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When Students Self-Segregate

Should we intervene, a faculty member asks, when students automatically choose to join groups of their own race in the classroom?

March 24, 2017
 
iStock/Michaeljung
 

I teach -- what is on paper, at least -- a mundane course required of all majors in my department. Few students are excited about being there. I acknowledge that in my opening comments each semester and make it my goal to surpass students’ expectations. My favorite evaluation comment, which I get in some form nearly every term: “I was expecting this class to suck, but it was actually interesting.”

One way that I try to make the class interesting -- or, at least, not suck -- is to allow students to select the topic and partners for their group project. That way, my thinking goes, they are more likely to be engaged with their topic and have a positive group experience.

Of course, the choose-your-own-partner philosophy has its downsides. Friends pick one another rather than going outside their comfort zones. There’s inevitably a please-don’t-let-me-be-the-last-pick-in-PE-class moment when the students who don’t know anyone else scramble to find partners. And once students have formed groups, the room can look like a middle-school dance: women on one side, men on the other. I encourage students to form mixed-gender groups and to select group partners based on shared interests rather than personal preferences, but the pull of familiarity is strong.

I’ve long considered the positive outcomes of open group selection to outweigh such drawbacks. But last semester, I reconsidered for a different reason: racial self-segregation.

On the day when students divided into work groups, I immediately noticed that with a few exceptions, white students were in groups with one another, and black students were in their own groups, as well. Groups formed so quickly that I couldn’t tell which students found each other first and which joined forces out of necessity, given the few remaining openings.

In past semesters these divisions haven’t been so glaring -- perhaps because it’s common for my classes to have so few black students that forming a group of three isn’t even possible. But there I was, on the second day of class, unexpectedly faced with a decision about whether to use this as a teachable moment or to let it pass without comment.

A few facts for context: I am a white man. My university is located in a region with considerable racial tension. Our campus, like many others, has been the site of student protests over lack of diversity and the administration’s handling of race relations. Addressing self-segregation in the classroom -- even in a class like mine that isn’t explicitly about race -- wouldn’t seem out of place at a time when such discussions are encouraged. Pausing to point out group dynamics would, to use a higher education cliché, contribute to a campuswide conversation about race.

On the other hand, drawing attention to group self-segregation could have detrimental effects. Who wants to start off the semester by noting students’ inherent biases? It’s hard to have this conversation without seemingly pointing a finger. Even if students became more aware of their decisions -- a positive outcome, to be sure -- what exactly did I want them to do about it? Re-sort into new, mixed-race groups? Acknowledge the problem and then carry on with their existing groups? After all, I’d just finished telling them to pick whomever they wanted as group partners. Perhaps students, as usual, just picked their friends, who happened to be of the same race (a problem in its own right).

Self-segregation in roommate selection and at cafeteria tables is unfortunately common, but I would never think to intervene in those cases. My decision about whether to do so in this instance came down to this question: Since this happened on my watch, in a classroom setting, did I have a moral obligation to say something?

In that moment, I didn’t have time to process all of these conflicting thoughts. It was noticeable to me and uncomfortable to witness, but did anyone else in that classroom feel the same way? It was hard to tell. I never asked anyone on that day -- or at any other time during the semester. No one brought it up in person, in email or in anonymous course evaluations.

Several months later, I still feel conflicted about what I should have done in that moment. Part of me wishes I had intervened, although I don’t beat myself up too much over my choice: it’s always easier to craft the perfect response in hindsight.

As I will soon prepare for another semester, I’m curious not only what my students thought but also what my colleagues think. How would you handle -- or have you handled -- this in your classroom? What would constitute an appropriate response?

I’d like to know, because I’m sure this won’t be the last time I face this situation. And next time, I want to have thought through my response.

Bio

The author is a tenure-track assistant professor at a four-year college.

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