Anti-Racist Teaching
Olivia Petrie, CST, and Diane Naugler, Graduate Program in Women's Studies & Graduate Students' Association
Volume 11, Number 1 (October 2001)

In the context of the events of September 11th

On September 24, 2001 the Graduate Students' Association, in collaboration with the CST and the Centre for Human Rights and Equity, held a session for TAs to discuss teaching-related concerns arising from the tragic events of September 11th. The session was organized in response to concerns raised by TAs about difficulties they were experiencing in their teaching. Some instructors had expressed uncertainty about how to respond to the high emotions, tensions and incidents of racism that were occurring in the classroom. Others were attempting to determine to what extent, if at all, the ongoing effects of the tragedy should be brought into their classrooms – and, more importantly, how to do so. Yet others wished to find ways to support themselves and their students, particularly those of Muslim descent, during this difficult period.

In attendance at the session were several key faculty and staff who generously offered advice and insights into these concerns. This article summarizes some of the ideas generated at the session. As such, we recognize that each instructor's own knowledge, experience and social frame of reference will play a role in determining which of these ideas will be appropriate or feasible for your use. Each instructor's teaching principles and classroom context will likewise factor in to how you might structure your own responses. Nevertheless, we hope that these ideas can be modified, adapted, or used as a springboard to other innovations for responding to heightened emotions, tensions and incidents of racism in the classroom.

Strategies for responding to heightened emotions, tensions and incidents of racism in the classroom

Develop and observe groundrules

In order to facilitate effective classroom discussion on controversial or difficult topics is it is important to take measures to ensure that it will take place in a climate of openness, support and respect. The provision of clear boundaries within which teaching and learning can take place is the key to creating and maintaining this climate. Many instructors provide explicit guidelines to their students in the form of groundrules that set out expectations on how classroom discussions will proceed. Others may choose to develop such guidelines with their students through discussion over one or two classes. Instructors can also provide ongoing support to students' development of effective communication techniques, such as active listening, examining different viewpoints, and expressing comments in ways that will promote learning rather than defensiveness and conflict. The active encouragement of students to contribute constructively to classroom discussion, through groundrules and ongoing support, will go a long way toward diminishing the potential for tension, confrontation and personal attacks that can occur in the classroom.

Occasionally, however, there may be situations (such as inflammatory statements, name-calling, other personal attacks) in the classroom where tensions and conflict arise despite clear ground rules and ongoing support for constructive communication techniques. The heightened tensions and diversity of responses to the tragic events of September 11th may increase the potential for this to occur. To deal with such incidents, our faculty resource people offered a number of excellent strategies.

Probe underlying assumptions

Probe the assumptions that underlie the statement by asking the student for an explanation or elaboration of the subject that led to the statement. Ask questions like, "That's extraordinary, can you tell us more about 'xx?" to encourage students to examine the ideas behind their statement. Avoid personalizing the dialogue, rather keep the discussion focussed on the comment that was made.

Bring the class into discussion

Provide an opportunity for students to voice their concerns related to the statement on the understanding that each individual is limited by his/her own social location and experience and so making room for different experiences and opinions. Spend a few moments finding out how the statement is perceived by other members of the class. In doing so, a broader range of viewpoints can be brought to bear on the topic. Depending on the statement, you may wish to offer to talk to students specifically after the class if they wish to do so.

Encourage critical thinking

Use the statement as an opportunity to help students think critically, to learn to question what they hear and read, to read more broadly and seek out alternative sources of information, and to share that information with each other.

Connect to course content

If you determine that the issue can usefully inform your course content, you may consider adapting your teaching accordingly. Some instructors have integrated issues related to the September 11th events in a variety of creative ways to enrich studies in their courses.

Break into smaller groups

Break the class into smaller groups to examine the issue from all sides or to discuss a related question. Construct open-ended questions to stimulate thought and discourage right/wrong answers. This allows the opportunity for students to pool their ideas, experience and knowledge and enables everyone to contribute. This has the additional benefit of limiting the audience should the student in question prove particularly disruptive. Have each group report their findings back to the full group.

