Discourse / Letters / November 18, 2017

Letter to the Editor: “Faculty must work harder to reach students of color”

Dear TKS Editorial Board,

Thank you to TKS for serving as a venue for the campus conversation about the cancellation of the Brecht play. As a contribution to this discussion, we would like to highlight the role of credibility, as we see it as individual faculty members.

At Knox, most faculty come from backgrounds of much more privilege than do most students. This will always affect our interactions. In particular, it affects how faculty ask students to engage with academic material that includes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, ableist or otherwise problematic content.

When we ask students, especially students of color, to engage with that problematic material, we are effectively asking them to trust us — to believe us when we say that engaging with such material will benefit them. Have we earned that trust?

Faculty may believe we have established our educational credibility already — that we can take students’ trust for granted. We disagree. We live in a world where marginalized groups, particularly students of color, are asked to engage with problematic (to say the least) systems every day. And this engagement almost never benefits them.

When we, as faculty, make similar requests for engagement, why should students of color believe us when we say it will benefit them?

We would argue that what Knox most needs at this moment is for faculty, particularly white faculty, to do more work to build trust with students, particularly students of color.

In that spirit, we commit to working harder to reach students of color, and invite our colleagues to join us.

We commit, inside the classroom, to replace discussions that reward the loudest voices with discussions that amplify under-represented voices. We commit to re-examining our syllabi and creating new documents, which do more than simply include a week on scholars from marginalized groups, and instead fully embrace those scholars. We commit to centering those scholars’ ideas and dealing with said ideas on their own terms, not simply in terms of how they relate to the canon.

Outside the classroom, we commit to supporting our students. We commit to listening to their concerns, and in our responses, modeling the values to which we aspire. Perhaps the best we can achieve is honest disagreement between people who respect each other. But that is still worth achieving. Our colleagues of color have been doing these things — and more — for years, often in environments hostile to their work.

None of this means that faculty should never ask students to engage with problematic material. Bringing controversial speakers, assigning problematic texts and having difficult conversations are critical to intellectual life at the college. It is the only way that we can give you the best education we know how to give you. But as teachers and as mentors we must perpetually recommit to earning the credibility we ask students to give us. What may seem like difficult but productive material for white students can be traumatizing and unproductive material for students of color. And it is not helpful for faculty to try to tell students of color where that line should be — we should listen to them about where it is for them. Once we hear this, we owe it to them and to the development of each of our disciplines to keep the conversation going: with students, with our colleagues, with the limits of our own scholarly knowledge.

We commit to reacting without defensiveness to this conversation and others that will follow, because to do so would derail an important discussion, and would be detrimental to building trust. In the streets of the US today, white college faculty (as a group) are not being brutalized by the police. People of color are. White college faculty are not being targeted for deportation. People of color are. We argue that it is our responsibility to reach students of color, not students of color’s responsibility to adapt to the established norms of the academy, norms which often work to entrench privilege.

Thank you.

(listed alphabetically by first name)

Benjamin Farrer

Catherine Denial

Gabrielle Raley

Jonathan Anderson

Nathalie Haurberg


TKS Staff

Tags:  letter to the editor privilege professors t the good person of szechwan

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1 Comment

Nov 30, 2017

Thank you for this thoughtful response. Let’s keep learning, and growing, and thinking, and doing together.

With Love,

brother shabazz

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