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Photo: Bonnie Mendelson

In the wake of a Penn history teaching assistant publicizing her use of a controversial teaching method known as “progressive stacking,” students and academics have raised questions about its value in a classroom.

Stephanie McKellop, a history Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at Penn, advocated for the use of progressive stacking in the classroom with the intention of facilitating class participation of all student populations. 

 "I will always call on my Black women students first. Other POC [People of Color] get second tier priority. WW [white women] come next. And, if I have to, white men," her Oct. 16 tweet read.

The official concept of progressive stacking was coined by the Occupy Wall Street movement, The Nation reported. At their assemblies, individuals who chose which members could speak in "the stack," an Occupy-specific term for the queue, could often opt to allow members of historically marginalized groups to participate disproportionately.

Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology and critical social psychology at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and sociology at Hunter College, said that while she had not heard the name “progressive stacking” before this issue arose, she became familiar with the general technique during her graduate school education in the late 1980s and 1990s. 

“It was just a way for professors to be conscious about the kind of —  today we would say — implicit bias that is built into society at large and of how to overcome that in classroom discussion,” Daniels said. “Progressive stacking is just a way of talking about how we, as instructors, as professors, how … we overcome that tendency to go along with those societal biases.”

She cited her own use of this concept as an instructor as a parallel example and noted that, while her classes consist mostly of women, she remains susceptible to “those same societal biases that everyone is [susceptible to] that favor men.”

Daniels said that because “systematic racial and gender discrimination … plays out within the classroom,” she tries to call on the women in her class before the men.

“This tiny little technique that [McKellop] is trying to implement is a miniscule attempt at intervention for these huge social forces that play out in classroom discussions," Daniels added.

Some student groups say progressive stacking can be valuable at Penn. 

“Within [the Penn Association for Gender Equity], we have often discussed 'imposter syndrome,' which can cause women and students of color to feel as though they do not belong at Penn,” Internal Director of PAGE and College sophomore Tanya Jain said in an emailed statement. “Progressive stacking is a great way to combat this.”

Jain said progressive stacking functions well in “social [science] classes that center raced or gendered issues” because it “tells minority students that their voice matters, and allows them the first opportunity (not the only opportunity) to voice their opinions that can often be rooted in personal experience.”

But College and Wharton sophomore and Co-Director of Penn College Republicans editorial board Michael Moroz said he thinks the use of progressive stacking in the classroom is “overt” discrimination.

“There’s a rationalization of progressive stacking, but all it does is give a justification for what is over-racism,” Moroz said. “It’s based on the idea that there are systems of oppression that disadvantage certain groups … and that individuals can be reduced to only these groups. They can be identified solely by their participation in a certain group, not their intellect.”

"I’m honestly amazed that not only is this a debate, but that Penn hasn’t taken a position in that debate, as far as I can tell,” he added.

Students who previously had McKellop as an instructor said they didn’t notice she had used the technique in class.

“I never noticed [progressive stacking] in the classroom, so I would say it didn't have impact,” 2017 College graduate and former 34th Street employee and Circulation Manager for The Daily Pennsylvanian Mark Paraskevas said in a statement. “I'm not sure she was even using it is my point, honestly.”

“I’m a white male and she called on me plenty. I never felt slighted in any way,” said a former student of McKellop who wished to remain anonymous. “It wasn’t obvious to me she was using progressive stacking at all. She was perfectly normal in the way she responded to her students.”

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