Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates-gate: The Ongoing Teachable Moment

I don't have a face-to-face class meeting at the moment and I hesitate to bring it up in my Distance Learning one, still finding Discussion Boards awkward for, well... discussion... so I can't contribute much in the way of suggestions and thoughts on the coming beer bash at the White House. I noticed Savage Minds brought the topic up without much committed or useful discussion--which surprises me a bit given our discipline but....its summer maybe we are all a little lethargic.

Its one of those moments where a number of issues intersect: race, class, and the town/gown tension we academics know so well. The latter, as frequent commenter Larry reminds me is the Jefferson/Jackson debate writ large in our current political climate of the supposed intellectual approach of Obama and the frontier moxie of Palin. (Quick, Farley Mowat, hide the wolves.) Guess whose side I am on in that battle of the network stars.

It is a ripe moment. A moment for personal narratives and the sharing of perspectives. It is also a moment when people dig their ideological heels in and refuse to budge. A hard one for students; particularly ones who parrot parental views and aren't quite sure of their own. Its fraught with peril for intro classes. You can lose them when discussing these issues. Welcome to the tightrope of bias.....here we go.....hands flailing, knees wobbling.

Over the years, I have learned some ways of approaching such issues. IMHO, the trick is to get students to talk about race without talking about race. If you can get them to understand the consequences of social differentiation; give them an immediate and somewhat simplistic vignette from history. As MissivesfromMarx noted in comments on the last post here, you do really need to handle these issues early on in the semester. I find you need to get across two simple thoughts: we humans culturally construct the terms of our existence and, specifically, students have interited a world that they did not create.

I have two ways I do this and I will share one now and save the other for another time. After allowing some open discussion (student-driven) about the social meaning of race, stereotyping, and discrimination, I switch the issue to gender. Follow me on this one....it does work for me.

I tell them that I arrived at the University of Virginia just a few short years after Mr. Jefferson's University was court-ordered to allow women to enroll as regular, resident undergraduates. It was not until 1972 that UVa admitted students without regard to gender. I arrived in 1978. The University had an overall enrollment of about 16,000 students at that time. Prior to 1970-ish that enrollment was almost entirely male. By 1978 it was 50/50. I ask them to contemplate the reality of that situation. In order for 8,000 female students to be admitted. 8,000 male students would have to be turned down. No doubt those turned down would feel angry, feeling they had lost a spot to a female. Perhaps they could even argue they had some score on some test that might show they were a better candidate. Then I ask my students how they think "I" (from the perspective of my gender)felt about that. You got it. Tough shit. How many years did I "stand down" so they could be privileged? Is it tough for the 8,0000 men who could have been admitted in 1972 but did not? Undoubtedly, but they weren't really "entitled" to be there in the first place, were they?

I have always found this to be an easier start to the Teachable Moment of the "race" question posed by Gates-gate. Switching the issue from race to gender, temporarily seems to diffuse all that invested anger so that the actual principles of affirmative action can be understood and the personal perspectives can be explored.

I find it a good first step. But, yes, there is a lot more still to go...

Update: OMG. You must check out MissivesfromMarx today. I swear I wrote this before I saw today's post there. Great minds think alike. LOL.


Bill G. said...

One of the critical issues that I want to teach concerning race is that ascribed status has an impact -- its not all about motivation and who tries hardest. Last semester, I used an issue that was raised in Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers." He describes how professional hockey players in Canada tend to all be born at a particular time of the year. The junior hockey leagues tend to have a cutoff point guiding whether they assign a boy to a lower or higher class of youth hockey. This means that boys born in a particular month are the most physically developed and largest. Because of this, they get more actual game time and attention by the coaches who see them as gifted. The result goes all the way through their careers. The students seemed to readily grasp this idea and to get rather excited by it. Then I turned the conversation to race. Really worked well.

missivesfrommarx said...

Pam and Bill, what excellent teaching tools! Thanks! Pam, I look forward to you sharing the other tool.

I posted a link to your post; thanks for linking to mine!

Pamthropologist said...

Great suggestion Bill G.

I hope we get some more. Anyone else?

Thanks, Missives.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an Anthropology teacher yet (starting Grad school in Fall 2010!)... and although I know that this post and the comments that have followed were describing useful ways of easing one's way into the subject of race (all were great, by the way)... I guess I just wanted to add something to the concept of social vs biological race:

A couple months ago, in Discover Magazine, there was a short blip on an experiment recently conducted. Although the variables were a bit iffy to me, the true point of the experiment was quite intriguing. Undergraduates were shown three pictures of President Obama. One picture had been digitally lightened, one remained untouched, the other darkened. It seems that those who agree with his political views typically view him as lighter, while those who oppose him view him as darker. Our beliefs literally color the skin color we see.