“Teaching Outside of the Classroom”
Desdamona Rios, Ph.D., Bowdoin College
For those of us who teach about social issues and social justice, the focus is often on engaging students to think about issues faced by groups they do not consider themselves to be members of such as heterosexuals considering the impact of homophobia on members of the LGBTQI community, or whites looking more closely at ambivalent racism in our daily lives. Many of my colleagues do a wonderful job of including social justice issues in their curriculum, and make efforts to diversify their curriculum so that most students can identify with the curriculum to some degree. But even at institutions committed to diversity, some groups of students may experience marginalization despite best efforts to diversify spaces in the academy. As teachers, how do we think about the impact of these lessons on the lives of underrepresented students outside of the classroom, especially after they feel validated or move past denial of personal discrimination in a classroom setting? And how do marginalized group members translate this information to their lives?
One of the foundational theories taught in Women’s Studies courses (including the Psychology of Women) is the concept of intersectionality which posits that all people have multiple social identities (e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability status), and that power and privilege are more or less embedded in each of these identities. Depending on the context, a person will experience the intersection of these identities differently such that one identity may be more or less salient. As teachers and mentors we need to be mindful that we don’t contribute to the marginalization of underrepresented students, especially those who hold multiple marginalized identities. What happens when the reality of intersectionality comes into our offices? In other words, the next step to follow teaching in the classroom is through praxis of these lessons outside of the classroom. What I mean by marginalizing students is missing opportunities to rectify situations where students feel that their experiences have been mostly ignored or whose voices remain relatively invisible. At the same time, we cannot assume that all people of color (or women in some contexts such as science) experience feeling out of place in higher education. What I have become increasingly aware of is how the intersection of race, gender, and social class contribute to a working class student’s sense of fit in the academy.
In this essay, I offer three anecdotes about students with whom I have worked outside of the classroom; Tino, a Mexican immigrant queer male; Alex, a Vietnamese heterosexual female; and Clara, an African American heterosexual female. What they have in common (besides being especially bright and motivated) is that they are all first generation college students from working class backgrounds. I flag their working class status because I have found that working class students often struggle with asking for what they need. They are often the first in their families to go to college and have no personal academic or professional role models from their pre-college lives to refer to. Additionally, attending a prestigious college on a scholarship may make them feel less entitled to ask for help compared to their peers whose parents are paying for their college expenses. In many cases, working class students don’t know how to articulate what it is that they need in the first place. Some of the questions these students have asked me may seem obvious to people whose parents attended college, but these topics of inquiry are stressful triggers for students who are the first in their families to navigate the academy. These questions include (but are not limited to): how do I ask my professor for more mentoring? How do I tell my professor that I don’t understand what they are saying when it seems like all the other students understand? How do I communicate to my professor that studying issues of race or gender does not automatically relegate me to Ethnic or Women’s Studies? How do I choose a major that will help me get a job? What do I wear to a conference?
As a woman of color from a working class background, I am able to relate to many of their experiences and frustrations. But I want to stress that we need not be a match in terms of social identities to be allies to our students. I have observed (and learned from) many of my heterosexual/white/middle class/male/able-bodied colleagues offer support to non-heterosexual/of color/working class/female/disabled students in substantive and relevant ways. It is not realistic to expect ourselves to be there for each of our students each step of the way, but we can empower them by teaching them skills to create their own resources and sources of support.
Lesson one: Provide research opportunities that validate a student’s experience or interest. Tino and I first met at an off-campus retreat for first generation students where I served as a faculty advisor and Tino served as a student mentor for incoming freshmen. Soon after this event, Tino came to visit me in my office where we began to discuss his research interests. What I learned about Tino over time is that he is a Mexican immigrant, grew up working class, and identifies as queer at college but is not “out” to his family. It was quite evident to me that he was especially bright yet was struggling with his chosen science major and had a limited understanding of what “science” encompasses. We had many conversations about possible majors, what Tino is interested in, and possible future careers. After explaining the career paths that a social scientist could take, Tino proposed an independent study project that I agreed to supervise. Tino chose a research topic that would serve many purposes including his immersion into a body of scholarly work, learning about research methods in order to choose the most appropriate ones for examining his research questions, and informing him about a more suitable major in college (i.e. switching from chemistry to psychology). In this process, Tino’s own experiences have been validated by reading about the experiences of other men of color who identify as non-heterosexual (e.g. queer, gay, bisexual, etc.), and he grew to perceive himself as having some control of his future, both in terms of personal choices (i.e. whether or not to come out to his family) as well as academically by choosing a major that he is both good at and interested in.
