenario comes from Carla Martin, Departmental Teaching Fellow for African and African American Studies.

Several weeks into the semester of an introductory-level interdisciplinary course in race and politics, the course head introduces a longstanding debate in lecture: which has more impact, race or class?

In section, we discuss an article that details the complicated relationships among race, class, and educational outcomes. The students are highly engaged with the topic. They are a diverse group: the majority are black and identify as African American, of African descent, or of black Caribbean descent, while the rest of the students identify themselves as from one or more of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Several students detail their own experiences with race, class, and education as evidence for or against different sides of the debate. At one point, an Asian American student speaks up, stating the following with great confidence:

“Chinese make the best parents. They value education and are strict with their children. They make them study and demand that they succeed. This is not a part of African American culture, and black students grow up lazy and disinterested in school. It seems obvious to me that this is why there is a racial discrepancy in educational outcomes.”

As I, the TF, look around the room, I see jaws drop. A number of students avert their eyes. Some glare at the commenter. Others stare directly at me, wide eyed with shock. I overhear one student whisper to a friend “Oh my God, I can’t believe she said that.” Another exclaims loudly “I totally disagree with you!” and slams his hand down on the section table.

Within mere seconds, our section has transformed from a place of spirited conversation and debate to an exploding identity minefield, and it’s my job to navigate the students through it.

What would you do?

Find out how Carla handled this situation in her follow-up post.

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