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Teaching From Privilege

Richard Del Guidice, Professor and Chair, Department of Politics, State University of New York at Potsdam

It happens to all of us. We teach for years, basically in the same areas and while we keep up to date in our field, much of what we do in our classes becomes routine. We often don't think a lot about our roles as faculty members or about who our students are. We are members of departments and students in our classes are simply satisfying general education requirements or completing their majors by taking classes we've taught many times before. We enjoy the classes, student evaluations are good, and we end our semesters with very little awareness of ourselves as teachers or of the changing needs of our students.

For me, teaching so-called "diversity" courses has shattered this sense of comfort and security. A few years ago, after some twenty-five years in the profession, I began an important transformation. I began to move into an area in which I had neither much training nor much teaching experience. I found myself teaching a new course, "U.S. Pluralism and the Pursuits of Justice," as part of a new general education cluster called "Becoming American." The cluster was developed as part of SUNY–Potsdam's AAC&U-supported American Commitments project and included a course from anthropology and one from English as well as mine from the politics department.

To develop and prepare to teach these new courses, I attended a summer faculty development institute sponsored by AAC&U called "Boundaries and Borderlands: The Search for Recognition and Community in America." That seminar was critical to my efforts in several ways. First, it broadened the range of questions I needed to raise and try to resolve for myself and, further, it exposed me to a great deal of new literature in the field. As important, it gave me a network of colleagues across the country struggling with the same issues I was confronting.

Six months after the seminar, we offered the general education cluster, "Becoming American," for the first time. The large majority of students in the class were white, but several Mohawk students, two African American students and one Latino student also enrolled. And there I was, a white, middle-class, privileged male, embarking upon an effort to teach these young people about the non-white experience in America.

I was reminded of my first year of teaching when too often I thought it best to avoid eye contact with the seniors in the class lest the smirks I was sure I would see would drive me from the room. But I did survive that first frightening experience and have taught derivations of those first diversity courses for several years now.

Teaching these courses has taught me many things about myself and about effective teaching for today's world. I can only touch on a few of the many lessons I've learned, but several important things stand out.

First, if one intends to teach a diversity course, one needs to be prepared to become a student again. All of us have an enormous amount to learn and, indeed, that is perhaps the most exciting part of this effort. One of the many positive consequences of this experience is that what one learns as this "new student" permeates everything else one teaches. My "Constitutional Law" course is very different than it was before I began teaching a new course on Native American history and politics. This is of course how curricular change should work--new knowledge and new ways of teaching affect all of our classes and indeed the entire climate and mission of our institutions.

The second important lesson I have learned is that the kind of thorny issues raised by a white man teaching about Native American history and politics must be dealt with openly and early in the course. At this early stage, students may not be able to articulate all of the questions they may ultimately have, but they do have questions. And all faculty members need to deal with them openly and honestly.

Diversity courses evoke a whole set of issues that can substantially interfere with teaching and learning if allowed to remain unexamined. One needs to address one's own position in the institution and in the society early on. It is essential to clarify that everyone--students and teachers, majority and non-majority alike--have important insights to bring to the table in these classes. One also needs to address a whole series of questions about responsibility: What is the difference between culpability and privilege? Why does the experience of "others" matter? Isn't all this focus on diversity just "political correctness" or academic trendiness? Until or unless these issues are explored in an open and unthreatening class discussion, barriers to effective teaching and learning will remain.

The most important point, however, is that transforming our teaching to better account for issues of diversity is crucial if we are to educate students effectively for today's world. I know that my experience is not unique. Teaching diversity courses has been an enormously energizing experience for me. While certainly frightening for many faculty members, my own experience has convinced me that it is very healthy for senior faculty members to once again feel that sharp pang of inexperience, that insecurity that makes one conscious of every word and nuance in a lecture, every question and answer in a class. I'm convinced that, along with providing my students with a "Different Mirror" on history and politics, teaching diversity courses has made me a better teacher overall.

We all need to encourage our colleagues to venture down similar paths; our students, our colleges and our communities will certainly be the better for it.


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