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Megan Stielstra: Teaching Engagement, Teaching Awareness

How an inclusive curriculum could be just the disruption American classrooms need.

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Image from Flickr user Derek Bruff.

By Megan Stielstra

In a session on casting in Jennifer Peepas’ introductory film course, she brings in an enormous file of headshots, including actors of all races, genders, sizes, and ages, and instructs her students to imagine the characters they might inhabit. “What kind of story or genre do you think of when you see this person?” she asks. “Is there a specific role or type that comes to mind?” The excitement is visible. These Future Filmmakers know movies; they’ve been shooting them in their imaginations for years. “He’s the secret agent,” they’ll say, holding up a photo, more often than not, of a white guy. “The super hero, the good cop gone rogue,” and various other examples of the main character. Then, other photos: “She’s the mom!” and, “He’s the terrorist!” and “The funny best friend,” “The love interest,” “The drug dealer.”

That’s when the discussion starts.

“What makes that guy the main character?” Peepas asks. “Is she anything besides a mom? Why is he a drug dealer?”

She considers how teaching the elements of her discipline—in this case: scene, structure, story, character—might also inspire a different kind of learning moment, the kind that saves lives.

The discomfort is immediate. Students squirm in their seats. You can see their brains working, realizing the racism and sexism behind their responses, thinking of excuses, getting defensive, and just before it erupts, Peepas flips the conversation from blame to responsibility. She gives them the data; how year after year, movie after movie, they’ve seen the same stories, the same characters, the same dominant narratives that privilege the same identity groups. “However,” she tells them—and at this point, the Future Filmmakers lean forward in their seats—“you are the ones who can change it. You are writers, producers, directors, and media makers; it’s on you to tell new stories, many stories, and to challenge the idea that there’s only one way to represent a person or a people.”

There’s more too it, of course. Throughout the semester, Peepas works to build an inclusive classroom space. She brings in films and scripts from a wide variety of artists. And she considers how teaching the elements of her discipline—in this case: scene, structure, story, character—might also inspire a different kind of learning moment, the kind that saves lives.

“The first time I did this exercise, I thought it was just about casting,” Peepas says. “But casting is never just about casting. It’s all a teachable opportunity.”

*                      *                     *

For years, I worked in a teaching and learning center at an arts and media college in Chicago. It’s where I first met Peepas, along with countless other educators working to engage students in discussions about race, class, and gender-based oppression—what bell hooks referred to as “education as the practice of freedom.” They assign texts from multiple voices and perspectives (you’d think this would be a given in 2015; depressingly, you’d be wrong). They prioritize community-building, not just as a Day 1 icebreaker but rather a necessary component in creating what Ken Bain refers to as a “natural, critical learning environment.” They experiment with activities, assignments, and approaches that inform students of identity-based inequity within their specific disciplines and they challenge those students to change it.

I think such engagement is as vital as breathing.

These past few weeks, protests about racial discrimination on college and university campuses have erupted across the country. I hope everyone is listening to these students. Their demands are clear and fair. They’re about damn time. As Roxane Gay wrote business at The New Republic, they “articulate a vision for a better future, one that cannot be reached with complacency.” All of them are demanding a more inclusive curriculum.

Inclusive curriculum means campus-wide racial awareness training for administrators, faculty both tenured and NTT, staff, and students. Activists at Purdue included campus police. Activists at USC said that the training should be “intersectional and representative of a wide variety of identity groups.” Activists at Princeton added the adjective “mandatory.”

Inclusive curriculum means classes and programs that focus on racial, sexual, and gender identity. These classes need to be protected—they’re often the first to be cut—and also required. A recent meme flying around social media hit the nail on the head: “White privilege is your history being taught as part of the core curriculum while mine is being offered as an elective.”

Systematic oppression exists across all fields; the arts, the sciences, the humanities. Why on Earth would we not fight it that way it in the classroom?

Inclusive curriculum also means digging into the necessary discussions of oppression in ways that are discipline-specific, pushing back against the too-commonly held idea that, as one faculty member recently told me, “If students want to learn about race stuff, they can go take a Cultural Studies class.”

There are so many teachers working to engage these conversations in their classrooms. A few examples of the many possibilities:

A biology teacher using the Tuskegee syphilis study.
A dance teacher using the Kennedy Center’s recent performance of Swan Lake.
An app development teacher bringing in a mapping project that highlights places where women have made history.
A journalism teacher inviting everyone, on the first day of class, to introduce themselves with their name and gender pronouns, opening a conversation with emerging media professionals about how to write ethically about identity as well as setting the expectation that the classroom is an inclusive space where everyone’s humanity is respected.

Systematic oppression exists across all fields; the arts, the sciences, the humanities. Why on Earth would we not fight it that way it in the classroom?

*                      *                     *

Last winter I attended a discussion about the future of higher education featuring panelists from across academia: a dean, a chair, a tenured professor, a non-tenure track lecturer, and a grad student. During the Q & A that followed, a female student stood and asked how different disciplines might address sexism. “I study game design, a pretty hostile industry for women,” she said, citing gamergate. “The department is pretty hostile, too. What do you think teachers should do?” The panelists—all men—didn’t have much of an answer.

I thought about the #FergusonSyllabus, a nationwide movement begun by Georgetown Professor Marcia Chatelain where educators share articles, books, videos and other texts to contextualize racial and economic segregation and the United States criminal justice system.

I thought about New Jersey English teacher Brian Mooney who deconstructed Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly with his high school students alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

I thought about Jen Peepas’ casting activity. She asked questions that brought unconscious bias in filmmaking to the forefront, and she asked her Future Filmmakers to examine their own responsibility. What would a similar activity look like in a game design program? What about me, in my creative nonfiction classes? What about technology? Business? Law? Art, theatre, medicine? Surely these discussions are part of the future of higher education.

