How NOT to Respond to Students
Among other things, I teach courses in early American literature. And I am always mindful to approach the literature from a multicultural perspective. I also challenge students to make connections between early American literature and our current moment so that the course material is relevant to their daily lives. This strategy doesn't always translate; sometimes a well-meaning lecture misfires.
I learned a valuable lesson four years ago about how not to respond when students point out flaws in my teaching.
I was teaching a large lecture section of early American literature, which means I was managing a class of 150 students. On this particular day, we were discussing the political and life writing of William Apess, who was a Methodist minister, writer, and activist. He was of mixed race, part Pequot, part African American, part white. I was presenting – what I thought was – a beautiful lecture about Apess’s political activism. I made a point to connect his political ideas to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. I wanted students, essentially, to think of Apess as an early civil rights activist.
At one point, I mentioned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Makes sense right because you can’t talk about the movement and not talk about King. I quoted from one of his more often-discussed pieces of writing, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because I thought it had the same general tenor as Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man.” I recited the popular line from King’s letter: “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Except I didn’t say it like that. I couldn’t remember King’s exact words and so I paraphrased. I won’t repeat the paraphrase because I don’t want to repeat the disrespect. Suffice it to say that my paraphrase didn’t come close. To add insult to injury, after I butchered King’s quote, I said to students, “I missed a few words in there somewhere, but y’all get my point right.” With a flick of my wrist, I waved off the misquote.
After class, a black male student in the military or ROTC (I know because he was dressed in his uniform) came down to the front of the classroom. He was a student I recognized because he participated in class discussion quite often. I didn’t know his name but I knew his face. Without preamble, he walked up to me and said, “That wasn’t cool Dr. Smith.”
I had no clue what he was talking about. I asked him, “Can you elaborate?”
“That wasn’t cool.” He said again. “The way you misquoted Dr. King like that.”
Then I got his meaning. I turned defensive. “Oh I know I missed a word or two. But it’s fine. You got the gist of what he said, right?”
The student shook his head and grimaced. “It was more than a word or two you got wrong.”
Turns out I also transposed the quote, which actually conveyed the opposite meaning. Don’t ask me how I made that mistake. It was an instance where what I heard myself saying was not what actually came out of my mouth.
Once he pointed out my mistake, I denied it. Surely he was mistaken. “I didn’t do that. You must have misheard me.”
“No, Dr. Smith. That’s what you said.” He was insistent, so much so that I paused for a moment to consider the possibility that maybe I did butcher the quote even more than I realized.
So, I conceded that but still tried to reject his criticism. I stood back, put my hand on my hip and said, “Now you know I didn’t mean anything by it.” Of course the subtext here was my assumption that he would give me the benefit of doubt because we both are Black.
He wasn’t hearing that! “It’s Dr. King. You gotta get his words right.” His voice was gentle and slow, full of dismay, but not hostility or frustration although by this point in the conversation he had every right to be both hostile and frustrated.
Because here I was rejecting his perspective at every turn. I responded with defensiveness, denial, presumption. I was so very fortunate that this particular student was invested enough in the class content to want to point out my error. And he felt comfortable enough calling me in about it rather than calling me out. That is to say, he could have interrupted class and pointed out my error in front of his 149 classmates. He could have ranted about it in the end-of-term course evaluations. He could have gone to my Dept. chair or the dean to complain about my lack of cultural sensitivity. His calling me in was a gift that I almost rejected.
Once I let go of the impulse to defend myself, I was better able to receive his words. I apologized. Immediately following our conversation, I sent an email to the class announcing that I had misquoted King. I presented the correct quote and offered a little more context for the quote and King’s letter.
I fixed the mistake but only partially. To some degree the damage had been done. I learned a lot about equity that day. My mistake was particularly problematic because my callous treatment of King’s words created extra emotional and intellectual labor for my student. He had to sit through the rest of my lecture, force himself to concentrate or miss valuable information for the upcoming exam. He had to go through the effort of formulating a response, a way of approaching me that would balance his concerns against my authority as the teacher. He had to decide whether it was worth the effort to call me in. He had to figure out whether this was a battle worth fighting, whether he should put himself at risk, not knowing the consequences of speaking up. While his classmates were taking notes, following along with the lecture, he was having to learn through anxiety, anxiety that I created by my thoughtlessness. I failed to make the space that day equitable even though I had done everything right with the course content by presenting a lecture on a Pequot civil rights activist in early America.
I still cringe when I think about that incident, which was a valuable lesson about what not to say during tense moments in the classroom.
A couple things I learned about teaching and diversity. The first is that we will make mistakes discussing race in our classrooms. We will get it wrong when engaging our students, whether it’s those who share our subject position or not. So there’s no need to avoid doing this work because we fear we won’t be perfect. I can confirm that you won’t be.
The idea, though, is never to teach to avoid mistakes. The idea is to own those mistakes, engage students with sincerity, and when you know better, do better.
The second observation is that the most important thing we can do in our efforts to teach an anti-racist approach is to establish a strong rapport with our students first thing in the semester. It is mandatory that we create relationships so that when awkward, tense, problematic moments happen, students feel like they are in a space where they can openly communicate about the awkwardness, tension, or problems. Sometimes that communication can be a calling out or a calling in.
Here is a useful guide for calling out behavior while calling in the person.