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April 21, 2005 [feather]
Racism in the classroom

From a fascinating and troubling anonymous post from the Writing Program Administration listserv:

Three undergraduate students came to me at the end of last term saying that they thought their teacher (a male, African American TA) was grading them down when they didn't agree with his position on topics he assigned. It seems the teacher had made clear his own point of view and engaged in arguments with members of the class who publicly disagreed with him. His assignments, despite the curriculum focused on textual analysis and critical argument, were all "take an opinion about x" or "agree or disagree with x" and he had told students that he couldn't help but read those essays that took a position counter to his own more critically because he "knew the facts" and had thought through the arguments. These students felt they were in a hostile, racially and politically charged atmosphere, and had already gone to the university ombudsman to complain. The instructor had spent considerable class time (the students claim as much as three weeks, the syllabus showed about a week's worth, the instructor eventually admitted to more than what was in the syllabus but denied three weeks) showing films about government conspiracies to keep inner city blacks addicted to drugs and about police brutality against blacks (none of these were named in the syllabus). The students had put up with it all until the term was over because they didn't think they had any power to make anything different happen, but when the teacher said to them on the last day of the class, "you should all just suck it up and take whatever grade I give you without whining about it because I'm the teacher," they had finally had enough.

When the university ombudsman called, she wanted to know what I (as the director of the program) was going to do about the situation, but she insisted that the "department is on notice" that this instructor has created an inappropriately racially charged atmosphere that is not conducive to learning and fair treatment. I went to my acting department chair with the information I had, including copies of the students' papers with comments by the instructor, his assignments, the syllabus he had turned in, and the discursive student evaluations that had already come in from the class in question. These student evaluations included lots of support for the students' claim that this instructor had not been teaching a writing class, had failed to provide clear explanations for his grading, and had conducted classroom discussions around the hot topics of race rather than around argument, writing or even reading assignments. The chair responded by a) questioning the motivations of the undergraduates who were complaining and b) expressing surprise that someone with my political views (I'm fairly easily identified as very liberal in my department) would question a teacher trying to expose students to racism in our country. The word on the street in the department is that he called me a "racist" to other members of the department and although some have come to my defense, I suspect that
label will be around for a while.

In trying to protect the TA from further accusations of unfair grading, I suggested that we not meet with him to discuss the problem until after he turned in final grades for the term. The ombudsman agreed with this plan, but the chair did not, and so he met with the TA alone, telling him in vague ways that there had been complaints about his teaching. When the grades finally were turned in and I met with the TA, he already knew enough to identify two of the three students by name even though I didn't tell him how many complaints had been filed or the gender of the students who had complained. In our discussions, it became clear that this graduate student couldn't see the difference between a textual analysis assignment and a position assignment. He was unable to articulate any grading criteria, had no explanation for showing so many movies (except that they were interesting), and expressed surprise over curricular objectives that he had supposedly been using for two years since he arrived in the department. When I offered that we make some plan for helping him to work with controversial material in a more appropriate way for a composition course, he said he would not co-teach with anyone because this would be "putting him in shackles." The chair finally agreed that the evidence of his not following the curriculum was pretty clear, and I said that it was difficult to substantiate the students' claims that they received lower grades because of the positions they took on topics without seeing the papers from all the students. As best I could tell, his grades, like his comments, were completely arbitrary. But, I did say that I didn't see how he could be in the composition classroom when he couldn't write an appropriate assignment and wasn't following the syllabus he submitted to the program office. The solution? He has been in the writing center this term, and will teach a literature course in the fall, but after that, who knows?

Now, why tell this story and why tell it anonymously? Some of the recent conversation about racism in the classroom has suggested to me that we believe that only students can be racists or have ill founded positions. I'm not saying that anyone has said that, and I don't mean to be accusing anyone here. I think accusations of racism are serious matters and shouldn't be thrown around lightly, and I think sometimes accusations of racism are used as another way of gaining power, especially when the usual balances of power have been upset (as they are when women serve as WPAs). And, I think that these issues are so difficult, so charged, that it's very difficult to tell the counter story - the ones where it is the teacher who is behaving inappropriately. Personally, I'm ashamed of my institution, especially my colleagues for the way they've handled this situation. But I'm also embarrassed to have been accused of being a racist, even indirectly. And, because I'm ashamed and embarrassed, as I suspect others in similar situations are, stories like mine don't get told and don't get the kind of professional scrutiny that the more typical "students are racists" stories get. I'm not brave enough to tell this openly, but I am trying to figure out how stories like this - the ones we're ashamed of - can be told, studied and learned from.

I could go on and on about this post--not only about how it speaks to the intertwined problems of poor graduate student teacher training and ideologically biased composition courses, but also about how it bears witness to how structurally and even philosophically ill-equipped academic departments can be for dealing with the kinds of problems this writing program administrator encountered when she tried to do the right thing in the proper institutional channels. But I won't. The post is powerful enough on its own.

The WPA archive makes for some interesting reading, and may be found here.

posted on April 21, 2005 11:09 AM


"The chair responded by a) questioning the motivations of the undergraduates who were complaining...."

Years ago, Rush Limbaugh said that when you put a liberal on the hotseat the first thing he does is question your motives. Right after that, I read an article about the discovery of Rigoberta Menchu's falsehoods, and she was quoted as saying, "I question the motives of those who [call my honesty into question, or whatever]." I've watched for that tactic ever since, and it amuses me every time I see it.

Posted by: Laura at April 21, 2005 1:37 PM

"Years ago, Rush Limbaugh said that when you put a liberal on the hotseat the first thing he does is question your motives."
Pretty much sums up most people's response on the hot seat...

