Before the start of last session, a group of academics from the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Human Sciences met to share their experiences and expertise in dealing with racism in the classroom. The workshop was convened by us — Alys Moody (English) and Eve Vincent (Anthropology). We also invited two students to share their insights.
Our idea for the workshop was this: as teachers and scholars, we have the skills to theorise our own teaching practice. We respect that teaching is an art form and everyone does it differently; we have no wish to standardise our efforts. So we were keen to gather together teachers seeking to develop their practice. We have each faced moments in our face-to-face teaching where we have had to respond quickly to racist assumptions/comments, be these explicit or subtle. We wondered how others teach their way through these moments?
We were heavily subscribed after circulating an expression of interest: we offered places to 20 participants, and had a waitlist of 16 others. Several others wrote expressing their interest in the topic. We take this as a sign both of the urgency of this issue, and of the depth of interest, across the university, in holding collaborative conversations about teaching.
We began by discussing Paulo Friere, reading a chapter of his classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Friere’s work is dated in many respects. However, we found plenty we could learn from. Friere emphasises the central the role of dialogue in pedagogy, which he opposes to the ‘banking model of education’ where the teacher deposits ideas into the student. Friere also writes that, ‘dialogue cannot exist without humility’.
We then spent the morning focused on problems and principles. Our conversation ranged over many examples:
- We discussed classrooms that become noticeably divided, where groups of international students from non-English speaking backgrounds tend to work together, potentially feeling excluded.
- Workshop participants shared uncomfortable experiences of students saying what they thought was the right thing to say, but sensing as teachers that unchallenged assumptions lay latent in our classroom.
- We discussed routine tendencies to stereotype cultural groups, even in seemingly positive terms (such as ‘exotic’).
- Some participants shared the high burden on students of colour in managing their emotional states so as not to be cast as angry or threatening.
- We also discussed the problem of students being expected to speak for and assume an authority about topics they were themselves there to learn about, on the basis of their identity. Then again, as teachers we sought to recognise the value of personal experience.
- We raised questions about the limits of Frierian dialogue: at what point should student discussion be intervened into and to what ends? To make factual corrections, certainly, but also with a sense of responsibility for the effect of certain themes on non-white students. Was this urge pastoral or just patronising?
After lunch, we worked more concretely on strategies, sharing skills and tips. One recurring theme was the need to create an open and supportive classroom environment, in which students could air ideas—and, crucially, have them challenged—without feeling excluded or threatened. Participants floated different strategies for achieving this.
One shared her practice of setting up the parameters of classroom discussion, by asking students to agree on rules and guidelines in the first week of class. The key to this, she suggested, was pushing students beyond their first responses, which tended to be well-meaning but empty commitments to “being respectful”. By confronting them with moments where these platitudes ran into contradictions or produced conflicts, her students were better prepared to grapple with the messiness of academic discussions that challenge their own or other’s presuppositions.
Another discussed a low-stakes, group-work task, where students were asked to work in pairs over the course of the semester to discuss unit content and assessments. These partners—which were not self-selecting—were particularly effective at including international students, mature students, and others who might feel excluded from the social world of the classroom.
We were joined in our concluding session by professional staff representatives from Walangu Muru, Diversity and Inclusion, and the Widening Participation team. This discussion highlighted the inspiring work already being done across the university, and pointed to the need for ongoing conversations between students, faculty, and professional staff, as we strive to create a just and equitable learning environment at Macquarie.
To find out more about any future activities on this topic, contact Alys Moody in the Department of English.