In the late
1960’s, many African American communities, scholars,
activists, and professionals demanded African American
experiences be included in the American higher educational
system. This led to the establishment of Black Studies
programs and departments (Conyers, 1997; Karenga, 1993;
McClendon, 1974, Rojas, 2007; Rooks, 2006). These additions
to college and university curricular offerings demonstrated
institutional commitment to the inclusion of non-European
histories and perspectives. This commitment was often
implemented as a social science, ethnic studies, general
education, or diversity requirement. Now, most higher
education institutions offer multicultural or diversity
courses in their curriculums (Onyekwuluje
in Vargas, 2002, p. 46). Many of these courses are embedded
into the required core curriculum options.
Studies departments or programs are epistemologically rooted
in Afrocenticity (Asante, 1988; Mazama, 2001). That is,
making African culture the starting point for seeking,
acknowledging, comprehending and analyzing knowledge, as
well as the world. As a result, the teaching learning
environment centers the curriculum within a historical and
cultural framework that includes African American students’
experiences instead of excluding them.
Active and Reflective
learning is a common theme in many classrooms of higher
education (Brockbank & McGill, 2007; Meyers & Jones, 1993).
Because it focuses on the teacher serving more as a guide to
students on their educational quests, it places students at
the forefront of their own education. As a result, students
are more engaged in the content and more participatory in
class (Petress, 2008). In fact, research has shown since
Bonwell and Eison’s early piece popularizing the concept
that students retain more information when active learning
strategies, such as class discussions and visual aids are
used (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Engaging students is one way
of facilitating their learning. Getting them to reflect upon
their educational process, as well as what they learned is
another reflective learning practice (Moon, 2004).
learning involves students pausing from their learning
process to ponder what and how they are learning. The
introspection can lead to self discovery, solutions to
problems and critical thinking (LaBoskey, 1993). John
Dewey, Paulo Freire, David Kolb, Graham Gibbs and other
experiential theorists advocate for transformative learning,
which is a salient component of my teaching philosophy and
pedagogy. Reflective learning models illustrate how the
learner reflects upon an experience and then continuously
utilizes those learned outcomes in future situations,
thereby creating a constant cycle of learning. In essence,
active learning was the space in which I taught the first
class, and reflective learning was an integral component of
the restructured one.
The Initial Course:
Introduction to Black Studies
year teaching at Midwestern University
began in the fall of 2002 as the political scientist in the
Black Studies department. I was also a member of the
political science (the only African American) and women’s
studies faculty. Although I taught courses on black women
in America and the Introduction to Political Science course,
my primary class was the Introduction to Black Studies
class, of which I taught two sections during the fall and
spring semesters, and one in the summer. In any section,
there were usually fifty white students, no more than eight
students and two international students (usually
representing countries in Africa and the Middle East) in a
class of approximately sixty.
Geographically, the majority of undergraduate and graduate
students attending the university were Caucasian from Iowa,
Kansas, Nebraska, and surrounding mid United States areas,
often referred to as the Heartland. The remaining students
were African American, international students, Latino, Asian
American, and Native American in that descending order. All
these groups combined only totaled approximately fifteen per
cent (15%) of the entire enrollment.
University’s curriculum emphasized students’ acknowledgment
of the diversity in the world around them. To that end, it
required each student to graduate with a social science
requirement. That requirement could be met by passing a
course on African Americans, Latino Americans, Native
Americans, or women. The course carried three academic
credits and fulfilled the university’s diversity
requirement. This meant that most students were in a
required course because they had to be, and not in a course
they selected based on their interests.
were advised to meet their social science requirement in
their first year. However, some students decided to complete
it after their first year, creating a class mixture ranging
from first-year students to seniors from various majors.
This mixture of academic levels and extent of college
experiences further complicated matters, especially in such
large classes of approximately sixty students (Sampaio,
2006, p. 922, reference number 5).
After a few
weeks of class, I began to notice the uneasiness of students
during discussions, videos, and presentations. Most of them
were passive, but some were clearly frustrated and
defensive. Initially, I thought it was simple student apathy
and lack of preparation and seriousness towards the class
that students will exhibit. After all, students are more
apprehensive about participating in large classes, (Gleason,
1986), as well as speaking in front of their peers (Weaver &
Qi, 2005). However, after teaching political science and
international relations courses to predominantly white
students, at Midwestern and other colleges and universities,
I realized the negative responses were not results of
student unpreparedness for class, but something more
previous classes, I did not encounter questions and comments
on the accuracy and validity of the readings, videos,
textbook, or me as the professor. For example, one student
actually asked, “Are you really our teacher?” I also did
not receive personal attacks on my student evaluations like
the ones from the Introduction to Black Studies class. For
instance, one student wrote “Dr. Brown [my maiden name] is a
bitter black woman, and I would not recommend this class to
anyone.” Or, “I felt that this class was an excuse for her
to rant & rave and mention as many times as she could that
African Americans were oppressed and that whites are bad.”
