Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Notes from the Academy

My colleagues and I talk a lot about students’ sense of entitlement and (depending on where you teach) privilege. Some of the things they ask demand are unbelievable.

I want to share a story with y’all, a bit of what I alluded to at the beginning of this post and here. I spent quite a bit of time talking about the freedom movements of the 1950s and 1960s in my post-45 class. I heard by way of one student, that another older, white, male student liked my class, but since he’d “lived through all of that,” he’d really wanted to hear more about Sputnik and the space race than I’d offered. The student who relayed the story to me said that she asked him, “Did you look on the history site and see what her specialties are?”

I was glad for her little nudge, but this is something I’ve encountered repeatedly, albeit not always so nicely worded. In my first set of evaluations eons ago, I had a student say, “She’s a good teacher, but she talks too much about race.” I also “focus a lot” on gender. I get related comments often—if not in bulk (one or two a semester, at most).

Those comments used to get under my skin. I now take them as a compliment of sorts. Somewhere along the way, I had a moment of clarity. I won’t say that students can’t help determine what I teach—I love when they ask to hear more about a subject, for example. And I try to give examples that are relevant to where they are (Texas)—in my survey, when we talk about other ways PoC tried to better their conditions during the Depression (since they were so often left out of the New Deal), we spend a nice amount of time on the San Antonio pecan shellers’ strike and the revitalization of the NAACP in Texas during the 1930s.

But for students to think that they can demand that I, a black woman historian, teach in a way that excludes or doesn’t “focus a lot” on race or class or a number of other factors, when my syllabus lists as an objective “To enable you, as a participant, to… recognize the role factors such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability have played in shaping policy, institutions and relationships within the U.S.” is ridiculous.

In a sense, they are asking me to teach a history that disappears me.

I'm starting to think that my life in the academy will teach me as much about race and gender privilege as my life in a rural, southern town.

1 comment:

Kim said...

I'm a long-time lurker to your blog, but I can't help commenting on this post. I too have received comments along these lines from students. Yet, I always go back to a student I had several years ago. He had written in his midterm eval of me that I focused too much on women, gender, race etc especially for a world civ I class. In my closing remarks class (where I ask them to tell me their thoughts about the class), this young male student admitted his comment from the midterm and apologized to me and the class. He said that he had learned how gender, women, and race fit into the world so much better than he had before. Every comment I get, I try to remember that student, and think that one mind might open a bit as a result of my teaching. Know that you make a difference, you really do.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...