Race in the Classroom

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

When I first started teaching in the 1980s, I was well-intentioned and, per discussions on campus, had begun addressing race in my classes. Doing so, it was argued, should help address issues of retention and graduation. I don’t have these numbers for that period, but our current 6-year graduation rate for White students is 53% – and appallingly low for Black and Hispanic students, respectively 17 and 28% (Institute of Education Sciences, 2018).

After class in about 1987, one student (kindly) noted that all of my examples had been negative in tone. Shortly after that I had a dream where I was talking to him. Naked. Clearly, I believed he had seen through me in a way that I hadn’t understood myself.

Since then, I have tried to identify more successful ways of considering race. Our daughter is biracial, which has helped me see/understand race on a more intimate level. I am a member of my state association’s Committee on Multiculturalism. I have written two books that directly focus on race (among other things).

I am still, however, trying to identify more successful ways of talking about race. These are some of the things I’ve been considering on this journey.

Can our students see themselves in our courses?

Can our students “see themselves” in the stories, pictures, authors, and issues discussed in class? My colleague, Brian, teaches August Wilson’s play Fences in his Drama as Lit class. Fences explores how race and racism impact a Pittsburgh family. Can his African American students see themselves in this play? Almost certainly. In Forensic Psychology, my students discuss the roles of race and racism in the criminal justice system – how Whites have difficulty making accurate eye witness identifications of Blacks, how Blacks are over-represented in traffic stops and prisons and receive disproportionately more severe sentences. Failing to mention these issues would likely make my class feel irrelevant to my African American students, who know that one in three African American males end up in prison at some point in their lives.

It may be easy for students to see themselves among the criminals we discuss in class, some, like Richard Cotton, falsely accused and later exonerated, but what do students take from such discussions? If we want our course to be seen as relevant to our racial minority students, I believe we must present both positive as well as negative images. I include Bryan Stevenson’s moving TED talk, but not until the end of the semester, when we’re discussing the death penalty. What does that say to my students? Is this enough to counter all of the negative images presented in class?

Is this an inclusive image?

I gave a well-received workshop at a community college in New Jersey, where one of the participants came up during a break to comment on a photo I had used (on the left). I had chosen that particular photo because I believed it had a diverse group of students in the photo – by my count, probably five of the ten students. He argued that at a very diverse school like theirs, he would choose a much more representative photo than this one. Sometimes you can’t win, even when you try – yet, I also understand his concerns about this photo.

Similarly, my friend Melissa observed that one White student complained that “all the authors are Black” in the first section of her composition course (in fact, four of seven were). Does making space for minority students necessarily come at the expense of White students? Can we help each feel heard?

These are not easily resolved issues.

Do students believe we listen to them?

Another strategy for addressing race and increasing graduation rates is to consider how we communicate with our students. Do our students – all of our students – believe they can ask questions, be heard, and receive help?

As we were discussing perceptions of being heard or not, an assertive African American woman with a QPA near 4.0 talked about having her hand ignored or sometimes dismissed in a science course. How might such an experience influence how she saw the class material, herself, and her future success? Would she see our university as a good fit for her?

We can review our syllabi and ask ourselves to what degree our syllabus communicates that we will show genuine respect for students and a belief in their abilities (Finley & McNair, 2013). Do we communicate that we expect our students to succeed? Do we offer opportunities to succeed? This is from my online Abnormal Psychology course:

 I am looking forward to working closely with you this semester, and you can expect me to play an active role in our course. Our correspondence will be primarily through the Discussions and Announcements areas. I will post announcements regularly, answer questions in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board in D2L, and provide detailed feedback on major assignments. I will email you when there is a time-sensitive issue.

If you have a general question, post it in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board so everyone can profit. Answer each other’s questions if you get there first. If your question is more specific, email me. I generally respond to email within 24 hours. If I don’t, I missed your email – try again. Please reach out if you need help—that’s why I’m here!

I will set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and meet with you on Zoom. If you would especially like to “talk” with me make sure that I know when works for you. If your group wants to talk, identify at least two options for times and let me know. I’ll try to make this work.

Pro Tip: I check the Virtual Office Hours and Announcements regularly! I want to help you stay on track!

Are our classes relevant to their goals?

Another way of responding to this issue of addressing race in the classroom is to consider whether students will likely perceive our classes and assignments as relevant to their future goals (Finley & McNair, 2013). I know why my students should complete my assignments, but do they see them as important and relevant? Do they understand what they will gain from them? Of course, addressing relevance is not the same as catering to a simplistic perception of college as only job preparation.

How can we help our students recognize that their goals and ours are consistent? As I’ve considered this issue, I’ve begun consciously identifying my goals in class and on assignments. This, for example, is from my media analysis assignment in Forensic Psychology:

Why this assignment? The ability to think critically about what you read and see is an important skill that will benefit you in many different parts of your life, not just in your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.

Some final thoughts

Although I’ve been talking about our minority students, these strategies seem likely to increase our White students’ success, too. All of our students need to be seen, to be heard, to find their education is relevant to them, to believe that their professors expect they will be successful, to believe they belong (Escarcha, 2019).

We can’t make everyone succeed, but we can increase the likelihood that our students will be successful. What do you do to help your students – majority students or otherwise – become successful?


Escarcha, K. (2019, January 24). 5 inspiring messages every student needs to hear. EAB. Retrieved from https://eab.com/daily-briefing/2019/01/24/5-inspiring-messages-every-student-needs-to-hear

Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2018). IPEDS. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/InstitutionProfile.aspx?unitId=adacacb1afaf

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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