When the faculty at my college voted to add in a general education requirement to incorporate issues of race and ethnicity, I saw it as an opportunity to have my Motherhood class fit into this requirement; I could use this as a chance to make the class not just about motherhood issues but about understanding them within the lenses of race, class, and identity.
I approached this project with much enthusiasm, the same way that I have developed all my classes in my over fifteen years of teaching. I consulted with other faculty, found new readings, and developed new exercises. I made sure that race, class, and ethnicity were not simply topics to explore but infused throughout the class. I checked my privilege (white, straight, middle-class woman) and tried to account for how that may frame my choice of materials or discussion. By the first week of class, I was excited and ready to go.
Things went well for the first day, when we mostly talked about what we were going to do in class. I have to admit that this was the high point of the semester. I’m now a few weeks away from the end of the semester, and I have to admit that much of my efforts to bring race and ethnicity into the classroom were at best challenging and at worse, an utter disaster. Halfway through the semester, I gave out an anonymous survey (encouraged by my institution) where I received proof that most (if not all) of the students felt the same way about the class.
I then had to mourn the class I wanted to have, versus the one that I had. I first blamed the surveys and the administration for encouraging me to give out the survey. How dare they encourage me to distribute a survey designed to find out that the climate of the class is not going well but then not have any resources to show me how to fix it? I blamed the students, too, for not being able to have a constructive conversation about race. I blamed myself for ruining a perfectly good class by trying to tackle tough subjects. A colleague (and a full glass of wine) calmed me down, and I used the spring break to try to figure out how to rethink the class and salvage the second half of the semester.
I found many colleagues, inside and outside my institution, to talk with about the class, and we have come up with a set of new strategies. To make this class work, I’ve had to shift much of my teaching style. I can no longer be as open-ended as I was. I’ve had to guide more of the discussion. I’ve had to tell students they were wrong (gently). I’ve had to discourage people from offering their opinions without a connection to class concepts and readings. I’ve had to find more specific and focused examples.
Slowly, it’s working. But, I’ve found out some interesting things. First, I can’t simply check my privilege at the door of the classroom. Acknowledging I’m white doesn’t change me from being a white woman trying to talk about race to a classroom full of students who have either experienced racism or not. I’ve also had to learn to change my expectations for this class and myself, including being okay with feeling uncomfortable for both me and the students.
This isn’t the class I had hoped to achieve, but it’s the class I have. I’m not going to be able to learn how to teach a class about race and ethnicity and motherhood overnight, and it may take years before the class functions the way I mean it to. But, I haven’t given up. Last week, we talked about how single motherhood is framed differently for mothers of color, and the students were able to discuss it without the classroom becoming filled with what students described as an “uncomfortably bad vibe.” My best moment was with another class, where I realized that that the skills I’m learning were adaptable to other content, and I was able to introduce a discussion of race into a topic that previously did not have that component. They were first-year students, and by the time they take my motherhood class in their senior year, it’s going to better.
Have you struggled with adapting your classes to have more inclusive discussions? What strategies have worked for you?
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