Incivility and the Censored Voice in the Classroom by Stacy Harwood

In the third part of a series on the “Future of Academic Freedom and the Arts,” Stacy Harwood, Associate Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, considers civility and inclusivity in classrooms and instructional spaces, with a focus on student perspectives. While campuses have welcomed increasingly diverse pools of incoming students, reports and studies continue to underscore how diversification in college admissions does not automatically produce greater cross-cultural awareness or engagement. Harwood explores students’ willingness to address and speak out on the issue on our own campus, highlighting data from her new collaborative study about racial micro aggression in the classroom.– ac 


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Shortly after the 2006 student protest over the Tacos and Tequila theme party, my colleagues and I organized a research team to examine racism on the Illinois campus. Explicit racism is easier to identify; but more subtle and everyday forms of racism, called “racial microaggressions” are harder to notice, even if they are more common. We started with focus groups and later published a report about racial microaggression in university housing.

We also launched a web-based survey instrument to better understand the extent of racism on the Illinois campus that invited all students of color (student who are nonwhite, including multiracial, and U.S. citizens or permanent residents) on campus during the 2011-2012 academic year to participate. Nearly 5,000 students (45% of all students of color) responded. Our results tell a very different story than the university’s campus climate survey from the same year, which reported: “The primary finding of the survey is that faulty, students, and staff generally have a positive perception of overall climate.”

Here is what we found:

  • Nearly 1 out of every 3 students of color reported having their contributions minimized in class, being made to feel inferior in the classroom, and not being taken seriously in classes because of race.
  • Over 1 out of 3 students of color have experienced harassment (emotional, verbal or physical) on campus because of race.
  • Over half of students of color reported having stereotypes made about them in the classroom because of race.
  • Sixty percent of students of color have experienced racism on campus.
  • Almost eighty percent of students of color have felt that the campus is informally segregated based on race.

Thousands of personal stories were collected as well, revealing students’ experiences of “(un)civil” classroom behavior, the inability of many instructors to create inclusive classroom environments, and campus contexts where racial microaggressions commonly occur.

* I didn’t understand one of the concepts the instructor was talking about and asked him to slow down. He made fun of me and said, “Hey everyone, I guess I have to slow down for the Chinese girl.”

* In an online class, classmates spent a lot of time trying to convince me that “the N-word” was once an OK word to use and not an insult. This was in spring of 2010.  I tried to explain that it was always insulting… It was very frustrating that they could not hear my point of view and really wanted me to be OK with this.  The instructor did not get involved in the conversation.

* I was talking to a professor who was advising me about academic issues. The professor was already talking to me as if he was talking to a 3 year old, and the reason seemed to be my accent. He was laughing at any doubt I had or language mistake I made with an offensive undertone. It took over a year of meeting with him at least once a month for him to realize that I was as capable as any American student.

* The most common occurrence is in classes where the Caucasian professor is clearly biased toward students of Caucasian descent. The situation is often very frustrating as it’s often very discouraging and much more difficult for me to participate in class as a result. This is evident simply in the way that the professor tends to cater discussion specifically with these certain students occasionally leaving the rest of the class out of the loop. 

* I took a course on British colonialism and when I tried to share my very relevant views as a member of the South Asian diaspora I was belittled by the professor for using my personal experience in an academic setting.

* My first semester on campus, I was the only black girl in one of my classes. When working in groups with my white peers…. I was ignored. They did not value or consider my opinions, responses or input. They made it very clear by not including me in the group discussions… At times, I felt like the white professor was in on the mocking and humiliating as well. She heard and saw the way the mistreated me by not including me… but never said a word.

* On several occasions I experienced a professor using the N-word to help elaborate a point he was trying to make…. Throughout this class he made and allowed others in the class to make several racist and sexist remarks based entirely off of stereotypes. It got so bad that several students met with the professor to speak directly to him about the use of his offensive language and he continued the use of this offensive language during the meeting. He said that he would later address the racist and sexist issues in class, but then he addressed all the issues except the fact that he had inappropriately used the N-word on several occasions and it was wrong and he will never use it again. This entire experience made me feel marginalized, hurt, upset, and wonder how in the world did a professor in the field that I am in be allowed to continue up the ranks when he inherently holds so many racist and sexist beliefs.

* When the professor mentioned Mexicans, I was asked directly if I knew how they had gotten here. To put this into perspective, this is a class of about 70 people and about 5 of us are Latino. The professor does not know that I am Mexican but instead of asking for a volunteer he immediately pointed me out… I spoke to a fellow student about it and was told that, that’s how it is on this campus and it was one of those battles that are just left the way they are.

Notable assertions have been made by Chancellor Wise, President Easter and the Board of Trustee Kennedy on the need for civility on campus and in the classroom. While the focus has been on a single person, whose tweets some construed as offensive but whose sound teaching record remains unquestioned, the stories above about instructors on campus, students’ routine encounters with incivility in classrooms, and their experiences with non-inclusivity that result in the marginalization of their voices and censorship, remain unaddressed. Similar contradictions surround the case of another highly regarded instructor recently unhired by campus leadership in spite of being awarded for excellence and inclusivity in teaching.

The jarring findings from our interviews showcase the challenges we face as a university. And they underscore the need for more faculty who are sensitive to representing diverse and under-heard voices on our campus, and can create spaces to allow students to challenge dominant assumptions and common practice that sustain “uncivil” and non-inclusive behavior around us.

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Stacy Harwood is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning. Her research focuses on the emerging field of planning for difference and diversity. She links scholarship to planning practice by examining how practitioners deal with the mandates of participation and equity in land-use planning and how planning codes and regulations differentially affect diverse populations. She and colleagues will release a new study about racial microaggression in the classroom later this semester.

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About anitacks

assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the university of illinois at ubana-champaign. + digital ethnography, inter-disciplinary approaches to media and technology studies, and hybrid pedagogies. engaged in research on/with innovation policy and practices, global digital cultures and translocal interventions, latin american science and technology studies.
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