Rupert W. Nacoste, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor, North Carolina State University
Teaching is getting people to process, grasp, and use the knowledge our discipline has to offer. To make a lecture or speech zing, I always make a provocative statement of my theme in the first sentence. Intriguing and capturing the audience right from the start is an idea that I take seriously when I am preparing a lecture. But I am trying to do more than that. I am also trying to create a social-psychological struggle.
Trained by John Thibaut, Interdependence-theory1 has guided my research and my teaching. That theory tells us that to be fully human is to be engaged in social life by actively managing (inevitable) interpersonal-tensions. That social truth is what I think about in constructing my lectures. Why?
Albert Bandura2 would say our student/clients are adaptive, creative, people acting with purpose and agency. Part of our human agency is choice. We humans have the desire to do what we think is best for us at the time. Attempts to teach people, then, must begin with creating a relationship-tension to activate focused listening for what our discipline has to offer to improve the listener’s everyday life. Turns out that to acquire the skills to survive, humans must be in an interactive struggle. As a social psychologist I take seriously the idea of the human need for a dialogue of struggle in order to learn. That is why when I teach, I always set up the environment of struggle.
We live in a post-911 America. No doubt then that students come to higher education with anxieties about interacting with other students from different groups. Although I follow my “…there must be a struggle” in all my teaching, I found it to be especially useful when in 2006 I created my one of its kind “Interdependence and Race” course. I center that course on my concept of neo-diversity; the modern interpersonal situation wherein we all have to encounter and sometimes interact with people “…not like us” on some group-dimension.
For the course, I lay out the struggle in themes. Theme 1: There are no innocents. Everybody in this room, myself included, is walking around with group-stereotypes. What to do about that is the challenge, and the answer is Theme 2: Never try to interact with a person as a representative of a group. Seeing and analyzing examples of people not doing that sets up lectures for Theme 3, “We can analyze that.”
Although the title of my “Interdependence and Race” course gives many students’ pause, every semester a neo-diverse mix of fifty to eighty students enroll. Word spread and I have been invited to speak to groups with a mix of intergroup concerns on and off campus.
Seeing that desire to understand neo-diversity, I decided to write to teach anyone who cares to learn about America’s struggle with neo-diversity. In that way, my teaching has also fed my scholarship with two books on neo-diversity; “Taking on Diversity,” (2015)3 and “To Live Woke” (2020)4.
1 Kelley, H.H. & Thibaut, J.W. (1978). Interpersonal relations: A theory of interdependence (New York: Wiley)
2 Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.
3 Nacoste, R.W. (2015). Taking on diversity: how we can move from anxiety to respect (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books)
4 Nacoste, R. W. (2020). To live woke: Thoughts to carry in our struggle to save the soul of America (Loyola University Baltimore, Md: Apprentice House Press)