resistance to classes on race and racism has been
chronicled. Tactics range from withdrawing from the course,
not participating in class discussions (Whitten, 1993) to
physical and verbal assault and harassment (Pope & Joseph in
Benjamin, 1997). Students often find it difficult to discuss
racial matters (Tatum 2007), due to their lack of a clear
understanding of racial inequalities and prejudices in
American history. Indeed, those of the dominant culture did
seem to harbor resistance because Black Studies addresses
privilege and power relations (Hedley & Markowitz, 2001).
Discovering unpleasant facts about America’s founders such
as, George Washington owning slaves, and Thomas Jefferson
owning and fathering slave children
challenged dominate beliefs that formed their understanding
of history and what they had been socialized to believe.
White students were confronted with viewing the United
States from perspectives, structures, and laws that enforced
exclusion and inequality, not the democratic values of
inclusion and equality they were taught. Thus, they
experienced cognitive dissonance, which resulted in
resisting the class and me.
dissonance is a social psychology theory put forth by Leon
Festinger (1957). Its premise rests on the idea that when
students encounter new information that is incongruent with
their established understandings, they experience
psychological distress (McFalls & Cobb-Roberts, 2001). This
internal struggle triggers numerous responses, such as
negative student evaluations.
students’ preconceived notions about the course and the
instructor, coupled with the fact that the course was
required and focused on sensitive content, generated student
resistance (Perry et al, 2009). Even though the class was
multi-cultural, white student opposition was prominent, and
went beyond regular student lethargy and unpreparedness. The
possibility of resistance hindering students’ progress
troubled me (Tatum, 1992). I knew I had to engage all of the
students in order for them to learn, but I had additional
obstacles to overcome in order to reach resisting white
students. So, I began to analyze my teaching materials and
The New Approach: Engaging
Students through Connecting and Reflecting
It was my
intent to re-create the course to encourage student
engagement. I wanted students to view themselves as active
participants in their learning to empower them (Harvey &
Knight, 1996). Because Black Studies calls for Afro centered
pedagogies, Manning Marable provided the best paradigm for
the restructuring. He called it ‘living history’. This is a
multidisciplinary approach to teaching millennial students
African American history. Oral histories, technology,
photography, film and multimedia digital technology are
tools used to connect millennial students to the past,
present and future (Marable, 2006). But, my approach,
Engaging Students through Connecting and Reflecting (ESTCR),
is applicable to any course focusing on sensitive topics and
will be explained in detail later. For now, I want to
describe and explain the restructured Introduction to Black
class was first taught in the Fall of 2004. Restructuring
the class involved augmenting my active learning approach by
utilizing Marable’s ‘living history’ concept, along with a
reflective learning assignment. The reflective assignment
was also an oral history project because it involved
personal interviews. To help students connect with the
history and current issues of African Americans, historical
artifacts were incorporated into class discussions (Gould in
Cree, 2000). A new anti-racist text was also an element of
White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of
Racism edited by Paula S. Rothenberg was added as the
second required book after teaching the class for two years
It was used to introduce students to white scholars’
analyses on, and solutions to white privilege. By reading
and discussing white scholars’ perspectives on the social
advantages of being white and disadvantages of being black,
students examined the legal, social and psychological
impacts of white privilege on their everyday existence
(Jensen, 2005; McIntosh, 1988). But what was most
enlightening and encouraging was how it gave white students
the freedom to express their feelings of guilt, anger,
sorrow, and regret at manipulated or eliminated elements of
American history as they had been socialized to understand
it (Burrell & Walsh, 2001). The book also allowed
discussions on why some white students felt resentment, but
not blame for the actions, prejudices, and legislation of
important for students to first understand African American
history in order to comprehend current African American
issues. It was also important to encourage them to
critically think and act outside their comfort zone when
discussing racism and American history. This required the
establishment of a supportive classroom environment based on
trust, positive feedback and thoughtful handling of the
content by me (Gilbert & Eby, 2001; Hyde & Ruth, 2002). To
foster a comfortable environment, students were allowed to
become acquainted with each other and me on the first day of
scheduled classes through an ice breaker.
day of class introductions prepared students to become
comfortable with encountering, new, different and perhaps
unsettling content and class discussions. Since my teaching
style is based in Socratic dialogue (Saran & Neisser, 2004),
class discussions are intermingled with lecture. Emphasis is
placed on the opportunity for every student to express their
opinion without physical or extreme verbal responses.
