Tuesday, July 28, 2009
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.