Pedagogical Approaches to Student Racial Conflict in the Classroom

Penny A. Pasque, Mark A. Chesler, Jessica Charbeneau, Corissa Carlson
In a blog, one of my esteemed GEDI colleagues raised the issue of addressing racist comments or conversations when they arise in the classroom. That is an excellent question and one that I did not have an answer to. As a woman of color, as you can imagine, I have found myself in situations in which someone says something not so smart, not very PC and honestly, downright offensive in one on one encounters, in meetings with other colleagues, but never in the classroom as a faculty member.
Research shows that having a diverse student body and faculty enhances the academic experience for everyone. The learning that occurs between people from different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations and different levels of ability is invaluable. While the classroom can be a great venue for meaningful conversations, it can also be a battleground when inappropriate comments are made and emotions and tempers flare.
In their article, Pasque, Chesler, Chabeneau and Carlson asserted that many faculty members do not know how to address these issues because more times than not, the comments come out of nowhere and catch everyone off guard. It must be said, however that the way that faculty handle (or don’t handle) the situation makes a world of difference. In their study, they looked qualitatively at how faculty members pedagogically addressed these situations.
Thirty four men and thirty two women at a research university participated in this study. Twenty participants self-identified as African American, fourteen as Asian or Asian American, eight as Latino/a, four as Native American, two as Arab American and eighteen as Caucasian. The faculty members crossed academic three academic disciplines; the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. The faculty members were interviewed about racial incidents that occurred in their classrooms and how they addressed them.
Five major themes emerged from the study:
“Not In My Classroom”
Some of the faculty asserted that they never had any conflicts or points of tension in their classroom. This was particularly the case for the faculty who taught the hard sciences and only “stuck to the facts”. Other faculty members who fell into this category made the distinction between “differences of opinions” and “conflict” citing that differences of opinion are normal and they would not upgrade the status of said conversations to “conflict” status.
“Let’s Not Make a Scene”- Avoidance and Minimization
Faculty members in this category recognized the presence of racial conflicts and tensions but chose not to address them publically. One faculty member recalled an incident where a student made a comment that caused a negative reaction from another student. Not only did she not address the issue in the classroom, she did not address it with the student after class. Unfortunately, another student stopped the speaker from speaking and took control of the situation. Other faculty asserted that they did not speak up or challenge controversial commentary because they did not want to upset the other white students in the room and alienate them from the students of color.

Taking Control: Diffuse, Distract and Divert
Faculty members who used this approach stopped the conversation all together, changed the conversation at hand or threatened the students’ ability to remain in the class when such conversations emerged. One faculty member in this group told the students that their “debate” was not reflective of the expectation that she had for classroom behavior and that if they could not remain civil, they needed to find another class. Faculty who addressed conflicts in this manner emphasized the importance of maintaining control in the classroom and preventing a situation to get out of hand, especially if they felt like they could not handle it.

Reactive Usage: Turning Overt Conflict into a Learning Opportunity
Some of the faculty members in the study used the conflict as a learning opportunity. Instead of stepping in and intervening, the faculty created a safe space for the students to talk through the issue to gain different perspectives. Faculty members challenged racist or insensitive language and assisted the students in explaining what they meant and helped them reframe their statement in a less threatening manner and allowed responses from the other students.
Proactive Usage: Surfacing Underlying or Covert Conflicts for Learning
Faculty members in this category intentionally created “hot button” topics to serve as learning opportunities. They preplanned activities or lectures in which they knew that conflict could arise and prepared in advance for the conversation. Needless to say, this does not work when the comments catch the professor off guard, but is certainly beneficial for constructive, structured learning experiences. These faculty members addressed racial conflicts early on in the semester, so when the topic came up, students were not surprised.

The researchers emphasized previous research that shows that avoiding the conversation or distracting and not addressing the topic or the comments is an ineffective way to manage the situation. Faculty must find ways to make it a learning opportunity for all involved. They assert that there is no one right way to handle the situation, but avoidance is not one of them. Recognizing that many faculty members are ill-equipped to engage students in this kind of resolution, they encourage institutions to train faculty members in advance so that they do not compromise the academic environment by keeping the “elephant in the room” after a situation emerges.

One thought on “Pedagogical Approaches to Student Racial Conflict in the Classroom”

  1. Tamara,
    Thanks for sharing. I must admit that I have never been involved or witnessed these types of situations in the classroom. I have heard a lot about them and I am sure they do take place, so reading these kind of articles do help you be prepare and not be caught off guard.
    Again, thanks for making all of us more familiar with this type of literature.

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