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Faculty whiteness complicates the classroom

Differences in faculty, student backgrounds can affect advising and classroom dynamics

The second in a three-part series exploring race and racism at Brown.

As leaders of classroom discussion, pedagogues and advisers, faculty members often must navigate their students’ beliefs and backgrounds, in many ways defining some students’ college experiences. But because white students and especially faculty members predominate at Brown, some students of color find themselves at a disadvantage, struggling to find mentors who can fully relate to their experiences.

There are nearly 10 times as many white faculty members as underrepresented minority faculty members at Brown. White students also outnumber students who identify as underrepresented minorities, but at a less drastic rate of just over two to one.

And more than a decade after then-President Ruth Simmons laid out improving faculty diversity as a goal in her Plan for Academic Enrichment — with limited success — it has again emerged as an administrative priority. President Christina Paxson announced at a faculty meeting last month that she intends to double the proportion of underrepresented minority faculty members in the next decade.

Miscues in the classroom

Students of color sometimes encounter difficulties in the classroom resulting from the differences between their experiences and those of white faculty members.

While Armani Madison ’16, president of Brown’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has not experienced outward racial bias from faculty members, he said, “race is dealt with quickly” in the classroom. When racial issues in the United States are brought up, they are frequently skirted by professors and summarized in the framework of the American people moving forward, he said.

White faculty members sometimes espouse views in class that should be questioned, said Emma, a junior whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

“I would love to see more initiatives aimed at making faculty aware of microaggressions and biases and how those could affect students in class,” she said.

But being of color is not necessary for a faculty member to handle discussions on race deftly in the classroom, Emma added. “I have professors who are not of color who have to talk about race and other sensitive issues who handle it very well.”

Still, the dynamics in a predominantly white classroom may pose challenges for students of color.

Often Madison is the only student of color in the room, he said. When subjects relating to race arise, he said, he is “looked to as the authority” on the subject by his peers.

Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’15, a double-concentrator in physics and Africana studies, also expressed frustration with the pressure of being one of few students of color in a classroom, especially in disciplines like physics and mathematics. If an underrepresented minority student fails a math exam, a professor might attribute the performance to the student’s racial identity, she said.

“If I don’t do well, then that’s just going to prove these people right,” Watson-Daniels said she often thinks while taking exams.

“It paralyzes you in a situation where you need to do well,” she added. “Your situation becomes less about … (figuring) out how to think about this problem and more about what’s going to happen if I can’t solve this problem.”

The pressure to perform in a predominantly white class taught by a white faculty member is particularly intense for students of color who may not have had high school preparation as strong as that of their peers, said Dolores Maldonado ’16, who came to Brown intending to concentrate in physics.

“If it’s a white professor, they expect me to be at the same level (as students with stronger high school preparation), so I need to prove that I don’t fit into stereotypes,” Maldonado said. “I need to speak very intellectually or formally to portray an image that they would want.”

Seeing “deplorably low” numbers of faculty members of color in senior administrative positions makes him feel out of place at a predominantly white institution, Madison said. He will “never be comfortable” at Brown, he added, due to the overwhelming lack of diversity.

But the small number of faculty members of color affects students in different ways. Coming from a private school background, Jordan Ferguson ’17, president of the Black Student Union, said he was accustomed to mostly white teachers before attending Brown. This semester, Ferguson is taking his first course taught by a professor of color — Keisha-Khan Perry, associate professor of Africana studies.

For Ferguson, it has been an “eye-opening experience.”

In Perry’s class, Ferguson feels more empowered and free to speak openly, he said. Perry has not shied away from racial issues but instead engages with them, creating a space in which they are deeply examined rather than briefly mentioned, he added.

Upon coming to College Hill, Ferguson was surprised by the paucity of faculty members of color because “Brown paints a picture of diversity,” he said, adding that the faculty should better reflect the diversity of the student body.

It is hard for students of color to find faculty members with whom to connect over shared experiences, he said.

Maahika Srinivasan ’15, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, said her experience as a student of color has been mixed. “There seems to be a lack of understanding of cultural backgrounds” in the classroom, she said.

“There’s a perception where students walk into (any large introductory class) and feel immediately disadvantaged in a sea of white students and usually a white professor,” Srinivasan said.

‘No one to turn to’

The lack of faculty diversity is particularly relevant to the strength of the advising system. Some students of color said they may encounter difficulties receiving mentorship from professors who do not have personal understanding of the experience of being a student of color in a predominantly white learning environment.

Students of color tend to go to faculty members of color as mentors, said Madison, a former Herald opinions columnist. Students “suffer” when there are so few mentors to look to, he said.

This difficulty in finding mentorship can cause students to question their prospects for success, he added.

After struggling in introductory physics classes for which her high school education did not prepare her well, Maldonado sought advice from faculty members, but she found that professors and deans, the vast majority of whom were white, did not understand the challenges someone of her race and class faces.

