Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?”

Acknowledging the Moment

alice2It’s probably fair to say that most of us whose lives are absorbed with teaching and learning share that concern. It is no exaggeration to say that the current political climate, and – let’s be frank here – the Trump campaign in particular, are making our job as educators that much harder. Calls to ban Muslims, introduce racial profiling, support stop-and-frisk policing, wall-off the U.S.-Mexican border, apply torture to suspected enemies, disqualify judges on the basis of ethnic origin, and other atrocities that Trump has endorsed, strike at the heart of democratic and human rights that are a vital part of national and international law and challenge the inclusiveness that is an essential ethical and moral underpinning of the educational process itself. (For a forceful rebuttal to the argument that college administrators and faculty must remain on the sidelines of all political contests, see “Help Stop Trumpian Calamity” by Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.)

If the heightened xenophobia and fear exhibited across sectors of U.S. society has led faculty members to wonder if they can still conduct their classes in the ways that are necessary and have proven most fruitful to the learning process, the persistent killings of black men and women, and the concerted attempts by many students (and faculty and staff) of color to get higher education to respond in a serious fashion to a history of grievance and exclusion, are also shaping the classroom environment. All of this can make faculty feel, at times, that we are walking on eggshells, uncertain how to approach difficult topics (see below on what makes them “difficult”) or when a comment will head us in directions we feel ill prepared to pursue. All of which can lead to the feeling that we should keep our distance from such themes or rapidly steer away from them when they come up.

This is not to say that we are not used to teaching through discomfort – indeed, learning is often most successful when we create a context of discomfort that calls forth deeper questions and new answers. But, to be honest, most of us aren’t all that skilled at engaging topics that are outside our own comfort zone, ones we fear will be potentially explosive. And for most of us, race is often at the very top of the list. [(Among many others resources on this, see Beverly Tatum, Can We Talk About Race? (Beacon 2008)]. Why does race, in particular, offer itself as a “difficult” conversation? Derald Wing Sue, et al argue that difficult dialogues on race:

represent potentially threatening conversations or interactions between members of different racial or ethnic groups when they (a) involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege, (b) highlight major differences in worldviews, personalities, and perspectives, (c) are challenged publicly, (d) are found to be offensive to others, (e) may reveal biases and prejudices, and (f) trigger intense emotional responses…Any individual or group engaged in a difficult dialogue may feel at risk for potentially disclosing intimate thoughts, beliefs, or feelings related to the topic of race.

It is important to be clear that “race” and, therefore, the “dialogues about race” that take place in U.S institutions of higher education, are relevant to every class that is taught, not just those that have “race” in the course title. Because we teach in institutions that are a part of a larger history of exclusion, and because we claim, even if we fall short of the mark, that we value inclusion, we are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., recognize what is going on) when we look out at the students sitting in our classes and see who is there and, more importantly, who isn’t. We are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., take steps to change our practice) when we devise our curriculum and see who is represented and who isn’t, when we examine our pedagogy and realize what kind of learning it attends to and what kind is pushed to the margins. In short, the discussion of race happens even when it doesn’t happen. So no one gets a free pass from this discussion.

These were some of the things that crossed my mind as I read Alvarez’s disheartening narrative. And so I wondered:  If the world outside our classrooms is becoming less hospitable to the conversations and interactions we need to have, and if we worry about how these essential discussions will happen in our classrooms if we are nervous and worried about missteps and feeling unprepared to have them, where will they happen?

Approaching Difficult Discussions

alice3The heart of Alvarez’s essay is not what happened to her students, but the advice she offers in order to engage these difficult conversations so that the pervasive xenophobia does not set the tone of her classes. She observes that encouraging these discussions requires “helping students develop an awareness of their own cultural narratives and differences,” and that we need concrete strategies if we’re going to do this. (I would only add that she could easily add “faculty and staff” to the category of “students.”) These strategies, she continues, “include explicitly clarifying the assumptions and methodologies of academic inquiry, breaking down required skills into components that are addressed at the assignment level, and, most crucially, making the classroom a safe place for discussion so relationships can grow and empathetic engagement can occur.”