*                      *                     *

Perhaps it’s idealistic to think that what happens in a classroom can make a dent in identity-based violence and white supremacy. Perhaps some people think discussions of systematic oppression should be regulated to a single class (or a single chapter). Perhaps the deck is stacked too high against teachers: faculty of color are ridiculously underrepresented and often face hostile classroom environments, especially female faculty of color.

Many are swamped trying to fulfill learning outcomes set by administrators who haven’t been in the classroom for decades, if ever. Some are locked into teaching assigned syllabi with no say in the curriculum. Some have their programs gutted or outright cut. Non-tenure-track faculty, unsure of their jobs, are hesitant to rock the boat in fear of it reflecting negatively on their student evaluations. Adjunct faculty—fully half of the country’s teaching force—are swamped trying to piece together a living wage, often teaching at multiple institutions and without time to attend unpaid trainings. All of our hands are tied as we wait for strategic planning, curriculum committees, and corporate administration so notoriously slow that all we seem to have left is satire. The current cultural dialogue around higher education deems it—at best—broken. And yet, every week, we walk into classrooms full of young people, ready to learn.

*                      *                     *

In a creative writing class nearly two decades ago, my fellow students and I showed up to an empty room; the tables and chairs shoved out into the hall. It was… weird. We were like, the hell is this? It was near the end of the semester and we’d been busting our asses on final rewrites. Exams were coming up in other classes and most of us had jobs, often more than one, to cover rent and tuition and unpaid internships and maybe food? Also: the pressures that come with future plans and familial expectations and what am I doing with my life? Also: student loans and a shitty economy and continuing job loss. Also: social lives, the ebb and flow of love and loss. Also: the quiet, individual mountains we were each trying to climb; sickness and sick parents and single parenthood, violence and healing, addiction and recovery, and the daily instances of sexism or racism or homophobia so prevalent and relentless it’s a wonder we haven’t burned all this bullshit to the ground. All this to say: we were on edge.

Our teacher came in and told us that today, we’d be taking a break. Today, we would just talk. “Today,” he said, “we’ll try to remember why we’re here in the first place.” We’d been with this man long enough to trust the process. His class was truly a safe space, allowing us to push past comfort zones into difficult work and difficult discussion. He was easily the most demanding teacher I’d ever had, the first person to show me that my work had value and, in the same breath, challenge me to make it better.

That day, he asked us a series of questions. It went like this: “If writing is your art, stand against that wall,” he’d say, pointing to one side of the room. “If writing is your job, stand against the other wall.” Then he’d indicate the empty space between and give us permission to stand there, as well—imagine a spectrum as opposed to a binary—whatever best illustrated how we felt in that particular moment. Then, one by one, he’d invite us to explain why we’d chosen to stand where we were standing.

It was the beginning of the ongoing dialogue I have with myself about my own privilege.

The discussions were incredible. We dug into definitions of art, of audience, what it meant to be a working writer, submission and publication and the editorial process, and the contributions we hoped our work would make to a greater cultural dialogue. We listened to each other, sometimes physically moving across the room based on what someone else said. Our teacher asked, “What is missing from this conversation?” He asked, “What steps do you have to take to get from where you’re standing now to where you want to be?” He asked how we thought our work would be perceived.

“For example,” he said, “if your writing is political, stand against that wall.” He pointed. “If it doesn’t have anything to do with politics, stand against the other wall.”

I didn’t have to think about it—Not political—and when it was my turn to explain, I said, “I write love stories.”

Across the room, an openly gay student was backed against the opposite wall. “I write love stories,” he said.

To this day, I struggle to explain what happened in that moment. All of the cliché’s apply: light bulb, lightning, ton of bricks. I’d just turned twenty, from a very small, very sheltered town in Southeast Michigan, and while educating me and other white, straight students was most certainly not this student’s job, the simple gift of his perspective cracked the world open. It was the first time I’d considered how a person could be perceived differently based on their identity.

My discomfort was immediate. I felt my cheeks turn red, overwhelmed with shame for all I didn’t know. But truly, who has time for such things? As Justin Campbell wrote at the Los Angeles Review of Books: “People are dying out here; we don’t have time for bullshit.” My teacher stepped in, immediately flipping the conversation from guilt to responsibility. He gave us data. He assigned readings from multiple perspectives and invited us to develop our own. He said, “You are the ones who can change it,” and, “Where do you want to be standing?”

In the end, I walked across the room to the opposite wall.

It was the beginning of the ongoing dialogue I have with myself about my own privilege.

*                      *                     *

Now, in faculty development workshops, I shove tables and chairs into the hall. “If you’re here to teach your discipline, stand against that wall,” I say, pointing. “If you’re here to save lives, stand over there.” I point in the other direction and then indicate the empty space between.

Sometimes, they give me a look: the hell is this? Others have worked with me long enough to trust the process. But always, I’m grateful for the willingness to share.

In the decade that I’ve been asking this question—at institutions both within the academy and the community; graduate professors to kindergarten teachers; and at educational conferences across the country—teachers have spread out across the spectrum, a bar graph of bodies. They explain their frustrations, their fears, the lack of resources and institutional support. And yet.

Years ago, I listened to Jen Peepas talk about an activity she wanted to try in a unit on casting. How can we challenge our students to change the world? I remember she stood at the exact center of the room—teach the discipline, save lives.

We let ourselves dream. What would that look like in my classroom?

What about in your classroom?

Megan Stielstra is the author of Once I was Cool. Her work is included in the Best American Essays, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus , and elsewhere, and her next collection, COME HERE FEAR, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, she tells stories for theaters, festivals, and bars (many, many bars) around the country including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Goodman, and National Public Radio. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University.

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