About Me

Find out more about me here.

08 March 2012

Divisive Language in the Classroom

As I've mentioned recently on this blog, I'm teaching a Critical Thinking/Social Problems course this semester, and we're moving into a unit on race. As one might expect given sociology's interest in intersectionality, we've already talked some about race in the units on class and gender. I think that many of us instructors worry about what some of our less-than-tactful students might say in classroom discussions about contentious issues like those that sociology is wont to address, but I think we often worry about the wrong kind of tactlessness. Early on in my teaching career, I worried that someone would do something egregious like drop the N-word. That has never happened in my classroom, and at this point, I seriously doubt that it ever will. What I am noticing more and more, though, is language that is much more subtle but (thus?) much more dangerous. It usually goes something along the lines of "Dr. Koch, why are they [meaning blacks] so much more likely to be poor?" Because students are not used to openly discussing topics such as race that are largely taboo in American culture, they don't think about the vocabulary that they employ. Too often, it becomes "we" vs. "they." This is rarely done in an intentionally malicious manner, mind you. As in the example above, it is often an honest attempt at understanding or even benevolence (albeit condescendingly); however, the employment of this kind of language can be alienating to the "they's" in the class.

I have largely chosen to address this issue indirectly. My fear is that by calling students out for talking this way, I will shut down the open dialogue that is necessary to foster learning. Instead, I do my best to model the kind of language that is less divisive. The best way to do this is simply to avoid pronouns all together. If a white students says "we," restate his comment/question saying "whites"; rephrase "they" as "blacks." For most of us on the other side of the desk, this use of language is likely rather perfunctory, but to many of our students, it is linguistic territory littered with live landmines. In my experience at a college that is disproportionately white and affluent, it becomes that much more important. Often, my classes are absurdly homogenous. It is all too easy for a white student who was graduated by an all-white high school to start talking--and thinking--in "we's." This is just one small way to reorient students' speech, which ultimately will reorient students' minds.

1 comment: