I’ve often found myself in classes that require multiple teaching interventions in a single session.
Because the literature I teach broaches subjects like race, ethnic studies, critical theory, and gender & sexuality, my class discussions cover a lot of charged material, and inevitably, I hear students using dated or offensive terms and microaggressions.
As I note in a previous blog post, I like for these tense moments in the classroom to lead to a valuable debate, or a “teachable moment” that enhances the learning experience. But if I’m trying to address comment after comment, I lose that potential and instead feel like I’m trying to put out one fire after another.
What if we have to intervene so many times in a conversation that the conversation becomes more about the teaching interventions than the subject matter? How much is too much?
As an example, in a literature course I taught a few years ago, students were discussing bans on intermarriage between whites and African Americans (also known as antimiscegenation laws), and the conversation led to some discussion of contemporary repercussions of these laws. Students wanted to talk about the extent to which Americans still feel a kind of social pressure to marry within their own race (or in some cases, within their social class or religious group), even long after antimiscegenation bans have been lifted.
Once students began sharing their personal experiences, I heard a string of problematic comments. One white student remarked that he suspected his family wouldn’t care if he married someone Black, but wouldn’t let him marry “trailer trash.” Before I could respond, another white student remarked that personally, she “didn’t see color,” but she suspected her parents wouldn’t want her to marry someone of a different race. Another male student quipped, “My parents would probably be happy as long as I married a woman!”
I found myself unable to interrupt the flow of conversation to address these comments as more students shared. In addition, I knew that, for the most part, these students were positioning themselves as more progressive than the previous generation. They were sharing because they disagreed with what they saw as their parents’ biases.
In that particular class, I didn’t address some of the comments. I felt overwhelmed and flustered, unable to halt the conversation to talk about the harm in these remarks.
When I encounter similar experiences now, I feel more equipped to handle multiple teaching interventions in a class. Yet these classes are still extremely challenging. I draw from a range of strategies to handle those days when it feels like I’m having to address comment after comment in a single class session. Here are a few that I recommend:
Determine whether you can respond in a way that continues, rather than halts, the conversation. In the example above, I might have been able to address some comments relatively quickly, by just pointing out some language [e.g. “trailer trash”] as harmful or suggesting we use a different term. Ideally, each comment would merit some discussion, but when dealing with so many of these moments at once, even a brief acknowledgement is better than nothing.
“Batch” the comments. After many students share their responses, and there’s a pause, try to address multiple issues at once. For example, “I really appreciate how many of you are sharing your experiences. One thing I’m thinking about, though, is how we are positioning ourselves as more progressive than our parents’ generation, and yet we’re still using some of the terms and phrases that generation would use to denigrate a group of people or to excuse hegemonic behavior,” followed by a couple examples and some further discussion. These types of comments could also come at the end of the class session.
Acknowledge the harm but delay the response. On our Scripts page, we offer suggestions for “what to say when you don’t know what to say.” One option is to postpone discussion. This way, you’re signaling to students potentially harmed by the comments that you see the harm and do intend to address it, but you need more time. For example, “Thank you all for sharing your personal experiences and perspectives on this issue. I do feel like we need to talk a little more about how we reference what we’re framing as an older generation’s biases. Sometimes even if we’re distancing ourselves from our parents’ views we might be unwittingly using some of the same problematic language. Let’s talk about this a little more in our next class.
Think ahead and prime students for these conversations. In an earlier blog post, I talk about priming students for discussing difficult topics. Doing some of this preparatory work––which might include syllabus statements that set the tone for the class, resources that students can consult, or signposting before a reading or assignment––can make it easier to handle these tense moments when they arrive. Sometimes, it’s easier to reference a policy, a resource, or a previous conversation than it is to come up with the right response in the moment. For example: “Thanks for sharing that with us, Student A, but keep in mind that ‘trailer trash’ is one of those terms we discussed in relation to class- and race-related terminology. Can anyone think of another way to discuss this kind of class bias without reproducing that language?”
The takeaway here: these conversations are hard work, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There will be moments that escape you, or days when you think back on a comment in class and wonder if you should have intervened. Working toward creating a safe and inclusive environment in our classrooms is an ongoing process, and having these strategies in mind can help us continue moving toward that goal.