In every classroom, I make a conscious effort to take note of who is noticed and who is not. This year, I decided to count.
I have a professor who believes in us. He tells us how we are made from the stars. He weaves his lectures into stories in a way so fluid my attention hardly wavers. Especially since I’ve started recording whose names he calls.
To make the class more personable, he’ll integrate our names into his lecture:
“These are the five forms of radioactive decay, you got that Brianna?”
“Amy would agree that Yellowstone is the most beautiful place on Earth.”
“Alex, have you been coming to class? Alex, don’t zone out!!”
He’s been integrating my white classmates’ names into our classes. In the past month, he said white students’ names approximately 88 times and the names of people of color eight times. Like I said, I’ve been keeping a tally.
He’s not white. I’m not saying he’s racist. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t subconsciously biased. Our society prefers it that way.
This brings me to Stephanie McKellop. McKellop has been both recognized and criticized for using a pedagogical tool called progressive stacking in her recitation. She describes this in a tweet: “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.” Following the tweet, McKellop reported that she had been asked to not come to class and that her recitation had been cancelled. Steven Fluharty, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told another account, saying that this was not the case.
McKellop recognizes this bias which stems from a historical legacy of privileging white people and voices, especially in academic spaces. The vitriolic criticisms of her method of maneuvering the classroom requires us to take a closer look at what it is that makes people so uncomfortable.
After all, McKellop is just practicing equity in academia in its most tangible form. For teaching assistants, there is no effective diversity or equity training module. For professors, there is little accountability in not seeing the half-raised hands of students of color sitting at the back of a dimly lit auditorium. Sitting at the back because the pressures of society tell us we’re not enough. We’re not valued in this space. We don’t actually have anything to say that someone white couldn’t say better. Those pressures do not quiver at the threshold of this sanctum of knowledge.
Academia does not exist in a vacuum of the University; it is full of real people bringing their own real biases into this space.
What we need is comprehensive and effective teaching assistant, faculty, and staff diversity training. We need more diverse faculty members who are committed to uplifting historically marginalized voices. We need TAs who tally. We need to support more TAs like McKellop in their efforts to make the classroom a more equitable experience.
Some classrooms do a good job. I’ve had a professor who tallies participation points in a way that encourages marginalized people to speak. But it shouldn’t be just that professor or McKellop. All professors and TAs should be given the tools necessary to mold their understanding of how to maneuver a diverse classroom.
I’d like more than just a glance of semi-acknowledgement in class. I want my whole class to hear my name invited into the mix of names of students who matter, the acknowledgement that I exist and that my participation too is valuable in this space.
MIRU OSUGA is a College senior from New York, studying communication, Asian American studies, and environmental studies.
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