Harvard Educational Review
  1. Transforming the Academy

    Faculty Perspectives on Diversity and Pedagogy

    Edited by Sarah Willie-LeBreton

    New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016. 230pp. $26.95 (PAPER).

    In this volume edited by Sarah Willie-LeBreton, faculty members from a range of higher education institutions share their stories of simultaneously teaching about and embodying difference on campus. Difference here spans the many complicated and intersecting dimensions of diversity, from race and class to sexuality and disability. In describing these experiences of both struggle and support in their work and for the students they work with, these faculty members aim to disrupt the silence that usually masks or minimizes the unique challenges involved in making colleges and universities truly inclusive.

    By and large, the chapters of this volume are accounts about faculty and their students figuring out how they fit on campus: their presence may reflect campus efforts to diversify, yet they also experience pressure to perform and conform to established norms and expectations. The contributors to this volume wonder whether students and colleagues judge their competence and expertise on the basis of their work or on assumptions about their identities. They struggle to balance their desire to provide students a safe space in class and on campus with their belief that individual and community improvement happen through contestation and difficult conversations. They wonder how much to disclose about themselves—whether that is important for student learning, a reflexive response to feeling the need to prove themselves, and/or something that leaves them vulnerable to negative student and collegial reactions. They describe a double bind of believing their job as teachers includes challenging students’ assumptions yet facing skepticism or resistance from students who perceive those challenges as personal, biased, or angry rather than pedagogical, intellectual, or research based. They also describe experiences as allies and mentors for their students who are similarly learning how to advocate for them-selves from positions on the margins.

    The volume is divided into two thematic halves. First we hear from faculty critically reflecting on their teaching, then from others reflecting on their experiences as mentors and members of campus communities. Part 1, “Challenging Classrooms,” begins with Michael D. Smith and Eve Tuck’s chapter, “Decentering Whiteness: Teaching Antiracism on a Predominantly White Campus,” which foreshadows many of the themes of the following chapters. Echoing the spirit of the full volume, Smith and Tuck share a series of pedagogical wonderings and puzzles they used to think about “privately, and now publicly.” They describe witnessing the “perennial newness” for many white students who enter class “already weary from talking about [race]” but who are then suddenly asked to question their long-held color-blind ideology (pp. 15–16). They continue by laying out the demands of teaching courses on race and racism and of understanding their work through the framework of critical race theory. How do you make it okay, safe, and productive to open conversations about race with students who are novices at talking about race? The authors’ honest answer is that “it’s complicated” (p. 32). They point to the complex layering of students’ past experiences and expectations, faculty’s personal identities, university policies and messaging, and broader societal discourses about race and racism and close by inviting colleagues near and far to join them in working toward solutions.

    In subsequent chapters, faculty members of color take up Smith and Tuck’s questions about identity, wondering whether their positionality is a boon or a burden in their classes and whether their white colleagues experience the same challenges they do. In particular, in chapter 2, “Is There a Silver Lining? The Experiences of a Black Female Teaching Assistant,” Dela Kusi-Appouh describes the feeling of being under constant scrutiny by her students, challenged to prove her authority, credibility, and objectivity. In chapter 3, “Radical Leftist or Objective Practitioner? Perceptions of a Black Male Professor,” H. Mark Ellis similarly wonders whether his students can learn from him. If students have a hard time hearing him and trusting the data he presents in his sociology course because of his race, Ellis writes, then “I invite the reader to ask him- or herself: who is best suited to teach this material and why?” (p. 53). Student skepticism of this nature is consequential for faculty, as their professional careers rely on student evaluations. Anita Chikkatur takes on this last point in chapter 7, “Challenging Oppression in Moderation? Student Feedback in Diversity Courses.” She notes that getting positive student evaluations “becomes about ‘fitting’ students’ (and colleagues’) notions of being a good teacher” (p. 106), which may be at odds with the idea that good teaching can include bringing in personal beliefs and experiences or disagreeing with students in service of challenging assumptions about privilege and diversity.

    Faculty also share stories of finding allies and advocates among their colleagues, students, and administrators. In chapter 4, “Teaching Difference in Multiple Ways: Through Content and Presence,” Cheryl Jones-Walker, a black female, reflects on her experience teaching an urban education course independently and then compares that experience to co-teaching with a white male colleague. She notes how difficult it was to meet students’ wide-ranging expectations—how to challenge and coach some students through the paradigm shift of decentering whiteness while keeping the class discussion safe and yet not letting that process get in the way of others’ learning. Co-teaching “provided students with a model for how to engage in difficult conversations . . . It also revealed how our identities might inform our positions, often in unpredictable ways” (p. 67). In chapter 5, “What You May Not See: The Oscillating Critique,” Pato Hebert describes how he turned his studio art class into a space where “we, together, try to confront the havoc wreaked by structural stigma, discrimination, and privilege” (p. 72). His self-portrait assignments and class critiques became a safe space for students to share artwork intentionally challenging race, gender, and other norms, and they helped cultivate a fellowship between Hebert and his students through both debate and solidarity (p. 79). In chapter 6, “The Professor, Her Colleague, and Her Student: Two Race-Related Stories,” Sarah Willie-LeBreton recollects a colleague’s racial microaggressions and a student who accused her of incompetence. She describes how, in those difficult moments, her provost and senior colleagues at a professional meeting provided her a space to be heard, validated her experience, and showed her how to respond and defend herself.