“Yeah, right,” you’re probably thinking. Easier said than done, and bromides aren’t going to help me when I’ve opened the door to something I’m not prepared for.  And certainly we all know of examples (of colleagues, if not ourselves) where attempts at such discussions, or even less challenging ones, crashed off the rails. There are no guarantees that these discussions will prove useful for our students or ourselves; but there probably is a guarantee that avoidance of critical topics is abrogating our responsibilities.

Location and Context

Among the many suggestions that Alvarez raised to help educators think about engaging difficult discussions in the classroom, I found one in particular to be quite helpful. Faculty, she writes, should “instruct students in how to locate and contextualize their comments, and to model such behavior themselves. At a minimum, this involves indicating whether statements are based on experience, observation, academic research, or some other source.”

Her examples are illustrative. One student’s broad assertion that “Christians believe that Jesus is returning soon,” can, with purposeful questioning by the instructor, be located and contextualized into a more grounded, and limited, claim: “When I was growing up, I was taught in Baptist churches in Western Pennsylvania that Jesus is returning soon.”

She suggests that faculty help students specify the context or location of a statement they make or questions they offer. For example, when a student in Alvarez’s course stated that “Muslim women hide when men enter the home,” she asked that it be rephrased to help locate where that statement was coming from, whether it was generated by something the student read or observed, for example. A follow-up rephrasing that: “I read in an article by Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud that African-American Muslim women in Philadelphia in the 1970s often moved to the kitchen when men entered the home,” provides specific context for the assertion and also locates its origin in a research article.

Personal experience can also be brought in as part of the evidence, but it is to be contextualized as just that – personal experience.  Alvarez quotes from one of her students who responded to the first comment that, “When I was growing up in a Sunni home in Kuwait, my mother moved to a private area of the home when unrelated men entered.” Or, as another added, “In my extended family in Turkey, women welcomed friends and neighbors into their homes and ate with them as long as male relatives were also present.”

By contextualizing and locating statements or questions, broad claims that often leave us either speechless or wanting simply to close off the conversation can be further examined, contextualized, and evaluated on the basis of the evidence: direct evidence, reported evidence, academic evidence, cultural evidence, visual evidence, etc. Such an approach can move the discussion from a series of unsupported statements to a conversation based on evidence, while allowing students to “hear one another’s comments as unique experiences.” This kind of opening can easily lead, if one allows, to a deeper examination of what counts as evidence in our disciplines, as well as what might get left out or become undervalued, and whether critical voices in the discipline have explored ways to compensate for this.

alice4Further Suggestions

Beyond locating and contextualizing, Alvarez and others offer some suggestions that can help us think about how we can use these discussions to help generate greater understandings, light as well as heat:

  • No class member should be asked, or assumed, either by the faculty or other students, to speak for a whole group.
  • Don’t load the weight and responsibility of explaining racism on students of color; explaining homophobia on queer students; explaining Islamophobia on Muslim students. Audre Lorde put it quite succinctly: “People of color are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”
  • Be aware of the ways that unconscious stereotyping and implicit bias impacts how we “see” our students, even if we are sure that we are not doing this and certainly don’t intend to stereotype. (CTIE’s workshop on “Implicit Bias,” on September 29, will address these issues.)
  • Respond to questions and situations honestly: “I’m unsure right now,” or, “Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with that, too. Is there a way we can talk about it?”

These conversations are not easy to have, and it is likely that some will go awry. But as the public conversation becomes more degraded, it increasingly falls to us take on and model discussions that need to happen. As the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano reminded us, describing what he called the “looking glass [upside down] school” which “teaches us to suffer reality, not change it; to forget the past, not learn from it,” we can do things differently if we put our minds to it. Perhaps, Galeano continued, there is “no disgrace without grace, no sign without a countersign, and no school that does not beget its counterschool” [Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, (Picador 1998)]. Creating the space for difficult discussions is one way to foster those increasingly needed “counterschool” spaces.

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