What we Teach about Race

Assuming we accept the idea that we need to teach more and/or better about race, before we start, we need to consider the fundamental question, WHAT do we want to teach?

I think sometimes busy faculty don’t take enough time considering this question. But as I wrote in chapter one of my book, choosing significant and meaningful goals is a crucial step in the process of designing an effective, well-integrated course in which students learn deeply and retain what they learn.

Those teaching U.S. history have many worthwhile options for learning objectives. For example, do we want students to:

  • understand the long racist history of the criminal justice system and African American relations with police? 
  • learn the concept and study examples of institutionalized racism?
  • consider different ways African Americans have adapted to systemic oppression and created meaning over time?
  • evaluate the types and effectiveness of protests and rebellions?
  • analyze the ideology of various Black thinkers?
  • understand specific ideas about the complexity of community or identity, including intersectionality?
  • study relations between different racial and ethnic groups?
  • explore social and cultural history?
  • evaluate policy decisions and economic practices that affected large groups of African Americans and consider the implications for policy choices today?
  • apply contemporary social science theories (such as related to bias or stereotype threat or social movements and protest) to the past?
  • explore historiographical trends in how Black history has been researched or taught?

These are all different.

Whatever our focus, we need to ponder:
What big ideas do we want students to take away from the course?

  • that race is a social construct (not biologically determined) that has had enormous and detrimental consequences for people’s experiences and opportunities?
  • that what happened in the past wasn’t inevitable?
  • that progress isn’t always linear?
  • that despite significant and persistent oppression, African Americans have had agency?

They will forget most of the details, very quickly, so we need to find ways that they really grasp and retain the big ideas.

What skills do we want students to develop? Are those related to historical thinking – argument, analysis, writing, taking different perspectives, dealing with complexity? Or are they more those related to reflection, dialogue, or intercultural competence? Bandwidth recovery, helping students develop their identities, or increasing their chances for future success?

Course design experts encourage us to think carefully about how we want students to be different as a result of our course.

  • Is my goal that students understand specific events in history – and see their relevance in the present?
  • Is it that students adopt my way of thinking (is that realistic? Is that fair? Is that me abusing my power and privilege?), or simply become more aware of their own thinking?
  • Do I hope to create anti-racists (valuable, but we’d better be upfront with students who sign up for our course), or students who act on their beliefs, even if those beliefs are contrary to ours? 
  • Is it that students encounter and seriously consider certain ideas? Or is it that they have authentic conversations about them?

Obviously, these learning goals are all different from one another, and clarity about our goals is crucial – both for students and for us.

Transparency in Teaching and Learning, a large, multi-institutional study, has shown that instructors giving careful attention to transparency in assignment design makes a significant difference for all students, but especially benefits first-generation, low-income, transfer, and underrepresented students in areas that are important predictors of students’ overall academic success. The “transparency students” reported they had more academic confidence, could learn effectively on their own, and were better at recognizing when they needed help. They had a greater sense of belonging and a better sense of the skills they were developing.

For us as instructors, this clarity about goals means we can choose appropriate readings or other sources that we ask students to grapple with. It means we can be intentional in how we scaffold their learning and what we do during class. It means we can design meaningful, clear, fair, and effective ways of assessing students’ learning. For example, an assignment asking students to compare and contrast Black thinkers is different from one where we ask students also to write about their own thinking. Which one we assign depends on our goals.

If we are not clear about our learning goals, or haven’t chosen realistic ones, it is quite difficult to achieve them. Teaching is a challenging profession in part because learning isn’t always visible; even though it’s our responsibility to assess our teaching effectiveness, it can be difficult to know the degree to which we are succeeding, especially about complex issues related to understanding race.

What’s going on in a student’s mind can be difficult to discern, and sometimes the ideas we plant in our course might need more than a semester to take root and grow. Still, there are ways to prompt students’ thinking and ways to help them test, develop, and express their ideas in our courses. We can help build their knowledge about race and history and their awareness of themselves, their culture, American institutions, others, and current events – but first we need to choose our goals wisely. If we do, perhaps like us, they will be neither silent nor powerless in these very troubling times.

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