    Part 2, “Witnessing Protest,” begins with Kristin Lindgren’s reflections in chapter 8, “The (S)Paces of Academic Work: Disability, Access, and Higher Education.” After seeing how her teaching practice improved by having a deaf student in her class and through learning to accommodate his needs, Lindgren started to think more about other ways campuses can and should make themselves more universally designed to be accessible to all. She points to both the need for spatial accommodations, like access to facilities, as well as a more flexible pace and timeline for student and faculty work.

    Like Lindgren, the authors of the next three chapters offer critiques and recommendations for colleges and universities to better pursue their aims of fostering student voice and democratic campus communities. In chapter 9, “Queer Affects/Queer Access,” Anna Ward describes the way normative discourses can put the onus on the marginalized individual for feeling unhappy or angry and for raising objections that upset the majority. She argues that administrators and staff should step back from the expectation of minimizing emotionality, of steering and containing students’ affective responses on campus. Similarly, in chapter 10, “Geographies of Difference: From Unity to Solidarity,” Betty G. Sasaki tackles what she terms a discourse of consensus. This discourse reflects a campus’s projected identity as an inclusive, unified space serving “a totalizing function that denies difference” (p. 139). Through a few recent illustrative events at Colby College, Sasaki suggests that campuses must switch instead to a discourse of responsibility in order to invite the activism and contestation that are necessary for communities to grow and truly achieve their goals of embracing diversity. In chapter 11, “La Promesa: Working with Latina and Latino Students in an Elite Liberal Arts College,” Aurora Camacho de Schmidt reflects on a particularly challenging semester at Swarthmore College when students voiced their unhappiness with, among other concerns, the college’s lack of Latino representation in the curriculum and faculty. Drawing on her long experience teaching and mentoring Latina and Latino students at Swarthmore, Camacho de Schmidt concludes with a series of recommendations based on what the college has done and can do to fulfill its promise to make the campus inclusive. These recommendations seek to reshape the institution as a whole, ranging from diversifying faculty, staff, and academic programming to increasing the role of community, service, and mentoring.

    Finally, in chapters 12 and 13, we hear from faculty who mentor students through their experiences of marginalization, microaggression, and self-doubt. In chapter 12, “Passing Strange: Embodying and Negotiating Difference in Academia,” Daphne Lamothe describes the impact of serendipitous moments of support and advice on her career trajectory and how these shaped the importance she now places on her responsibility to mentor students and junior faculty. For Lamothe, occupying the “strange” space “between the poles of Haitian/African/American” (p. 178) was manifested in feeling like an outsider at times to each of these cultural groups. Now that experience makes her particularly attuned to the need to pay attention to those who struggle to belong within campus communities. In chapter 13, “A Dean’s Week: ‘Trapdoors and Glass Ceilings,’” Theresa Tensuan provides a glimpse into her work as dean of multicultural affairs, from coaching a student through racial microaggressions to thinking through policies to support historically underrepresented student groups on campus.

    In her conclusion, Willie-LeBreton challenges readers to remember that the appearance of diversity does not necessarily indicate an inclusive culture; that we should accept our and others’ emotional responses to campus events, both micro and macro, and also be critically reflexive about them; and that our problems and solutions are best understood as institutional rather than individual. This, she argues, is the beginning of transforming campuses to be the inclusive spaces described or imagined by the contributors to this volume. Through their writing, these faculty members show us how to both be critical of and deeply care about their institutions, how to own and interrogate their positionality, and how to bravely start a conversation in the open about difficult experiences and often-private concerns. 

    As the contributors to Transforming the Academy acknowledge, this is not a simple task. In her introduction, Willie-LeBreton openly acknowledges that simply deciding how to approach the concept of “diversity” was challenging—how to acknowledge the importance of particular identities without overlooking other categories, or reifying those markers, or neglecting intersectional identities, or painting diversity with too broad a brush. Each contributor faces the double bind of raising critiques and complaints at the risk of being labeled and dismissed as a complainer and navigates the balance of naming his or her own experiences at the risk of essentializing the experiences of others around him or her. Yet, what results is a remarkably cohesive whole with themes that transcend individual anecdotes or identity markers. This is a book, as Willie-LeBreton proposes, that has the potential to shed light where it is needed, to bring people together under a common purpose, and to celebrate the work people are already doing to help their campuses fulfill the promise of diversity.

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    Book Notes

    Data Literacy for Educators
    Ellen B. Mandinach and Edith S. Gummer

    Transforming the Academy
    Edited by Sarah Willie-LeBreton