"MY PROFESSOR HAS HER OPINION AND SHE STICKS WITH IT": Using Critical Multiculturalism to Challenge Assumptions of Teacher Candidates

Article excerpt

Up until recently I had only three reviews on RateMyProfessor.com. I suppose, given the general trend, that I should be grateful that I don't have more. Two of the three alert unsuspecting students:

If you don't agree with her she will mark you off for it! You need to know her side at all times!

Dr. Miretzky is the type of professor who tells you to give her your opinion, when in all reality she really wants you to tell her what she wants to hear! She hardly ever agrees with students' comments!

It is certainly not news to those who teach social foundations of education courses in teacher education programs that these programs are under fire for not being useful contributions to a prospective teacher's education (Butin, 2005; Will, 2006) and are a potentially endangered species (Morrison, 2007). And we also know that social foundations classes, even taught thoughtfully and well, can be quite challenging for undergraduates; as Nancy Flanagan (2009) put it in a response to a recent Education Policy Blog post:

I agree [...] that older students-especially career-changers pursuing new opportunities in teaching-are more likely to appreciate the necessity of studying educational foundations. They're further away from the K-12 stream than traditional students, and have likely had to do some deeper thinking about education as a pursuit and field of study.

Social foundations courses, and in particular any course that has to do with multiculturalism or diversity, can be land mines for teacher educators seeking to provide, as Applebaum (2009) put it, experiences that may be partisan but also educative. This article explores the tensions of teaching multiculturalism classes to undergraduate teacher education students and is based on experiences at a public rural Midwestern university over the last few years. Interviews with department colleagues who teach the multiculturalism course, student journals and course evaluations, and reflection provide the data for this reflective essay.

The Social Foundations Dilemma

While it is "received wisdom" that so-called liberal college professors seek to influence students regarding social and political issues, especially in colleges of education (ACTA and University of Connecticut Center for Survey Research & Analysis, 2004; Cunningham, 2009; Will, 2006), recent studies have shown that this perception is not well grounded in reality (Smith, Mayer, & Fritschler, 2008; Woessner & Kelly-Woessner, 2009). Researchers conclude that, essentially, the most important influences on social and political viewpoints are parents and family, with professors among the least influential.

However, while the Association of American Colleges and Universities argues that students' "ethical, civic, and moral development" should go hand-in-hand with intellectual development (AACU, 2009), "The goal of producing ethical, moral graduates raises legitimate questions about the role of college professors [...] in shaping students' values" (Woessner & Kelly-Woessner, 2009, p. 343). It is probably not unusual for many faculty in disciplines like teacher education, especially newer professors, to struggle with how far they should go in the classroom in "encouraging" students to reconsider strongly held beliefs, or to worry whether there is a slippery slide towards turning students off entirely or blurring the lines between inculcative and liberal functions of teaching (Warnick, 2009).

While Warnick is describing K-12 education, his functions are just as relevant to working with undergraduate students. For him, inculcative purposes of education seek to "socialize [students] into existing norms and values" (p. 208). Liberal purposes of education involve "helping students to decide for themselves what lives to lead rather than telling them the values or lifestyles to adopt" (p. 208). These purposes can be construed in many ways, depending on how one perceives existing norms and values, and both carry risks in terms of how they contribute (or not) to an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable to genuinely explore a range of perspectives. …