Students are encouraged to listen to other opinions, and if
they disagree, they must logically and respectfully
articulate why they disagree (Birnbacher & Krohn in Saran &
introductions, the class was made aware that sensitive
issues would be presented and discussed throughout the
semester and that those issues may raise certain questions
and comments about the world as they knew it. An explanation
and description of class content was not included in the
first year. But implementation of the new approach in the
second year, seemed to diffuse most of the tension and
relieve some anxiety about what the class would entail. I
noticed white students were more relaxed and less defensive,
while black students became more serious about the class. In
an effort to allow students to learn more from their
classmates’ opinions, and maintain healthy dialogues, an
environment of respect had to be created and maintained.
Therefore, it was also emphasized that the instructor would
moderate the class and its discussions at all times, thereby
providing set parameters for dialogues that promoted
critical thinking (Birnbacher & Krohn in Saran & Neissser,
third year, original artifacts obtained through eBay from
the nineteenth and twentieth century were used. My husband,
a former educator, suggested bringing authentic (as
possible) historical relics into the classroom for visual
support of the texts.
For example, when students were shown freedom medallions,
“colored only” signs, and children’s marbles with packaging
showing the morphing of a black man into a watermelon, they
old fashioned hand held fans depicting a man of dark
complexion with enlarged white eyes and protruding red lips
advertising everything from “Darkie toothpaste,” to a
“Coon-Chicken Inn” to cigarettes and restaurant menus, they
were equally as shocked. We also discussed the “Aunt Jemima”
relics picturing an overweight black woman in her fifties
with a head scarf and very black face to help them
understand why some people take issue with the original
“Aunt Jemima” pancake box image. They were also shown a
metal yard fence sign that read “No dogs, Negros, or
Mexicans” to remind them that it was not that long ago in
U.S. history that the derogatory relics were acceptable and
commonly used in the U.S.
the provocative text written from the perspective of white
scholars’ analyses of race and racism within society
combined with visual aids and peer discussions drew students
into the class content. To touch objects that were identical
to, or represented the past was invaluable towards their
understanding of what they read, saw, or discussed (Dagbovie,
Personal Interviews: New
Reflective Learning Teaching Tool
discrimination and prejudice through conversation and follow
up class discussions was the focal point of the Personal
Interviews assignment. Although this type of pedagogical
tool was later outlined by Dagbovie in 2006 as a means for
millennial African American students to engage and learn
from elders in the African American community, my assignment
was used to connect millennial students from various
cultures with preferably African Americans in the local
community. However, it was a deliberate attempt to engage
white students who had previously exhibited resistance
(Tatum, 1992). But, in order for them to appreciate the
assignment and its outcomes, students were allowed to select
and interview any relative, neighbor, or friend who was at
least an adolescent during the 1950’s and 1960’s in the
United States. They were instructed on interview protocol,
as well as provided three questions to which they could add
as many as they wished, after my approval. The assignment
was due at the end of the semester and included a reflective
essay. This portion was particularly revealing in terms of
the impact the assignment had on the individual.
Interviews were successful because students were able to
hear history. They experienced African American history
through their relatives and friends who conveyed real
emotions and thoughts about real events about which the
students had previously only heard of, or read. The outcome
was particularly enlightening and moving for white students
interviewing their relatives. Many family stories were
revealed, which made the experience and assignment extremely
personal. This convergence of awareness and life experience
created the bridge between African American history and
contemporary African American issues. For instance, after
conducting the interviews, some students understood the
arguments for Affirmative Action after comprehending the
extent of the historical exclusion of African Americans from
the educational system.
thinking, and in some instances, the change of mind-set
resulting from the out of classroom interviews diffused the
class tension and resistance, as well as provided a base for
viewing American history from various perspectives.
Reflection sections of the Personal Interview assignment
revealed how much students acknowledged class content
“coming to life” and becoming more real. Students said they
“learned something new” about African Americans, racism, and
America. Other comments made included, “This interview shed
some light on racism,” and “As I am absorbing all of this
information from this interview and learning new things in
class that I never knew before about the history of African
Americans, it’s very hard to grasp the idea that blacks were
treated in such a horrible manner. It makes me feel anger
and heartbroken to actually realize that such things did
In the end,
acknowledging and accepting new perspectives through the
newly structured class stimulated student’s critical
thinking because they became comfortable with entertaining
uncomfortable thoughts. While apparent tensions still
existed when discussing various topics and perspectives, it
was acknowledged that some tensions are healthy within class
discussions. Intense dialogue is a valuable component of the
evaluations reflected the positive responses to the Personal
Interviews, as well as the historical relics, and both
texts. One evaluation in particular captured the
transformations some students experienced. The student
writes, “This class was required by my program. I was not
really excited to take it because it is a very sore subject.
