Back to School is the theme of our final 2016 Summer Session, and in addition to exploring the relationship between the arts and education, we are also providing resources for those working within the academy. Today we bring you the series “Teaching While Black” from Patricia A. Matthew’s blog Written/Unwritten. In Part 1 Matthew highlights specific essays about dealing with student reactions from Robyn Magalit Rodriguez’s “Resources for Women of Color Faculty,” which was posted as part of Back to School earlier this session, and offers advice for her white colleagues on how to support faculty of color. Below is an excerpt from Part 2, which provides a personal perspective from Matthew’s own experiences with students and student evaluations—a potentially devastating aspect of teaching for nonwhite (and non-male) professors and lecturers. Part 3 can be found through our friends at the New Inquiry, and expands upon how Matthew’s race and gender affects her students’ perceptions. Part 2 was originally published on December 1, 2013.
It’s evaluation time and students have the chance to offer anonymous feedback about their experience in the classroom. As a tenured faculty member, I’m not required to undergo this process, but from time to time I do so anyway. Even when I don’t arrange for university evaluations, I ask my students for feedback about the semester. It’s always a bit unnerving, and I can never quite shake the feeling that it feeds into the consumerism mode of higher education, but I believe it can be a useful process. This year, as I’ve been thinking of what it means to be a professor of color in the academy for a solid decade, I’m thinking of the daily informal assessments that happen all the time, and I’m remembering the time I told a graduate student to take a seat.
I’ll never know exactly what pushed this particular graduate student to stand up in the middle of my Research Methods course and shout, “You can’t lecture me!” He’d been terse and combative from the first day of the term, but it’s been so many years (easily seven or eight) that I’ve even forgotten what we were talking about when he forgot himself. It’s possible that he was angry that I hadn’t paid enough attention to Byron’s use of ottava rima in Don Juan (no, I’m not kidding). I remember being amused when he wanted to know if I knew this pertinent fact about the poem (of course, I did). And when he wanted to explain to me that feminism was a crock because men were responsible for good things like the Sistine Chapel, I remember trying to gently but firmly move the conversation towards more productive ground. I also remember feeling some genuine sympathy for him. Here he was, forced to take a course that was not of his choosing with an instructor he might not ever have chosen to study with. All graduate students in our program must take Research Methods, it’s only offered once a year and, at the time, I was the only instructor teaching it. He was white and his privilege expressed itself with a stridency I could tell made his classmates uncomfortable. He wasn’t the first student with this habit, but he was the most aggressive.
I don’t remember why this student stood up in a room of about twenty students and yelled, “You can’t lecture me!” but I do remember that, in the moment, my gallows humor crowded everything else out; in reply I said, dryly, “Well, actually, that’s my job. Literally. I mean it’s in my contract and everything.” I then told him he could either sit down or leave the class. He chose the latter.