On ‘Difficult’ Conversations

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Recently, I spoke with a white faculty member struggling to engage with two Latinx students in her art history seminar. Two of only a handful of nonwhite students in the class, the Latinx students repeatedly mentioned race — of the artists, subjects and curators. To this instructor, not only were issues of race uncomfortable, but they were also tangential to the subject matter: art and representation. The students, the professor said, by harping on these concerns, had needlessly introduced this “difficult” topic into the classroom.

Conversations about race, class, sexuality and other identities are often called “difficult” or “uncomfortable.” Mastering these conversations is necessary, it is often said, because shifting student demographics in higher education, including the increased enrollment of historically underrepresented students, require faculty members to gain facility discussing identity. This rationale is well intentioned as, on the surface, it suggests that faculty must adopt culturally responsive pedagogical practices to meet student needs.

Additionally, this framing is potentially learner-centered, as it acknowledges that the discomfort of these “difficult” conversations must be braved to serve student learning and well-being. And, given the recent widespread protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, professors who seek to carry on with business as usual, without broaching topics such as systemic racism and anti-Blackness, risk appearing tone-deaf and out of step with the current historical moment.

Yet by linking the necessity of these conversations to changing student demographics or current events, we suggest that identity is relevant only when students who have been labeled “diverse” are present and/or when those students call attention to identity. Only when students of color are in the classroom, for example, must we acknowledge race, or only when there are women in predominately male spaces must we recognize gender. Thus, this justification for these conversations displaces the notion of “difficult” onto students who are labeled diverse. Not only are such conversations “difficult,” but the existence and very presence of these students becomes difficult. Were these Latinx students not in the class, or were they not vocal about race, the art history professor implied, there would be no discomfort.

This framing also furthers the fiction that when women, first-generation students, low-income students, students with disabilities, transgender students and so forth are in the classroom, faculty members must put aside identity-neutral content and attend to identity. The reality, however, is that all students benefit when a multiplicity of identities are reflected in the classroom, whether in the curriculum or elsewhere.

“Difficult” allows us to dismiss and avoid — to further marginalize those who surface identity by labeling them myopic or as promoting identity politics. Yet all course content reflects identity politics.

For example, in my conversations with STEM faculty members, I often hear that their disciplines are evidence-based and identity-free. But when prodded, those same instructors might admit to not assigning readings with women as the lead authors, to assuming a level of prior knowledge in introductory classes that favors students from upper-middle-class high schools or to having group projects in which female students often assume a housekeeping role (e.g., note taker). In other words, these instructors eventually admit that underrepresented students do not introduce identity into the classroom, but rather identity is always present in the classroom. Identity is enacted through readings, assignments, classroom structures and classroom norms — choices made and identities prioritized by faculty members.

The tragedy of the art history class is that the Latinx students attended to ideas that the professor should have considered: What groups have cultures worthy of preservation and celebration? Who decides? What historical processes have allowed the collectors and museums of one place to acquire the art of another? The instructor viewed the students’ considerations as tiresome and one-dimensional. But the students, in my reading, understood that complex human and historical forces shape art and representation. Content is not value neutral. Moreover, attending to identity should not depend on which students are present, and already-marginalized students should not be burdened with surfacing issues of identity. Identity informs all students’ and instructors’ experiences of the classroom, even the experiences of those from dominant groups.

For example, years ago, I taught at a predominantly white institution. During the final class, a student who identified as white, male and upper middle class advocated removing poor children from their families and placing them in boarding schools. This conversation, initiated by a student holding dominant identities, could very well be described as difficult. As an instructor, I was forced to confront a perspective different from my own — one that I was shocked to learn my student held and one that I personally found reprehensible. I felt stunned, but given that the student had made the comment in front of 49 other students, I also felt pressured to immediately respond.

Therefore, in order to give the student an opportunity to hear how outrageous his statement was and to clarify, I repeated what he had said and asked if I had understood correctly. When the student affirmed his position, I then opened the conversation to all students and asked them to respond with reference to texts we’d read that semester on topics such as assimilation and culturally relevant pedagogy. In the discussion, the class countered their peer’s position using literature. I wrapped up the discussion by thanking the student for surfacing the issue and by summarizing the key concerns that his peers had raised.

The reality is that conversations about identity challenge us. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the negative affective responses — including shame (over one’s lack of knowledge), fear (that one’s biases might be exposed) and defensiveness — that these conversations evoke.

Spaces of Practice

Yes, conversations about identity challenge us. Yet, note that I use the verb “challenge,” rather than the modifier “challenging.” This is not simply semantics. Though these conversations may be difficult to navigate, I would not call them “difficult.” This modifier suggests that identity is inherently troublesome — a notion that deserves interrogation. Evan P. Apfelbaum and other scholars have found that as adolescents learn social norms, they also begin to understand that it is socially unacceptable to discuss race. I wonder, could this finding be extended to other identities, such as socioeconomic class and sexuality? (Would you feel comfortable, for example, asking your colleague her salary?) As a shorthand, calling certain conversations “uncomfortable” allows for continued silence. This euphemism gestures toward identity but allows us to avoid directly naming class, race, sexual orientation, gender, disability or other identities we have grown accustomed to not naming.

Perhaps conversations about identity are “difficult” not because they are inherently uncomfortable, but because they have been deemed ineffable. Consequently, the first time many faculty members — particularly those who view themselves and their disciplines as identity neutral — are forced to consider and articulate their stance on identity is in the classroom. Perhaps that occurs after a student says something racist or otherwise derogatory, and the instructor must fumble to respond while a room of nervous students watches.

But what if these conversations are not actually difficult, but simply unpracticed? In other words, the classroom context and lack of prior engagement with the topic might make the conversation difficult, but the topic itself is not, I would offer, inherently difficult.

Therefore, perhaps faculty members need not fewer conversations about identity but more. Specifically, suppose they had spaces in which to understand the scholarship on diversity and inclusion, as well as opportunities to consider implications to their teaching practices? I imagine, for example, that it is rare to find faculty who object to inclusive classrooms. However, it might be rarer still to find instructors who can define an “inclusive” classroom, identify strategies for fostering one or articulate what students experience in one.

If faculty had spaces of practice, they could gain facility identifying strategies for fostering expected and unexpected conversations about identity and for incorporating identity meaningfully into a class from the first day. They wouldn’t just believe, for example, that including a sole Toni Morrison text to represent Black writers in a literature class or asking gender pronouns in a science class will make these courses more inclusive. Through faculty communities of practice, identity conversations move from “difficult” and “uncomfortable” to manageable and educative — and serve as important opportunities to model for students how to talk and think about identity.

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