Dr. Crosby did a fabulous job in teaching this subject. She
made you think.”
Conclusion and Best
Practices for Teaching Other Challenging Courses
on teaching controversial issues that provide steps for
instructors, follow a similar prescription. Most commonly
are the importance of establishing a comfortable and safe,
yet respectful and structured environment for open
discussions, or as Cherrin (1993) terms it, “freedom with
structure.” Early established ground rules for discussion
are suggested (Lampert & Eastman, 2008; Pace, 2003) as are
methods to generate discussion (Payne & Gainey,
2003; Welty, 1989). Also, teacher sensitivity to the subject
and student responses, diffusing conflict and confronting
biased, offensive remarks are mentioned as important when
teaching sensitive topics (Cherrin, 1993). Not so common was
introspection by the instructor on her/his approach and
attitude towards the issue, or communities associated with
Many of the
suggestions on teaching controversial topics are included in
my approach, but I wanted to provide conceptual links to the
process. Although steps and comments on implementing those
steps are provided, there is not necessarily a conceptual
link or framework to the steps. Thus, my approach allows
instructors to utilize their own delivery, but within a
process that is broad, yet defined enough to attain an
outcome of addressing student resistance when teaching
courses on challenging subjects.
which I’m entitling, Engaging Students through Connecting
and Reflecting (ESTCR), is multidisciplinary. It can be
utilized in any course centered on sensitive issues, such as
mental health, Native American history, sexual orientation,
HIV-AIDS, or creationism. Any course involving emotional
topics, that may also be associated with public policies, as
well as individual morals and beliefs, will generate
passionate discussions. Although these courses tend to be
situated within the social sciences, natural science courses
that address medical and ethical questions, such as In-vitro
Fertilization, stem cell research, euthanasia and gender
selection may also benefit from this approach. In addition,
ESTCR definitely takes into consideration teaching
millennial students in a challenging class by also including
technology and social media as an engaging, connecting, or
Students through Connecting and Reflecting includes
the established elements of creating a safe, comfortable
environment, but after the instructor has evaluated her or
his personal feelings towards the subject. I also include
setting ground rules for discussion, careful selection of
course materials, considering student backgrounds, as well
as responding positively to students, yet redirecting their
remarks and behavior if necessary. The additional element
that my approach offers is including an active learning
assignment that involves an interview, as well as a
‘demonstration’ segment, or activity where students can
manipulate items associated with the topic. Artifacts are
especially useful in classes where historical evidence of
the topic exist, i.e. flyers, buttons, yard signs, etc. My
addition of original artifacts and the Personal Interviews
are definitely active and reflective learning tools that may
motivate students from any discipline in a challenging class
to engage in the content. Engaging Students through
Connecting and Reflecting works for new teachers, as
well as seasoned instructors.
prescribed process includes, but is not limited to:
Evaluate Yourself and Your Class
This is the
first step towards engaging students so they may connect and
reflect upon the subject matter. The teacher should begin by
examining her/his perspective on the topic. Perhaps a close
colleague, mentor or friend can help the teacher to
introspectively evaluate her/his position on the subject, as
well as a group of people associated with it. If the
instructor knows, or discovers prejudice, or other
difficulty speaking on the subject from a neutral viewpoint,
he/she should take time to address this prior to teaching
impressionable and perhaps combative students. At some
point, the lecturer should take the opportunity to teach
students the significance of using a critical lens on
themselves. This helps facilitate moving beyond resistance
to acknowledging other perspectives. Ultimately, critical
self-examination, as difficult as it may be, can foster the
classification, cultures, life experiences and backgrounds
of students will vary. This variety may impact the
composition of the class. However, each class will be
different. The teacher must make an early estimate as to the
character of his/her class to determine the implementation
process of Engaging Students through Connecting and
lecturer is a member of, or descendant of the studied group,
her/his association may increase student apprehensions that
could lead to, or exacerbate resistance. This is a very
delicate situation that can only be addressed by the
individual instructor’s interactions with the class. The
teacher must find a way to sympathize, yet teach from a
neutral standpoint. This can be extremely difficult if the
issue and the communities associated with it have
experienced violence, discrimination, and prejudice.