As far a this case goes, I'm surprised such as case got as far out of hand as it did. When I was TAing a science course, we had little formal pedagogical prep (riding more on our technical and professional backgrounds), but a lot of oversight and mentoring support. I imagine that for a writing coures, the pedagogy part, including evaluation and course construction, would require more of a steadying hand from the faculty.

Posted by: Bill at April 21, 2005 1:59 PM

I recommend the students sue for return of tuition and for damages for wasted time.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis at April 21, 2005 4:21 PM

The most perspicacious response on the WPA board comes from Jeanne Simpson, who says:

"Without dismissing the importance of the race issue in this discussion, I am surprised that no one has wondered what sort of preparation for teaching was provided to the TA described in the post Barry forwarded. Evidently he was confronted with questions about his methods *after* the complaints, but what happened beforehand? Was he given any direction other
than being sent into the classroom with books and roster?"

When I was monitoring comp classes as part of my own "training" to become a TA, I saw lots of TAs ranting in front of comp/writing classes. These are the classes which, as anyone who's been to college recently will avouch, have become political soapboxes for extremist hotheads who should instead be teaching their students to think and argue clearly. Not all of the TAs were young, either--one class was being "taught" by a former grade school teacher in her fifties who'd come back for her PhD, and she instructed her students how to vote on several local referendum items!

I think this is partly, as Jeanne's comment implies, an institutional problem, caused by the drive to get low-cost bodies in front of these poor undergrads.

And yet, asking supposedly wiser, saner professors to supervise their grad students more closely in order to rein in their propagandizing seems a bit like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

Posted by: Rose Nunez at April 21, 2005 9:46 PM

"He has been in the writing center this term, and will teach a literature course in the fall, but after that, who knows?"

What the hell is this guy doing in his school's writing center? I know some schools send the dregs to work there, but someone with this sort of confrontational attitude should *not* be working one-on-one with diffident writers.

If he can't do the work, stop funding his education.

Posted by: Luther Blisset at April 22, 2005 12:16 AM

My first hand experience was in the distant past, but from what I've read this doesn't sound like an aberration. Apparently there's a movement afoot to turn composition and rhetoric into a branch of cultural studies, and to coerce students into expressing "appropriate" viewpoints on charged issues. So one would assume that the instructor was predisposed by his undergrad training to do what he supposedly did, and that the preparation he was given would just have given him more encouragement to do so. What surprises me is that the ombundsman and director of the program would be sympathetic to the students' complaints.

Posted by: Allan at April 22, 2005 1:02 AM

As leader of mega-group Earth, Wind, and Fire, I take issue with Luther Blissett's comment about Writing Centers. I learned a lot about horn charts from my TA, making me the "Shining Star" that I am today.

Also, it's spelled "Blissett." And it's spelled "Eliot." If you're going to use anarchist pseuodonyms, spell them correctly.

Yours truly,
Stewart Home
author of "Come Before Christ Murder Love"

Posted by: Maurice White at April 22, 2005 10:03 AM

Academia also seems to be a bit fond of the notion that only whites (or sometimes only white males) can be racist/sexist/bigoted.

Posted by: krm at April 22, 2005 2:50 PM

"Also, it's spelled "Blissett." And it's spelled "Eliot." If you're going to use anarchist pseuodonyms, spell them correctly."

You spelling-nazi pseudo-anarchist-- I'd give you a scowl--- maybe even a scolding--- if you worked in my writing center.

On topic: how'd this guy get accepted to his uni again? Affirmative action... possibly? Do ya think?

I bet he'd be fun team-teaching rhetoric with Jacques Pluss.

Posted by: Luther Blisset at April 23, 2005 12:59 AM

Luther, I'm with you on this one, at least part of the way. Isn't the whole point of using anarchist pseudonyms that you get to spell them the way you want instead of the way the government tells you to?

But then there you go and blame everything on affirmative action. My goodness. Seems to me that the TA we're talking about could just as easily have gotten his job because he has a demonstrated knack for engaging in counter-hegemonic discourse,

Posted by: Allan at April 23, 2005 1:18 AM

"But then there you go and blame everything on affirmative action. My goodness. Seems to me that the TA we're talking about could just as easily have gotten his job because he has a demonstrated knack for engaging in counter-hegemonic discourse,"

I don't know about that. Making Ism claims seems pretty damn hegemonic at this time. I'd be more impressed if this guy were writing about the rise of victimist discourse among asian-americans, or something like that. There you have some really thorny stuff going on.

But teaching 'evil whitey' using film? Please. These kids are there to learn something about writing, nothing more. I think he was 'challenging his students,' and 'challenging students' has long been one of the big bywords for a lot of classroom nonsense. It's right up there with 'critical thinking' as a complete misnomer.

That said, I was being an ass with AA line, so let me retract it.

Posted by: Luther Blisett at April 24, 2005 4:02 AM

My son's lit teacher said "only white people can be considered racist." He disagreed openly; the other students disagreed privately. His next paper earned the only B he's received in lit/English courses. He decided that grad school was too important a goal, so his next paper toed the line and he got his A.

It's awful. It's corrupt and corrupting. And as much as I don't like David Horowitz, there are times I find myself thinking, "let that whole house burn to the ground so we can start over."

Posted by: Ken Lay at April 26, 2005 11:12 AM

Actually, I wouldn't mind the statement if the students could trust the fact that a well-made counter argument had no less chance of an A than a well-made argument in support. In such an atmosphere, in a class where that topic was on-topic, it might make for a great class discussion. But as it was, it just generated the predictable cynicism about "academic freedom."

Posted by: Ken Lay at April 28, 2005 12:13 AM