Academic journal article Theory in Action

The Case for Humanities Training: A Woman of Color Teaching Social Justice in a Predominantly White Institution

Academic journal article Theory in Action

The Case for Humanities Training: A Woman of Color Teaching Social Justice in a Predominantly White Institution

Article excerpt

My entrance into instruction began as a graduate assistant at a tiny state university. I was thrown in head-first as teacher-of-record for a 20-student Composition and Rhetoric course, which served primarily as a freshman service course. The college campus is situated in the third most populous town in a state that is over 90% white, and most resident students come from smaller towns around the state. When I was receiving teacher training for my Composition and Rhetoric course, I was warned that many of my students would come from conservative backgrounds, and would resent and resist any intrusions that had the look or feel of "liberal ideology." My training prepared me to temper any politicized discussion topics with a redirection towards the content of the evidence, and the structure of the argument. This training, I realized, was suggested as a self-preserving measure, and was meant to insure against student resistance and, thus, obstacles to effective teaching.

THEORY

When I received the chance to teach for the Women's Studies department, with a course entitled "Social Justice in the 21st Century," I was prepared to eschew the politics-avoidance that had made up my composition teaching experience. Surely, the students who would sign up for such a course would be prepared to tackle all the attendant issues and discomforts surrounding the topic of social justice. I structured the course with ambitious feminist pedagogical strategies, such as group work, self-directed response papers, service-learning, and a review of course material through class discussion rather than lecture. Facilitating a dynamic and engaging classroom discussion was something I planned to rely heavily on, since it was one of the strongest skills I had developed as a beginning instructor. My classroom manner in composition classes had a highly-charged and fast-paced style of delivery, and it tended to produce a similar student response, indicative of excitement and idea production about the topic at hand. While there were shyer students who preferred to remain quiet in class, it seemed that I was almost always able to achieve a majority participation when discussing reading material and class concepts. I wanted to maintain this participation yield in my Social Justice course, but with added concern for the underrepresented voices in the classroom. My goal for teaching the class was to enable discussion-led knowledge-production in a space that was limited in prejudice, resistance, or unconscious bias that may harm those at the receiving end of stereotypes.

When faced with my students on the first day of class, I found that I had greatly mis-prepared in my areas of pedagogical theory and praxis. That my course had been cross-listed in five different departments (African-American Studies, American Indian Studies, American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Women's Studies) led me to expect a greater diversity in students than I had experienced in my composition class. I was excitedly anxious to see what kind of voices would contribute to the narrative of the class and respond to the concepts introduced by the course material. I wanted to maintain awareness of classroom dynamics, and foster a special atmosphere inside the classroom that would transcend into the students' lives outside of the classroom. When I met the eyes of each student when taking attendance on the first day of class, I felt my preconceptions about teaching the class being shattered student by student. Despite being geared towards freshmen, the class was only about half freshmen, and when answering my first-day-of-class questionnaire, most students answered that they were placed in the class by advisors looking to fulfill a diversity requirement. My image of a classroom filled with nascent critics of social issues was replaced by the reality of thirty students who needed to fill a gap in their schedules. Not only did a majority of the students lack a pre-existing interest in social justice, most were completely uninitiated in the fundamental concepts at the heart of social justice. …

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