An Education in the Racial History of College and Community

Jennie S. Knight describes how a seminar to help faculty members incorporate place-based learning about race into their courses led many of them to confront present inequities, as well.

December 1, 2020
 
 
Joe Sohm/Visions America/Unusual Images Group/Getty Images

At this time of racial reckoning, when many white Americans are waking up to the realities of racial injustice and inequities in the United States, faculty members are no exception. The University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville were pushed to reckon systematically with local and national histories of racism and contemporary racial inequities in the summer of 2017, when white supremacists attacked both the campus and the city, leaving Heather Heyer murdered, dozens of people injured and thousands in our community traumatized.

The work is ongoing. The Board of Visitors recently endorsed recommendations from the University Racial Equity Task Force that will lead to substantial investment in racial equity for staff, students and faculty, and a transformed historical landscape. And, specifically for faculty, the provost’s office initiated a weeklong, place-based development seminar immediately following the 2017 attacks about the history of race at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville and in Virginia, modeled after the Transforming Community Project at Emory University.

Place-based faculty development is distinctly suited to educate faculty members from diverse disciplines about the histories of their institutions and communities and to encourage them to reflect upon how to best teach their students through similar place-based approaches. Gaining an experiential understanding of the stories and structures of the place where one lives and works creates an opportunity for the emotional and intellectual change -- and thus changes in praxis -- that are rare in more traditional forms of faculty development or classroom-based education.

The culture of higher education has not historically encouraged a connection or commitment to the local place of institutions. But each college or university has its own history in relation to the local community. That history influences the experiences of faculty members, administrators and students, as well as local residents not formally affiliated with the institution -- whether people are consciously aware of it or not. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the decisions and practices of institutions are inextricably linked with the health and well-being of local communities. That has always been the case.

At higher education institutions where the majority of students and faculty members are not from the local area, students often pass through for four years without any sense of how they are ethically connected to that place or how their learning might be deepened in context. Their development as engaged democratic citizens is diminished through such a disconnected form of education. This dynamic also hurts local communities, as they experience students and faculty members as disengaged at best and as a condescending, disruptive intrusion at worst.

Unfortunately, faculty members are also often poorly engaged in their local communities. Even scholars who study issues of racial inequity on a national level are often unfamiliar with the particularities of their local context and how local relationships might enhance their teaching, research and service. In addition, academic hierarchies often reward theoretical knowledge that is evaluated at national and international levels and devalue local knowledge and teaching practices.

‘We Are Part of This Place’

Over the past several decades, students, community members, administrators and faculty members at UVA have been researching the history of slavery and eugenics at the university. Many have also been studying stories of the resistance and resilience of African American residents of Charlottesville and of African American students, staff and faculty at the university, as well as of the Monacan people of central Virginia. We were able to develop the seminar because of the work and support of many of those experts. We created a weeklong curriculum that roughly follows the chronological history of Virginia, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, with attention to the ways that contemporary inequities in housing, health care, policing, employment and education grow directly out of that history.

Steering committee members insisted that we foreground Black agency and resilience and decenter whiteness to avoid a dominant narrative of victimization and trauma. Fortunately, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, directed by Andrea Douglas, provides a detailed portrayal of the thriving Black community in Charlottesville throughout the history of the city. Similarly, Montpelier, the home of former president James Madison, at the initiative of and in partnership with descendants of the people Madison and his wife, Dolly, enslaved, has done extensive archaeological research to recreate stories and dwellings of those enslaved people with their letters and artifacts, revealing a deeply humanizing portrayal of their lives.

Before the second year of the program, I initiated a research project to better understand the effects of the seminar on faculty participants’ teaching, research and service. Rose Buckelew, professor of sociology and a co-facilitator of the seminar during the second iteration, joined me as a co-investigator. We conducted a survey with participants on the last day of the seminar and followed up with a similar survey six months later. We also engaged in participant observation.

While the seminar was created in order to help faculty incorporate place-based learning about race into their courses, many participants were moved to become more actively engaged in work for racial equity at the university, locally and in their disciplines. Several faculty members who have been at the university for more than a decade named their realization that, while they had previously blamed only the administration for its lack of preparation for the white supremacist attacks in 2017, they realized that they are also responsible for leadership and change at the institution.

One senior, white faculty member articulated his realization: “I am the university.” He and other faculty who identified as white became motivated to take more active, engaged roles as citizens of UVA and in Charlottesville in relation to issues of racial equity. At the same time, several Black and Latinx faculty participants named a greater sense of commitment to the university -- claiming that they are part of this place.

On the first day of the seminar in 2019, I facilitated a discussion at a table of five faculty who all identified as white. All five -- several of whom have been teaching at UVA and living locally for decades -- named the realization that they are a part of this place and not just visiting as a significant insight from the day. Several from the Northeast and Midwest talked about their reluctance to come to Virginia because of its Southern history and past and present racism. That was a factor in not wanting to see themselves as part of this place. During the seminar, they all reached the realization that they had not been actively part of the solution, and they committed to a different level of engagement.

During the third day of the seminar, we visited the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and were led on a tour of the historically African American neighborhoods that surround the school in downtown Charlottesville. One had been razed for “urban renewal” in the 1960s and then left vacant for 20 years, like a gaping wound of racial injustice in the heart of the city. After the tour, a senior, white faculty member approached me in tears. He said, pointedly, “I am complicit.” He and several other white faculty members talked openly about their feelings of shame that they had lived in the area and worked at UVA for so long and “didn’t know” the history of racist policies and racial violence until participating in the seminar.

Ongoing Work

We wondered if the passion and commitment to change expressed at the end of the seminar might wane over six months. However, in the survey taken six months after the seminar, all participants reported that their teaching had been significantly impacted. Changes varied from specific syllabus and assignment changes to substantial reworking of course frameworks. For example, two participants from the School of Medicine created a curriculum for all first-year medical students that incorporates the local history of race and the impact on contemporary local health inequities based on race.

Interestingly, while few participants expected any change in their relationship to their discipline on the last day of the seminar, six months later, 65 percent of participants said that it had, in fact, changed. As one participant explained, “The seminar has forced me to admit that the discipline has inherently and systematically valued and rewarded some contributors more than others.” Another stated that, “It helped me focus on the racial roots of my discipline.” This surprising outcome demonstrates that participants were motivated to continue their learning and questioning long after the seminar.

At a time when students are demanding a more robust educational engagement about the history of race and contemporary racial inequities, this place-based approach to developing faculty members has proven effective in empowering well-intentioned academics to dig deeper, both intellectually and emotionally, so that they might be more effective teachers of their students using a similar approach. It has motivated them to ask questions about their role at their institution, in their local community and in their academic disciplines, and to take on new forms of engagement toward a more equitable future. We hope more institutions and their faculty members will take on this important work.

Bio

Jennie S. Knight is assistant vice provost for faculty development at the University of Virginia.

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