Curl and Wilson-Poe Examine How Race Impacts Classroom Participation at Conference

Dr. Heather Curl, teaching faculty in AUS’s School of Education, recently presented at the National Association of Multicultural Education (NAME) with colleague Dr. Chanelle Wilson-Poe at Bryn Mawr College. Their interactive presentation explored how racism in elite college classrooms can limit students’ participation, engagement and willingness to share their perspective. This, according to constructivist learning theory, has the potential to impact learning. Dr. Curl shared qualitative data from a study with first generation students of color in an elite college to unpack the role that race played in their participation in the classroom and what faculty, staff and administrators might do in response to these realities that students face.

Analysis of the study found that students of color felt ignored at times – particularly when they attempted to bring the class discussion to race or issues connected to race. This led them to stop speaking up. In other instances, students felt pressure to speak “for their race” when course content explored, for example, a Black author. This also led to limited participation. Students also consistently pointed to certain ways of communication as being preferred by faculty. Naming this practice as “creating hierarchies” or “preferring fancy talk,” many students opted out of speaking up because of these assumptions about what language is “right.” Students link their limited participation to feeling like they did not have the “right” way to talk. In some cases, students actively resisted this form of speaking, calling it “bullshit.” Either way, many classrooms in this predominantly White institution are missing the perspectives of students of color in their classrooms – and some students are missing the chance to construct knowledge – because they are being discouraged from speaking up and participating in myriad ways.

The interactive presentation was well attended and attendees thoughtfully shared their own experience with race in higher education and the difficulties felt by staff and faculty alike. Finding White co-conspirators (rather than just allies) emerged as a way forward, as did working across institutions to feel less alone in spaces that are predominantly White. Ensuring that faculty and staff of color are viewed are supported alongside students of color emerged as an important addition to the analysis. Bureaucratic realities (fear for speaking up due to tenure, few faculty of color, difficulty in mandating change among faculty who have tenure, economic realities of universities) were also explored.

Inclusive teaching strategies and attention to an inclusive classroom climate (Nieto & Bode, 2012) are hallmarks of studies on racial awareness and effective teaching (Banks et al., 2005) in higher education. It is clear that investigating educator bias, from a student perspective, can build the capacity for instructors to critically reflect (Howard, 2003) on their classroom interactions, encouraging the ability to create learning spaces where students can actualize their full intellectual potential, with minimal racial stress (Stevenson, 2014). Too often, the burden is placed on students (and faculty) of color to create space for themselves, but this responsibility should be shared with instructors. While the role that race plays in higher education is complex and multifaceted, this presentation offers a clear issue facing students that might be attended to in immediate ways by colleges and universities

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