Instructors might seek therapeutic conversations and
encouragement from trusted colleagues, religious and
community leaders, or anyone with which they can share their
provide emotional releases that help the teacher grapple
with painful events, while remaining as neutral as possible
when teaching. However, personal stories might reveal the
actuality of the issues. Of course, disclosure is completely
up to the instructor. But, by discussing their own
experiences (especially if asked by students), teachers
could reassure students that sensitive topics are
discussable in her/his class. However, this does not remove
the obligation of the teacher to correct, or redirect
student comments when they are egregiously damaging and
Creating Safe Zones
must set a friendly, comfortable environment. Ice breakers
or games that place students in groups, or have them seek
out persons with the same colored paper clip, sticky note,
or other identifier encourages conversation. Conversation
allows students to get to know their classmates. Once
sufficient time has been allotted for the ice breaker, the
instructor will need to allow every student to speak about
at least one classmate with whom they have spoken. After
the entire class has participated, the instructor will need
to acknowledge the differences and similarities brought up
in the class, i.e. only child, favorite color, residing in
the same residence hall. It is then up to the teacher to
expound upon how disclosed differences and similarities open
the door for greater acquaintance with their classmates.
a comfortable, intimate setting, the teacher sets the tone
for subsequent class discussions that may become tenuous and
emotional. These types of responses require student
assurance that their verbal participation will not be
condemned. A classroom environment that fosters a feeling of
camaraderie helps students to participate knowing that their
thoughts will be acknowledged and respected. Make students
aware early that they will encounter images, readings,
texts, discussions and speakers that may upset their view of
the world. But, remind them that they are in class to learn
and that learning means being open to new ideas and
thoughts, even if they disagree.
discussion ground rules on the first day is essential.
Students must feel that the instructor is in charge of the
class and will moderate all discussions fairly. It is
important to establish an environment of respect for the
teacher and all students by acknowledging students’ comments
without personal interjections. Instructors should only
provide opinions when students ask for their specific
viewpoints. Otherwise, the discussion should be facilitated
by acknowledging all students who wish to participate by
respectfully raising their hands.
students must be shown and taught to tolerate and respect
all opinions. They must be instructed on how to carry out
class discussions. If they disagree, they must articulate
why they disagree. This helps to inform the class of various
opinions. Often, students will see the other perspective and
may even change their original thoughts. Ground rules should
be revisited as often as necessary. One might even wish to
include them in the syllabus, or as a separate handout.
This is also
an appropriate time to distribute a pre-survey to assess
student knowledge, as well as perspectives on the topic.
Questions may be redistributed at the end of the class to
determine changes in viewpoints and presence of learning.
Pre and post surveys may assist in pedagogical adjustments
for subsequent classes. Prior to each implementation, the
instructor should inform students that the questionnaire is
strictly voluntary. They should also be assured that names
are not required. Instead, students should be provided a
number or alphabet letter for anonymous identification
during analyses. Naturally, Institutional Review Board (IRB)
approval must be obtained, if necessary.
Reflective Learning Tool
introduction of an active learning assignment that provides
structured encounters with a group connected with the
sensitive topic gives students an opportunity to engage
persons of the group in conversation. Dialogue fosters
discoveries of different perspectives that hopefully lead to
a better understanding of the issue, or associated group.
Similarly, if a particular community is not associated with
the issue, examination of personal narratives linked with
the issue is appropriate for encouraging student engagement.
engagement is central to making students aware of how
certain issues impact a particular group directly. Prior to
engagement, students may only be aware of the issues from
afar. They rely upon the media, family and peers for
perspectives and information. But once students have an
opportunity to see and hear how the issues impact members of
the specific group on a daily, emotional and physical basis,
they may be open up to viewing the group members
differently, which could then give them a new perspective on
the issue and the related group.
students to the historical and contemporary events,
individuals, groups and discussions surrounding the topic is
critical to their understanding and learning. Then, the
class becomes a bridge between students feeling detached
from the issue and those impacted by it, to consideration
and perhaps concern.
allows students to think about the engaging exercise and
process. They have time to contemplate their feelings prior
to, during and after the reflective exercise. Then, they
document these thoughts in writing or audio. Having words to
reflect upon, gives students time to reflect upon their
thoughts at different intervals. Early opinions of “busy
work” can give way to thoughts of inspiration, shame, or
motivation to work for change.
Students through Connecting and Reflecting can be very
effective. It may be applied in any discipline in a class
that teaches sensitive subject matter, or anytime difficult
dialogues occur because the approach is transferable to
discussions on other challenging concepts, not just
students are exposed to new experiences and ideas, they may
exhibit resistance, confusion and distance, but if they are
given an opportunity to connect with events and individuals
associated with the new concept, and then reflect upon the
entire process, they are learning because they are engaged.
When students are engaged in their learning process, they
feel empowered, and empowered learners are potentially in
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