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This article first appeared in The Best of the 2021 Leadership in Higher Education Conference (Magna Publications, 2022).
How might a teacher address the following moment in a college classroom?
Students are discussing a course reading about the rising cost of higher education and President Biden’s plan to address growing student loan debt. Three white students comment on the subject. A fourth student, the only Black woman in the class, chimes in with the observation, “I don’t think Biden’s loan forgiveness strategies address racial disparities in higher education.” One of the classmates responds, “It’s not Biden’s fault. He can only do as much as Congress will allow. So we need to stop complaining and attacking Biden.”
First, would the teacher recognize that there is a problem with the dialogue? If they recognize a problem, how might they address it? What would they say? And how would they say it so as not to isolate any students?
When teaching toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, faculty often are faced with moments in the classroom that can be especially tense and difficult to address because they either don’t immediately recognize there is a problem or, if they recognize the problem, don’t know what to say in those moments.
In our work with DEI pedagogy, we focus on how to address those moments of tension in the classroom when a student, perhaps unknowingly, says something that can be experienced as harmful by other students, especially within the context of race but also in other contexts. These moments are the topic of our website and blog, Teaching Interventions.
We identify three elements when addressing racist dialogue in the classroom. First, teachers need to be able to recognize these moments when they occur. Second, they need to be willing and able to intervene. Third, they need to be willing to intervene in a way that does not alienate students.
Part of the challenge of doing this work is being able to recognize that a problematic moment has occurred. This recognition can prove especially challenging because we all have biases and different lived experiences. Our own subject positions can thwart our ability to recognize something that may harm people of a different background or with different abilities. To return to the opening example, a teacher might not readily notice a problem with a student describing a Black female classmate’s comment as an “attack,” which evokes stereotypes about Black women as aggressive and angry. Furthermore, the student’s insistence that the classmate “stop complaining” aims to silence the only Black student in the classroom and isolate her in that space, which threatens her sense of belonging. In such cases, the teacher might not know there is a problem until the student who has experienced the harm points it out.
Another part of the challenge is finding the right way to intervene once we identify a problem. Our instincts, and sometimes our own emotional reactions, may be to call out the problematic nature of a student’s comment. In doing so, we are doing our job in protecting students potentially harmed by the comment, but we risk losing the commenter entirely: the student may see themselves as silenced or “canceled” and thus be less open to learning or questioning their own assumptions and beliefs.
Sometimes we have the opposite reaction. “The student didn’t mean any harm,” we might tell ourselves (and the student who experienced the harm), thinking it’s better to gloss over the moment rather than say something, humiliate the student, and risk inciting a major conflict in the class. In such cases, we may be protecting the speaker from embarrassment, but we add to the harm of the student’s comment by staying silent. We signal to the student harmed by the comment that they’re on their own: if they want others to see the flaws in the student’s reasoning, they will have to speak up themselves.
When thinking about how to respond to tension in the classroom, it helps if we have clarity about what we want our pedagogy to do. For whom are we teaching? Another way to think about this question is in terms of safety and comfort. Is the goal to ensure the safety of students or to make them comfortable in the classroom? The work of Aisha Rose Wilks, a graduate student, and Eugenia Zuroski, an associate professor, both at McMaster University, has greatly informed our thinking about the difference between safety and comfort. They articulate safety as a sense of being out of harm’s reach and define comfort as a sense of ease or contentment.
Most of us would probably say we want to achieve both safety and comfort in our classrooms. And sometimes we can achieve these ends simultaneously. But these two goals often are thrown into conflict when tension arises in the classroom. In those moments, as Wilks and Zuroski argue, we must prioritize our students’ safety.
Striving for student comfort often means overlooking problematic comments, believing that if we don't talk about it, the moment will pass. Comfort often favors the student who made the offensive comment. It also, more importantly, creates an unsafe environment for those students who experienced the harm. As Wilks explains, “If we’re going to sacrifice safety for someone’s comfort, then that’s a problem” (Wilks & Zuroski, 2020).
