Like many, I first encountered the idea of progressive stacking through the recent case of a Penn Ph.D. student who employed it in a recitation for a history course. The technique seems to refer to a general system of prioritization that gives preference to minority groups when deciding who gets to speak first. In this particular case, the instructor, Stephanie McKellop, tweeted, "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.”
Unsurprisingly, McKellop’s position, as well as the technique itself, have caused a storm of criticism, and her story was quickly picked up on social and traditional media. As for Penn’s position, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Steven Fluharty has stated that he plans to look into the incident to ensure that students are not subject to “discriminatory practices.” The concerns over using race as a determining factor in classroom discussion are expected, but I personally have been struck by just how many people have actually defended the practice. McKellop herself has not shied away from her position even after a great deal of backlash.
While McKellop’s intentions may be good, her position is an extremely disturbing case of progressivism gone awry. Inclusion in discussion and class participation is obviously a noble goal, but the notion that race and gender are appropriate criteria to decide who gets a voice is at best a misguided one. We need not even step into the debate over whether certain people are systematically marginalized and therefore less inclined to speak in a classroom. Some students will always be more active in class discussion than others. The goal of an instructor should be to get those who do not usually speak up to join, and I cannot see a reason why the race or gender of those should be considered.
For example, if a certain group of black women, a demographic to which McKellop seems to give first priority, dominates discussion to the point that other students don’t get a chance to contribute, it would still be the duty of the instructor to call on others to ensure that everyone gets a chance to talk. That would also be the case if that group were all white men. Using race and gender as the basis for that kind of prioritization threatens the integrity of the classroom.
Frankly, this kind of misguided extremism is part of the reason why people dismiss and mock social activism. It achieves nothing of real substance and prevents us from having discussions about the actually important and debatable ways through which we could create a better learning environment.
It is no secret that much of America has developed a mistrust of elite universities such as Penn, and I’m sure everyone has encountered the stereotype of the entitled liberal “snowflake.” Incidents like this only serve to deepen that mistrust and further enforce such unfair characterizations.
The case is particularly disturbing because it suggests that people such as McKellop are so invested in the framework of race and gender inequalities that they cannot see individuals as anything more than such basic identities. This is a regressive and limiting way of looking at the world — students are much more than “WW” or “POC,” and they deserve to be recognized for their full selves.
McKellop’s tweets following reactions to her initial one show just how far she has strayed from any constructive discourse. She wrote, “Because this involves calling on Black students more readily than white men, the white nationalists and Nazis were very upset.” The immediate rejection of criticism as racially motivated and the subsequent labeling of critics as “Nazis” is a conversation-ender rather than a part of a meaningful discussion. This echos the close-mindedness of a certain president dismissing journalists with the cry of “fake news.”
The kind of snobbish and elitist attitude expressed is what created a sense of alienation for many during the election process, and one that leaves people with deep suspicion and bitterness. It is important to note that McKellop’s reasoning may indeed stem from a genuine, commendable desire to create an ideal academic setting. Yet, while an effort to balance a boat that is too heavy on one side may be a laudable one, a reckless unguided sprint to the other side will just capsize the whole damn thing.
JAMES LEE is a College senior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.