For the last four years, I have been the director of ethnic studies in a multicampus system. In the time I’ve directed ethnic studies, I’ve received multiple requests from faculty members in other units wanting to teach courses in our curriculum. Similarly, I have learned, several times, that another faculty member, whom I do not know, and who was hired by another unit, is teaching one of our courses. In those cases, I had not seen a syllabus and remained unaware if the course being taught meets the learning goals or outcomes of our curriculum.
To be clear, I am not referring to faculty members trained in ethnic studies hired by other units. I am also, of course, not talking about affiliate faculty. And I am definitely not talking about adjunct faculty in other units trying to make ends meet asking for a class. I am talking about full-time faculty trained in anything but ethnic studies (ES) and hired in other departments who then want to teach courses in ES or are assigned to teach those courses. And I’ve learned that such teaching requests by faculty to teach with little or no training in ES is not just isolated to my own institution.
When talking about structures of dominance during colonial times in her book Haunted by Empire, Laura Stoler says “‘going native’ was a white category—like ‘playing Indian.’” Similarly, faculty members from other academic units who are eager to teach ES mimic Stoler’s category of “going native” in order to increase their intellectual capital. Given the gravity of the field, however, it is deeply unsettling when untrained faculty desire to teach an ES course simply because there is demand for such courses or it would be “fun.”
Let me be clear. Such motives to teach ES are a dangerous approach to teaching. They are dangerous because they put historically underrepresented students taking those courses at risk. It is arguably the lives of those students, their group/community histories, their histories of oppression and the inequities they experience that are undermined by such a perspective.
In addition, we must contend with those who think that teaching race or teaching about race is teaching ES, when that is not the case. Teaching race is teaching about how African Americans behave or live or talk, for instance, and teaching about race is teaching about the abstract notion of race or race as a concept. ES, by contrast, is about exposing and analyzing historical and contemporary inequities with social justice as a goal, about racial representation and erasure, about colonialism, and about genocide in addition to simply teaching race and about it. Teaching ES is teaching through and with different disciplines while activating different methodological approaches. ES is a discipline in its own right, with its own complicated history and genealogy, its own body of work, epistemologies and lexicons. Conflating teaching race or teaching about race with teaching ES is not only factually erroneous, but it also encourages administrators to think that they don’t need to fund and maintain ES departments, because, after all, people in other units can teach race and about it.
Even when non-ES faculty members are genuinely seeking to make their contributions in an ES classroom, things are not simple. The courses that these faculty want to teach are very often being demonized and banned ferociously by people who have no idea what this discipline is about and yet are threatened by it. Non-ES faculty members usually don’t have to endure the pain and labor that comes from teaching courses in a space that is constantly under attack, as they enjoy a cloak of protection provided by their home department. That cloak allows them to step back into their department if and when things get complicated, whereas for those who teach ethnic studies in an ES program/department, there is no refuge, no stepping back, no hiding.
Here’s one quick example that reflects this difference. Reporters from right-wing venues are constantly contacting our faculty, baiting them into saying something juicy enough for them to publish. In my experience, when one of our faculty members takes that bait and says something that is published, everybody in the unit gets hate email from all over the country. And some of the hate emails that professors at various institutions have received are vitriolic, containing death threats and threats of sexual violence.
A former colleague told me once that ES belongs everywhere in academe. Although that may be true as an aspiration and even as an imperative—that, optimally, ES would be part of the entire curriculum in the humanities, the sciences, the arts, media production, journalism, business and so on—in the end, higher ed has a long way to go before making that any kind of reality, and it can’t be done simply by someone without the training just deciding they want to teach an ES class. In addition, we must contend with those who think that simply teaching race or teaching about race is teaching ES, when that is not the case.
Finally, for faculty who are interested in teaching a course in ES but who lack the expertise, I offer a few recommendations:
- No. Just no. If you are intent on teaching a course for an ES unit, do a bit of self-reflection about your intentions instead, and if you are white, read this.
- Still not great, but OK. If you remain intent on teaching ES, become an affiliate faculty member first, so you are listed on the program/department’s website, and take on part of the responsibility that comes with teaching ethnic studies.
- Don’t call us. We’ll call you. Do not contact the chair to request to teach a class. If the chair is interested in you, they will contact you.
- Make sure that you actually are trained to teach ethnic studies. Yes, obtaining academic training in teaching within this discipline is a necessity.
- Be helpful instead. If you want to teach because you would like to support “the cause,” here’s a better scenario: encourage your students to take ES courses. Explain to them the importance of these courses and advertise those that will be taught the following semester.
The basic truth is that, in the end, every student should take ethnic studies courses. But not every professor should teach them.