In the last blog post, Inclusive Pedagogy Isn’t Color Blind Part 1: Why Teacher Subjectivity Matters, Lauren talked about the importance of recognizing teacher subjectivity as an essential element that guides how, when, and why we engage students in the classroom. Hers was the first in a series of blog posts where we delve more deeply into issues of teacher subjectivity. In Lauren’s post, she talked about strategies for navigating moments when students and teachers do not share a common subjectivity. In this follow-up post, I want to discuss the opposite dynamic, the tension that can arise when students and teachers do share a common identification.
As Lauren explained in her post, knowing what to say in moments of racial tension is position-specific. That is to say, the way I might respond to a problematic comment about race looks different from Lauren. We have to know who we are and how we position ourselves in the classroom before we can effectively respond to students.
Let me take a minute to acknowledge my own positionality. I am a black woman born and raised in a southern missionary Baptist tradition. I grew up poor in South Carolina, and I am a first-generation college graduate. I identify with the plight of oppressed people all over the world, but I also recognize my privilege as a U.S. citizen, as able, as highly-educated, as cisgender, as tenured faculty. I teach at a large, public university in the heart of Dixie. I acknowledge that my institution was built on the unceded lands of the Muskogee and Chahta people. I acknowledge also that those unceded lands were maintained by enslaved people, many of whom are buried on campus grounds. All of these factors inform my approach to teaching. I want to point out that no aspect of my positionality grants me a special authority or skill in knowing how to navigate tense moments centered on race. I struggle through it. Ironically, some of the most difficult moments I encounter are those involving students who also identify as Black.
There is a special energy that courses through a classroom at the start of the semester when Black students walk into the space and see my face standing front and center. As students at a large PWI (predominately white institution), they seldom have courses taught by Black faculty. It is too often the case that Black students matriculate through the university having never taken a class by a Black professor. So when it happens, the students and I recognize the moment. And we relish in it. Sometimes, though, that recognition can lead to over-identification where the students see me as a peer rather than an authority figure. Over the years, I have figured out strategies to maintain healthy, productive boundaries between myself and students.
But that wasn’t always the case.
I remember an incident so vividly from my first year of teaching at UA. It was a survey class in African American literature. We were about a month into the class, and things were going well. I assumed this because I had great attendance; our class discussions were full of jokes and laughs; I shared with them interesting trivia about Black culture that they went back and shared with their parents, and they kept me updated on the latest in Black pop culture. They kept up with the daily readings, which I assessed through ‘pop’ reading quizzes at the start of every class.
About a month into it, one of my students, a young Black woman, decided she had had enough of the quizzes. One day, just after I had collected their most recent quizzes, this student raised her hand and cocked her head to the side. She was wearing boxed braids, so all her braids flipped to the side. Before I could even acknowledge her raised hand, she blurted out, “Now, Dr. Smith, you know you showing out with all these quizzes!”
That is exactly how she said it, like we were homegirls on the block. The comment was dramatic. And impertinent. Everybody laughed. Except me. I couldn’t get past the disrespect, the nerve to call out my assessment strategies, which I took as an affront to my authority, to my pedagogical judgment. She took liberties in that moment that I was sure she would not have taken had I been a white man. And I said as much.
“Pretend I am a white male professor standing up here right now and say that again.” My voice was cold, stern. I was my mother, daring a six-year-old me to repeat a sassy comment and face the wrath.
The student looked down at her desk and said with a little less animation, “It ain’t that serious.”
“Oh, but it is,” I shot back. I had the students’ quizzes still clutched in my hand.
Nobody was laughing after that. The room fell completely silent, except for the rustling noise that came from me straightening up their papers so they fit neatly into my class folder.
It was clear that the exchange had sucked all the joy out of the classroom. I lost it in that moment and never got it back.
In the final evaluations for the course, the feedback from students confirmed that I had made a fatal mistake. They wrote comments like This teacher is too intense, The excessive quizzes made class less fun, The instructor was rude and arrogant, and, of course this one: Don’t question her teacher style; she will take it personally and imply you are a racist.
I think often about that moment and how quickly one exchange can torpedo an entire semester. Of course, I wish I had responded differently. I took the student’s comment way too personally, perhaps because I was still new to teaching, still trying to figure out my teaching style. I was self-conscious about conveying authority.
In retrospect, I know that I could have responded to the student in more nuanced ways that could have maintained my rapport with the class. For example:
I could have chosen to ignore the comment. It was obvious that the student was being playful even as she complained about the quiz. I might have laughed it off with the other students, then moved on with the day’s lesson. This wouldn’t have done much for clarifying interpersonal boundaries, but it would have preserved the openness that had been created in the classroom.
I could have responded with my own playful banter – leaning more into the colloquial energy of the moment. I could have said something like: “And you showing out too, flipping your head like you a rag doll.” This response might have been particularly suitable in an African American literature class with a strong emphasis on the vernacular tradition. We discuss the practice of toasting in Black culture and playing the dozens, trash-talking. I might have used my student’s playful energy, then, to demonstrate that cultural practice.
As a third option, I could have chosen to acknowledge the disrespect I felt at that moment. And I could have done so while mirroring the colloquial language. For example, after the student said, “Now, Dr. Smith, you know you are showing out with all these quizzes,” I might have said something like: “And you showing out by trying me like that. Don’t play me close!” This is perhaps the most authentic of the responses I could have offered. It allowed space for me to convey that I felt a certain way about the student’s comment but without the searing tone or the indictment.
All of these options were impossible for me to see in the moment mainly because I wasn’t clear yet about my own teacher subjectivity. Today, when my Black students make comments that suggest over identification, I have a series of strategies from which to choose. In my next post, I will talk more about this issue of over identification, which shows up most often in my students’ use of the N-word in class. I will discuss strategies for how to respond to racially offensive language when that language is being deployed by people of color as an act of reclamation.