Create listening dyads

Break students up into pairs. Using a relatively easy topic, have one student talk without interruption for a short period of time. At the same time the other individual in the pair listens knowing that he/she will have to paraphrase the speaker's remarks at the end of that time. Have students switch roles and repeat the process. This proven strategy demonstrates to students how well or how poorly they listen and how easily misinterpretations can occur. They can subsequently work to improve this skill.

Establish a talking circle

Establish a talking circle or "round" to give each student a chance to speak on an issue without interruption, allowing students to pass if they wish. Consider using an object or talking stick that is passed from student to student, and only the student holding the object can speak while everyone else listens. This has proven to be an effective way to de-fuse heated discussion between two or three students as it requires students to listen to each other and provides an opportunity for some to cool down. This strategy is an adaptation of some First Nations/Aboriginal ceremonial practices.

Take a break

If the comment takes the discussion into an area in which you are uncomfortable or emotionally unable to deal with, or if it has led, or is likely to lead, to conflict or confrontation, don't feel compelled to pursue the matter further. Instead, find a way to break up the flow, perhaps by acknowledging to the students that the discussion has become difficult, or that more information is needed, and suggest that you set the subject aside for a later date. Consider bringing in guest lecturers, facilitators or colleagues to inform the ensuing discussion.

Write and reflect

Take a moment for quiet reflection as a way of putting an issue aside and moving on to something else. Suggest that students take a moment to write down their thoughts in relation to the issue and either turn them in or hold on to them. At a later date you can return to the issue in a structured way. This is an effective method for helping students deal with strong reactions or controversial subject matter, and also provides the instructor time to 'chill' and think carefully about how they might process the issue.

De-fuse disruptive behaviour

You may encounter a situation where a student disruption would most appropriately be dealt with through the procedures set out in the Senate policy on dealing with disruptive and/or harassing behaviour by students in academic settings. There are many ways to de-escalate disruptive situations as they occur: remain calm and polite, offer to talk privately to the individual during a break, allow a little time to vent and use active listening to get to the root of the problem and help resolve the concerns. If, after you've warned the student that their behaviour is disruptive, they persist, you can ask the student to leave. If the student refuses to leave, you may ask Security to assist.

Get help

In the event that you are in immediate danger or feel that your students' safety is in jeopardy (this is different from just being in an uncomfortable situation), call or ask a student to call Security (416-736-5333). Security will invoke the emergency procedures with the Metro Police. For further information on dealing with emergencies, consult the salmon-coloured pages of the York Internal Directory.

Self care

Many facilitators and participants at the session stressed the importance of self-care. Many instructors found themselves juggling a diverse set of roles (teacher, facilitator, rule-setter, defender, counsellor ...). As you find ways to support your students, particularly those who are being subject to ethno-racial backlash, it is also important to attend to your own needs. It is likewise important to know your own position on the issues, on what you base your fears and judgement, and conversely where your own biases lie. Seek out supportive colleagues in your department and elsewhere with whom you can debrief and discuss issues and concerns that arise in the classroom on an ongoing basis. Remember that as instructors you have full access to the counselling services at York.

Offer new ideas

The ideas in this list were generated by faculty and staff at the session as examples of how instructors might effectively deal with tensions and incidents of racism that might come up in the classroom. This article will be posted on the CST website, and if you have other ideas, please send them to the CST and we will add them to the list.

For further ideas & information

"How do you handle a sexist, racist or other excluding or pejorative comment from a member of your class? January 2000. York Senate Committee on Teaching and Learning (SCOTL), Bulletin Number 1.

"What do you do to establish a positive climate in the classroom?" March 2000. SCOTL, Bulletin Number 2.

Neff, Rose Ann and Weimer, Mary-Ellen, eds. 1989.Classroom Communication: Collective Readings for Effective Discussion and Questioning. Madison WI: Magna Publications.

Newton, Janice, et al, eds 2001. Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Toronto: Garamond Press.