Recently, I was teaching my race relations class when I slowly started to feel my body get warm and my heart beat faster. My words became harder and harder to get out as I struggled to keep myself together.
I was giving a short lecture on crimmigration -- the intersection between the immigration and criminal justice systems -- at a time when the horrors of the child detention centers were ubiquitous in the news. I couldn’t log on to social media, listen to a podcast or turn on the TV without hearing about the United States government stealing children from their parents, and now I was supposed to teach about the state of undocumented immigrants in the United States without emotion.
As an Afro-Latina and the daughter of working-class Dominican immigrants, the sociological topics I teach about often resemble my experiences. I teach about race as I occupy a body that undermines my authority in the classroom. I lecture on immigration as my own family struggles with the trauma of forced migration. I write about higher education inequality as I mentor young black and Latinx girls in hostile educational environments. It is difficult for me to detach myself from the subjects I teach about because they are my issues. Our issues.
And yet I’ve learned that when I teach undergraduates, I am expected to do so without the heartbreak and joy that overwhelms me when talking about these issues. Teaching, I’ve been told, is an exercise in “providing both sides” even in a time when the rights of marginalized peoples are under siege. Human rights only have one side.
In the past of couple of years, many scholars have pushed back against the claim that research on communities of color by scholars of color is less rigorous or not universal enough. “Mesearch,” they argue, is no less accurate than so-called objective research conducted by white scholars on communities of color. Perhaps that is why, in my own graduate training and conversations with women of color academics, I’ve been aware of the fallacy of “objectivity.” I’ve had mentors affirm and encourage my research interests. But I’ve realized that my experiences don’t only seep into my research but also impact my pedagogy.
If academe frowns on research about personal experiences, it finds teaching from your personal experiences unacceptable. Much like the claim that rigorous research can only be done when the researcher is detached from the subject of study, I have been discouraged from bringing my personal thoughts and feelings about subjects to the classroom. Such warnings don’t only come from administrators but are part of a larger culture in social science that masks structures of power and with the justification of “protecting” academics from backlash.
I’ve been given a number of reasons for adopting an “unbiased” pedagogy, including: the need to ensure white students feel comfortable in the classroom, the idea that students will not take me seriously if I am biased toward a specific side and the warning that a lack of objectivity might come back to hurt me in student evaluations. The pressure to remain neutral in the classroom also comes from outside academe in the form of threats from right-wing groups to professors’ freedom of speech. Those groups search professors’ syllabi and accuse them of “indoctrinating” students if the readings seem too progressive.
I’ve found that white academics can avoid those risks because, for them, race is often an abstract idea. To be direct, because they are not negatively impacted by their race, they can afford to make the choice to teach about it as something that happens “out there.” White academics who do teach about race as something personal face fewer negative consequences for their pedagogy, as their ideas are already assumed to come from rigorous intellectual debate. For me, however, as a young Afro-Latina, my knowledge is only assumed to come from my emotions and is therefore labeled invalid.
But while I understand why some academics may want to protect themselves in the classroom by presenting an image of detachedness from issues of social justice, I am not that person. I cannot be that person.
I can’t be the detached instructor because my body already arrives with the assumption of bias. This means that I can’t afford, for myself or for my students, to ignore how the study of the criminal justice system or reading about gentrification is a deeply personal act for people of color. Being an instructor gives me a tremendous sense of responsibility to model for my students that I don’t talk about sociology in the abstract but rather as a method of understanding what is happening in the world. What happens to our families and neighbors.
I’ve found that this way of teaching, what Paulo Freire called a pedagogy of the heart, is a gift to students, particularly marginalized students. When I felt my body getting warmer and eyes tearing up last week, I gave my class permission to think about “criminology” from a standpoint of personal experiences, of curiosity and empathy. What happened later was exactly what should happen in a classroom: my students discussed the readings, connected them to the crisis at the border and used sociological theory to understand the world around them. As the discussion progressed, I witnessed some students express eloquent rage, others remark that they couldn’t believe this was their country and others wipe watery eyes. That emotional process is also an intellectual endeavor.
For many women of color academics, teaching about race is an intimate and emotional act. At a time of uncertain futures, a time when students are scared, we should move toward bringing the personal to the classroom. We should and must be invested in recognizing how teaching about race and other social justice issues impacts our students, and it starts with modeling that ourselves.
I know plenty of people of color who already engage in this pedagogy of the heart. The question is: Will academe protect us?