“There’s just no one to turn to as mentors,” Maldonado said. “When there’s someone who’s lived the complete opposite life of you or who can just not understand what your experience is being a minority, you just kind of feel alone — in a different world.”

After a difficult first-semester advising experience, Ferguson switched to a new adviser, Yolanda Rome, assistant dean of the College for first-year and sophomore studies. As a person of color, Rome could relate to Ferguson’s student experiences by initiating questions beyond academics and “allowing (them) to establish a better relationship,” he said.

But despite numerous challenges, Ferguson said he has found certain white faculty members to be “that extra resource” and “very supportive” to students of color, regardless of their different backgrounds.

In other cases, the disparity sometimes manifests in the guidance advisers give to students with whose backgrounds they may be unfamiliar.

There are only eight underrepresented minority faculty members in physical sciences departments at Brown, making up just over 4 percent of the faculty in those areas, according to Office of Institutional Research data.

Watson-Daniels said she was looking for guidance from a faculty member of color, but was “very disappointed in the University” because she felt “there wasn’t anyone” available to give her advice she needed on pursuing a career in physics.

Problems with STEM

But the difficulties that students of color concentrating in science, technology, engineering and math fields encounter extend beyond the relatively low proportions of faculty members and fellow students of color in those departments. Some students said there seems to be a way of thinking among some STEM students and professors that puts the burden of ameliorating a lack of diversity on the very groups that have historically been excluded from a white, male domain.

The general belief is that “women and minorities are the reason there aren’t a lot of women and minorities in STEM,” Watson-Daniels said, adding that white STEM students and professors have often chalked up their dominance in the field to greater interest in science.

“Science is thought of as something that is inherent and comes with an inherent passion that can’t really be taught,” Watson-Daniels said. The flip side, she added, is that those who perform poorly in STEM classes and later drop out of the field are led to believe they are simply not cut out for the discipline, instead of being encouraged and made aware of environmental factors or racial dynamics that may contribute to their difficulties.

This neglect of the influence of racial dynamics on students’ academic performance is particularly harmful in fields where a substantial number of students of color quit their intended concentrations for other departments outside of STEM, Watson-Daniels said.

Additionally, a lack of faculty diversity could weaken a facet of advising for white STEM concentrators who may not interact with racial issues in their personal lives or the classes they take. Because the open curriculum does not mandate that all students engage with issues of privilege and power, the burden lies with advisers to encourage students to look at courses dealing with racial issues, said Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies and director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

The Department of Physics has yet to institutionalize efforts to educate its faculty and students about the way racial identity may affect students’ success, said Jim Valles, professor and chair of the department.

In fact, students led the first formal attempt to bring the conversation on race and gender to the department: This semester, Watson-Daniels and 11 other students created a Group Independent Study Project on race and gender in STEM, Valles said.

As part of the GISP, the students presented a lecture to an introductory physics course that aimed “to get folks to start thinking about how race and gender can affect the experience of students in a physics classroom and to recognize that these problems are everyone’s problems,” said Abigail Plummer ’15, a member of the GISP.

Plummer said she received positive feedback from students who attended the lecture. She added that she hopes students participating in the GISP will lead a discussion with STEM faculty members about similar issues in the coming months.

Addressing the issues

Though Paxson announced her goal of bolstering faculty diversity last month, the racial composition of the faculty will not change significantly in a year or two — for now, the University must try to put its white faculty members in the best position to communicate with students of color about race, and faculty members must seek out available resources, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

“If you’re a professor in the U.S. and you are teaching in 2014, you have to be sensitive to your students,” Bogues said. “You have to understand … as much as one can, how does race impact the students in your class.” Just as a faculty member would seek to improve any other area of weakness in his or her teaching, an inability to be sensitive to students’ backgrounds is a pedagogical weakness that must be addressed, he added.

Some faculty members recognize their own struggles talking about race in the classroom and utilize University resources such as the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning to make improvements in their teaching approaches, Bogues said.

Aside from pedagogy, faculty members can turn to resources like Team Enhanced Advising and Mentoring, a program that helps faculty members work on their ability to advise students from underrepresented minority groups, Mandel said.

But when faculty members do not pick up on their own flaws and students repeatedly recognize a problem, the University has a responsibility to address it, Bogues said.

To bolster the chance that the University will pick up on a faculty member’s racial insensitivity, the administration may consider adding questions about a professor’s treatment of race in the classroom to course evaluations, said Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity.

The Office of Institutional Diversity, which Cariaga-Lo leads, will release a Diversity Action Plan in the coming months that will outline strategies to diversify the faculty and hold faculty members accountable for the way they handle racial issues. The report will also address staff diversity and undergraduate and graduate student support, Cariaga-Lo added.


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