When safety is the goal, it often requires that we move into a space of discomfort and take our students with us. It means intervening in the tense moment in such a way to ensure that all students feel safe in the classroom—safe to show up as their authentic selves, to engage with the subject matter, to interact with their classmates and with us.
It can be unsettling to have someone point out that something we’ve said does harm to others. And yet, there is massive potential for growth, for learning that happens in those spaces of discomfort, especially when we have the language to navigate students through it. Safety, not comfort, is the second rung on Maslow’s hierarchy of need; it is central to human development.
To illustrate this tension between maintaining comfort and ensuring safety, we might consider the following situation:
In a discussion of Beowulf, the class is talking about the monster Grendel and how about 1,000 years after Beowulf was written, John Gardner published a novel from Grendel’s point of view, one that paints him in a sympathetic light. A student then quips: “Monster Lives Matter.”
The problem here is complicated. First, the student is trivializing the Black Lives Matter Movement, a movement about police brutality and racially motivated violence, by making a joke. Second, in a moment like this one, many faculty might feel conflicted about what to do. Stopping to address this issue means completely stepping away from the class topic to address something unrelated. Yet, if we don’t say anything, we become complicit in this student’s comment and haven’t protected BIPOC students harmed by it.
One option here is to take the comment out of the student’s domain: to say, essentially, “I know this is something many people and even companies are doing now—taking the Black Lives Matter movement and making T-shirts or hats that say ‘Drunk Lives Matter’ or ‘Black Labs Matter’ as though it’s just a trendy slogan. But I want to acknowledge that this is a movement about people’s lives, about violence against African Americans, and it really shouldn’t be trivialized.”
Another option would be to postpone the response. We might say something to pause the conversation and acknowledge that we heard the comment—“I want to respond to this comment, but I need a moment to think about it”—and return to it later. That way we’re letting students harmed by the remark know that we heard the comment too and won’t let it pass unnoticed or unchallenged.
Through Teaching Interventions, we aim to help teacher-scholars discuss race and other charged topics in the college classroom by providing “scripts” and other strategies for addressing these tense moments. (See here.) The scripts come out of work begun by the editors of the volume Teaching with Tension: Race, Resistance, and Reality in the Classroom (Bolton et al., 2019) and include tips for the following:
Many of these categories represent interventions we make in real time in direct response to harmful comments. Some of these suggestions, though, involve moves we can make early in the semester to create a safe environment and set the right tone for challenging topics and conversations. Others involve handling those moments when we feel stuck—when we want to say something (even just to acknowledge the comment) but can’t think of the right words. It’s okay to postpone the response or to direct students to resources.
This is difficult work. It requires us to be vulnerable and open ourselves up to making mistakes. It requires constant and steady introspection, revision, and development. There is no better time, no more pressing need than exists right now, though, to create learning spaces that are culturally responsive, responsible, and accountable to all students.
Bolton, P., Smith, C. L., & Bebout, L. (Eds.). (2019). Teaching with tension: Race, resistance, and reality in the classroom. Northwestern University Press.
Pace, D. (2003). Controlled fission: Teaching supercharged subjects. College Teaching, 51(2), 42–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567550309596410
Wilks, A. R., & Zuroski, E. (2020, August 24). Where do we know from?: Antiracist pedagogies [Video]. YouTube. Uploaded by University of Maryland Department of English. www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvioMFs4GYs&t=29s
Lauren S. Cardon, PhD, is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama. She is coauthor of Inclusive College Classrooms: Rethinking Pedagogical Methods, forthcoming from Routledge in 2022.
Cassander L. Smith, PhD, is an associate professor of English and associate dean of academic affairs for the Honors College at the University of Alabama. She is coeditor of the volume Teaching with Tension: Race, Reality, and Resistance in the Classroom (Northwestern University Press, 2019).