Community Guidelines: Fostering Inclusive Discussions of Difference

In this blog, I describe how my class co-authored a set of community guidelines in order to create a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

This past semester, I had the deep pleasure of teaching an English course on “The Arts of Dissent” at Queens College, where I shared some of my absolute favorite works of literature — Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Chris Abani’s GraceLand, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen — with twenty-eight incredibly bright students.

Since I began teaching at Queens, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a white teacher who teaches texts primarily by black authors to a diverse class of students. I want to create a classroom environment in which every student feels encouraged to share their reactions to our readings. I also hope to increase students’ awareness of their-subject positioning within intersecting axes of power, just as I am continually seeking to better understand my own positioning in this matrix. There are many times and places where “calling out” is not only appropriate, but necessary; however, as an educator, my primary means of involving students in critical reflections on sexism, racism, homophobia, and class privilege is always through calling in. I have been fortunate to have many students who are already deeply involved in these conversations and struggles for social justice and I do my best to help them understand the historical and institutional nature of these issues. For the rest, I call students into these conversations by assigning powerful readings that convey the urgency of addressing structural inequality.

This past semester, as we completed our discussions of A Raisin in the Sun and were poised to begin Citizen, it felt urgent to deliberately address with my students the ways gender, race, class, and sexuality shape classroom conversations, often in unacknowledged ways. For those who haven’t read it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, is a gorgeous multimodal assemblage — at once seething and breathtaking — that tracks the pernicious effects of microaggressions across multiple scales. Ranging in breadth from Turner’s painting The Slave Ship (1840) to the Black Lives Matter movement, Citizen should be required reading not only for every student, but for everyone.

As our discussions of the text approached, I was thinking about the ways class conversations can exclude certain voices and elicit a kind of tokenism, in which the perspective of one student, especially from a minority background, is wrongfully understood to represent the perspective of an entire social group. I was worried that our class conversations, especially in terms of who gets to speak the most, would reproduce the very hierarchies that Rankine’s text works to subvert. I was thinking of students whose fears of saying the wrong thing might lead them to disengage from these important conversations entirely (and thinking about the ways disengagement is often a stance only available to the relatively privileged).

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Original artwork by Julie Abbot, a student in “The Arts of Dissent.”