Forcing the Issue: Talking about Race in E110 at UD

When reading Banks’ work, I couldn’t help but think of my own E110 classes at UD. My undergraduate university was extremely racially diverse, so I have learned first hand how useful discussions of race, power, and privilege can be in a composition classroom. That said, I think these conversations are only useful when the class contains voices that are diverse enough to contribute varying perspectives. Without these first hand accounts of the effects that race has on writing practices, a discussion about writing studies can very quickly become a discussion about race studies. And while this latter discussion is important to have, I am not convinced that the FYC classroom is the right place for it.

My unease about having discussions of race in E110 at UD stems from the fact that, like Banks, I believe that we should adapt our teaching voice to the communities that we serve. Banks explains the importance for this adaptation in his chapter on community engagement:

One must have a teaching voice, an active voice, a scholarly voice that allows one to teach, politic, build, act, plan, in the idiom of the people—whoever “the people” are in the settings in which we hope to work. And one must teach in the idiom—not just the language practices but the ways of seeing the world, the ways of being in the world, the values, attitudes, knowledge, needs, hopes, joys, and contributions of a people as expressed through their language (49).

I think that it is this belief that makes questions of race appropriate for some first year composition classrooms and not others. During my time at Temple, discussions of race arose organically and felt natural. Racial discussions were a part of the “cultural idiom,” so we never had to have a specific week when we sat down and talked about race. Yet at UD, it seems to me that the norm is to have “the race week” where there is one text about African American studies and the central question of race is put on the table. Even at places like UD, race is an implicit part of all conversations, but because it is not a part of UD’s explicit cultural idiom, it just doesn’t come up. So instead we opt for making it come up. To me, these discussions always seem forced and contrived, which is why I’ve excluded them from my own E110 classroom.

Moreover, I think there is a very real danger of discussing race in an E110 class that is mostly white. In all of my classes, I have had at least one minority student (but never more than three). And although I have never tried to have discussions of race in this 20 white people 3 non-white people environment, I imagine that it would make the minority students feel very uncomfortable—as if they suddenly had to speak for ALL minority students.

I know that not talking about questions of race does not remove the very real implications of white hegemony over academic discourse. But I don’t think that talking about race in a room of mostly white people does either.

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9 thoughts on “Forcing the Issue: Talking about Race in E110 at UD”

  1. Heather,

    I think your post brings up some great points and issues that I struggle with every semester (as I also mentioned in my comment on Janel’s post). My fear, which you’ve hinted at, is not just that discussions of race in a mostly-white classroom feel forced but that they also reinforce tokenism. And like you, I’d rather have conversations about race come up organically or, honestly, not at all.

    At the end of the day, sometimes I can’t help but think that we ([white] instructors) feel obligated to discuss race, as awkward as it may be, just to prove that we aren’t “racist” and that we can conceivably make the E110 class a space that incorporates all sorts of diversity. But in reality, it’s impossible to account for every difference in existence, so someone will always feel left out/slighted/offended.

    That’s my dilemma, for whatever it’s worth.

    1. Chris,

      I don’t have anything to add to your comment other than that I completely agree with your notion of why many white instructors feel they have to force race conversations.

  2. Dear Heather and Chris,

    I think you both put the issue incredibly well: We want to include diverse voices, and we also don’t want to engage in tokenism. And in a typical (I’m tempted to put that word in scare quotes) UD classroom, that feels very hard to do.

    My sense is that a response to this problem involves both a representation of different voices and a reaching out to the voices in the classroom—not only African American, but Jewish, or gay, or working class, or Muslim, or whatever. But I don’t mean that sentence as a conversation stopper—since for me, the real question is, how do you both represent and reach out? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet.

    Joe

    1. Joe,

      The idea of trying to represent and reach out is a great way to verbalize the issues I’m having! Thanks for putting it so concisely and eloquently in a way that I couldn’t.

    2. Joe,

      To second what Chris said, I think that is an excellent way of phrasing the dilemma we were both speaking of. I think I try to reach out to different voices through the openness of my assignments—particularly the research paper—and through one-on-one conferencing. As far as representing different voices in the classroom itself though, that’s something that I’m still struggling with. I love the idea that Janel posted below, though.

  3. I am thinking about how we can bring readings (voices from beyond the classroom) in to the E110 class… Someone I was talking to about this very topic says she uses _Reading the World: Ideas that Matter_ in her first year comp class. Apparently it includes western and non-western texts and briefly prefaces each with rhetorical things to consider within them. (I have not yet obtained a copy.)

    Anyone familiar with this text? Or would this just, as you say so often happens, Heather, make it a proscriptive “now we’re going to talk about race” conversation?

    I assigned three essays on writing by three different writers in my E110 class. All three are white (though two are women, and one is a lesbian…).

    Janel

    1. Janel,

      I’d love to see a copy of this text. I think thinking about world cultures through their different rhetorical contexts could be an interesting way to avoid the problem that I bring up of “forced” conversations. Let me know if you get a copy!

  4. Heather
    I like the way you differentiate between the natural way of bringing up racial debates and the mechanical way of deciding to have them in a specific time. I sometimes think that many racial debates might be more humiliating than enlightening or helpful to those who are supposedly being defended or discussed through these debates. In 2014, why should we recurrently announce that we are not racist when we are not racist? Why should we differentiate between our white and black students in our initial conception of our class and then consider the second group as a minority ? Do we call a blonde student among twenty-one brunettes a minority? I believe that minority exists in the deep layers of each society and does not show its face at the first glance.

  5. It strikes me that it’s more our duty in the classroom (particularly to serve this population) to subvert the idea of singular identity rather than reach out to token texts or token weeks–diversity, for all its power, can quickly become a word for “let’s Other somebody” (as in your aptly-chosen image), even if that somebody is not in the room. While the FYC classroom may not be a place for an intense crash course on race, it is and should be at least secondarily about the ethics of producing discourse, and that means teaching our students that a person is not just a series of identification categories, often not explicitly but through our own professional actions. Thankfully, academic discourse does have the implicit tendency to say “your category is not homogeneous, it does not define you, and you are not the center of the discourse universe,” which we teach them through practical things like dating their papers in international format, being responsible researchers, and not saying horribly close-minded or generalized things in print. It’s not always obvious, to be sure, but it is our duty to do the best we can with this, even if it’s quietly.

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