The Work of “Teaching for Justice” in a Post-Everything America

I just recently finished hearing two fantastic podcasts yesterday, Terry Gross’s interview with author Ari Berman and Tom Ashbrook’s discussion of race in America (listed below). Both podcasts provide a foundational understanding to the contemporary moment we are in through historical lenses, historical lenses that many in the U.S. do not have, especially undergraduate students. Thus, when I stumbled upon Dan Berrett’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today about teaching African American history in our contemporary moment, I knew I had to begin writing my first blog post. Indeed, it is rather a coincidence (or perhaps not) that I am beginning this blog (and my first post) on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the 1st anniversary of Ferguson and Michael Brown’s death.

To give you a brief outline of Berrett’s article, he begins by considering what a post-Ferguson America offers scholars and teachers of African American Studies, in particular, how these issues make their way into our classrooms and how they affect classroom discussions and debates about race and ethnicity in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America. He contends that current events can be helpful and unhelpful: “Students can respond unpredictably, derailing class discussions. Faculty members often find they’ve let loose a flood of contradictory feelings in their students that they must expertly guide. Many professors of color must cope with similar emotions themselves.” The emotional investment in these stories by undergrads as well as teachers of American ethnic studies might, for some, be seen as a recipe for (classroom) disaster. But, as Berrett explains, these new events force “scholars to make pedagogical choices. Some have made the incidents the explicit topics of a new lesson or course; others have used them as entry points to teach previously existing material.” How do we (and by we I mean all teachers) respond productively to the current moment? What pedagogical interventions can we make as teachers and scholars of literature, for instance? What’s at stake in these conversations for our students and ourselves?

What I found to be important in this article is that we need to “[t]each the discomfort” of race relations in America. We need to teach the narratives that not only challenge our students, but make our students intellectually and emotionally uncomfortable because it is our through discomfort that we can grow intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, this is what it would mean to work beyond discussions of ‘white privilege,’ which I argue are both overdetermined and unproductive in advancing a critical race consciousness in our students. In one anecdote, Berrett profiles a course by Penn State professor Courtney Desiree Morris; her course, entitled “The Fire This Time—Understanding Ferguson” exposes her mostly white undergraduate students to “experiences that aren’t our own.” She argues that unless we do this, transforming the situation of the here and now is impossible.

Another professor profiled in his essay is also Marcia Chatelain, creator of #FergusonSyllabus. Chatelain explains that after the Ferguson incident, she incorporated discussions in her course on a daily basis. In one particular assignment towards the end of the semester, she challenged her students to bring up the discussion over Thanksgiving dinner. Berrett writes, “[Chatelain] wanted her students to look with fresh eyes at their own and others’ lived experiences. Many white students said they would never raised the issue because they felt awkward or uncomfortable. Most black students said they wouldn’t be able to escape it even if they wanted to.” These mixed emotions, Chatelain explains, were catalysts to students developing more sophisticated positions.

Finally, Jennifer Nash, asst. professor at George Washington University, cold-calls on students to “perform” certain arguments in class. Berrett explains, “The students didn’t have to personally support a particular position, but they had to articulate it. What, for example, would an argument against meritocracy be? Performing an argument helped separate ideology from identity, she said, and allowed students to analyze ideas more dispassionately. She demonstrated the technique herself, she said, to show her students a range of perspectives.” Nash demonstrates what bell hooks calls an “engaged pedagogy,” that is a pedagogical responsibility that models the type of risks that we ask our students to perform in the classroom. Without taking risks ourselves as teachers, we risk students’ personal investment in the subject matter. Without personal risk (intellectually and emotionally), we hold back a part of ourselves that might otherwise radically change how our students navigate the terrain of the uncomfortable.  Nash laments, “As an instructor…it’s utterly exhausting work.”

Indeed, the work of what Jacqui Alexander calls “teaching for justice” is incredibly exhausting work, especially in the climate of anti-intellectualism and vehement skepticism; our students traffic in these cultural and social sentiments. However, I am critically hopefully that “teaching for justice” can be a pragmatic endeavor, an endeavor that through time can become productive. I believe that teaching a curriculum that is culturally responsive to our current moment is especially needed when so many of our students look to our classrooms in American ethnic studies for answers on how to discuss and think deeply about the larger world around them. But Berrett cautions that we shouldn’t “overplay…the significance of the now.” I agree that too much focus on the ‘now’ obfuscates the historical and cultural genealogies that have allowed the ‘now’ to persist and reproduce. We have to do the work of cultivating historical and institutional literacies in our courses, especially as teachers of literature. Getting students to rethink their assumptions through an historical approach that focuses on the ramification of institituionalized racism has proven to be effective for my own classes. Only through an historical lens do students begin to ‘get it’ that race, in its current manifestation, is incredibly dynamic and nuanced. Such a critical lens is needed in order for students to navigate the difficult terrain of the here and now and begin to produce their own answers for the contemporary moment.


Recommended sources:

·      Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing (2006)

·      Dan Berrett, “A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons—and Risks—to the Classroom” (2015)

·      NPR Onpoint: Race in America, from Watts to Ferguson and Beyond

·      NPR FreshAir: Block the Vote: A Journalist Discusses Voting Rights and Restrictions;

·      Courtney Morris’s class on Ferguson