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October 12, 2017

Academics Talk Race in the Core

The Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture hosted a workshop Monday called “Teaching Race in the Core: Syllabus Design Workshop” to explore how Core classes can and should interact with race.

By the end of the session, participants had proposed strategies for promoting conversation to examine racial biases. These included communal ground rules for discussion, syllabi containing explicit statements about accessibility and inclusion, and assignments that spoke exclusively to students’ identities.

The workshop was led by the Race and Pedagogy Working Group, a group of academics across a variety of disciplines that aims to explore the intersection of racial justice and pedagogy. About 20 participants, mostly teaching assistants and former and current instructors in the Humanities and Social Science Core, reflected on how to handle issues of race within the Core curriculum.

Anthropology Ph.D. candidate and Power, Identity, Resistance instructor Mary Robertson and music history Ph.D. candidate and Introduction to Western Art Music instructor Woo Chan Lee moderated the event.  

The workshop began with the question, “When and how does race come up as an explicit topic of conversation in the classroom?” The group shared opinions about how to approach explicit racial components of certain course materials, which might require balancing traditional analyses and distinct perspectives on historical racial politics.  

The next question, “When does race not come up?” inspired discussion on the absence of race in the classroom and the reasons behind it.

“There is a certain kind of established narrative that…in the 18th century, England is where the rise of the novels took place,” said English literature Ph.D. candidate Allison Turner, who has worked as a writing intern in Core courses. “I tried to teach this narrative, and that became the place where it would seem convenient to avoid talking about race, because people don’t know how to incorporate that into a discussion about this important development.”

By raising this example, Turner explained how teaching historical objects within a non-racialized context occurred in the classroom. Media Aesthetics instructor Kalisha Cornett attributed this to the predominantly European intellectual models which dominate Core courses, producing a lack of alternative perspectives for students.

The third question brought up what kind of race conversations teachers want students to have in the classroom. The group generally agreed that consciousness of the structural aspects of race is crucial.

“[We could] recognize that there is a system in place permitting people to perform the racism that the students see,” Cornett said. “We could talk about the ways in which all of the external things are acting on us to make the choices that we made.”

Later, Demetra Kasimis, a political science assistant professor and Classics of Social and Political Thought instructor, brought up the fine line between thinking about racial issues through a more unified approach as recurrent problems throughout history, and thinking about them more separately, each contingent on specific sociohistorical conditions.

She explained that she asks students in class to raise present-day analogies to the societal hierarchy in Plato’s Republic, which metaphorically uses the values given to different metals to parallel the values assigned to different kinds of human nature. Students found this uncomfortable, she said, and felt reluctant to see that such analogies exist. “There are analogies or allegorical ways to look at these [differences]… even if they don’t correspond totally,” Kasimis said.

Paul Cato, a Ph.D. candidate in social thought, brought up two possible strategies to better address race that were inspired by a summer course where he worked as a teaching assistant. He suggested that one could set optional readings which situate canonic texts in relation to relevant issues of gender and race, or that one could change the order of readings so students encounter and discuss texts that deal with race, or are written by authors of color, at the beginning of the course rather than at the end.

A related panel titled “Antiracist Pedagogy, Here and Now” will be held on November 7 and will feature three speakers from the University.

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