Lesson two: Offer guided readings on topics not typically covered in mainstream courses. I met Clara through a prestigious summer program for talented underrepresented minority students who are interested in going to graduate school. I taught a workshop for the program and it was during this time that she approached me to talk about the field of psychology. She asked me quite frankly: as a woman of color, why did you stay in the field? Over time, she shared her ongoing frustration with the lack of representation of people of color in the core curriculum, feeling invisible as a black woman in the department, and a lack of support for her research interests that focus on race. Clara is an African American woman from a working class background who actually feels entitled to ask her professors for help, yet her cumulative experiences led her to believe that the field does not value issues of race, gender, social class and other social identities.
There are two issues at play here: 1) it is difficult to be an expert in all areas of psychology and 2) how do we avoid giving the impression that our field ignores the person in context (i.e. psychology of race, gender and/or other social identities)? Since I am not an expert in her area of interest, I thought about what I could offer her that would at least set her in a direction toward empowerment. I came up with a list of articles on racial identity development that I was familiar with, along with some qualitative research that addressed some issues that she was alluding to in her developing theoretical framework. From these readings, she made additional connections to her own interests, and has continued to write independently about her future research goals. Additionally, she grew to understand the value of working on research projects for the sake of learning research skills even if the topic of inquiry did not fit her own research interests. As teachers, we don’t have to be experts in all topics, but we can share our resources with our students. What they will do with this information is exponentially unpredictable. Even a few articles will make a difference in your student’s life.
Lesson three: Role-play with your student. Working class students often feel that they are not entitled to ask for additional help or are worried that they will “look dumb.” I first met Alex when she enrolled in my Psychology of Women class. Over the course of the semester, Alex and I met several times to discuss course topics she was struggling with, and particularly her own denial of personal discrimination. From these discussions I learned that Alex was a Vietnamese immigrant, working class, and a talented budding scientist. After the term ended, Alex and I continued to meet to discuss issues that are important to her, including how to ask her science professors for help with summer internship applications. Alex was frustrated because she perceived that other students were able to navigate college better than she could. She shared with me that she had asked her science professor for assistance with the complicated world of summer internship applications, only to be directed to the career resource center where she was given vague information about how to “succeed.” For students who grow up with parents who are professionals, or have family members or friends that have experience with college or internship applications, these vague instructions are meaningful because of the tacit knowledge held by privileged group members. However, for working class students, the vagueness of these responses can result in feeling dumb or hopeless about moving onto the next step in a process. Alex felt both disempowered and not entitled to ask for additional help from her science professor. I suggested that she and I role play so that she could practice asking questions that were meaningful to her and that would gently press her science professor for more explicit information. I assumed the role of the student, and she assumed the role of her science professor. We practiced until she felt confident. Alex received the help she needed from her science professor and was accepted into a competitive summer internship where she unfortunately experienced gender bias similar to what she learned about in my Psychology of Women course. However, she had knowledge about sexism in the workplace and had developed some communication skills that enabled her to advocate for herself.
As teachers and scholars, we are often stretched in multiple directions and we cannot provide everything for everyone. This is a reality of academia. Therefore, it is important to teach our students how to generate their own resources and support networks. In teaching them how to develop research projects, identify scholarship that is relevant to their research questions, and advocate for themselves, we are providing them with tools that will serve them in many contexts throughout their lives. Ideally, our modeling of such behavior will also teach them to mentor others in a similar way and toward empowering all groups of people. It is possible to offer our students support outside of the classroom that will validate their experiences and may even help us get some of our own work done!