Professors Who Teach About Race Approach the Fall With Anxiety

Professors Who Teach About Race Approach the Fall With Anxiety

Brian D. Behnken, an associate professor of history at Iowa State University, says the controversy that has enveloped the nation over teaching “divisive” concepts has had a notable effect on his campus.

In June, Iowa’s governor signed a bill prohibiting public schools and colleges from requiring any training that teaches that the United States or Iowa “are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” among other concepts.

The university responded quickly. The provost initially rejected proposed revisions of an undergraduate diversity requirement that Behnken and others had spent months developing, suggesting that some of the new learning outcomes could violate the new law. Then, the administration came out with a controversial set of guidelines for how to avoid violating the state’s strictures on racism and sexism training, and on diversity and inclusion efforts.

Just last week, administrators modified their stance, but in ways that Behnken still finds concerning. They agreed to adopt the new learning outcomes, but with the caveat that students did not need to meet all of them. Revised teaching guidance made clearer that most academic courses would not draw scrutiny if they are not mandatory, and as long as instructors who teach about concepts defined in the law make sure they are “germane” to the class, and students are free to express their opinions.

Who, Behnken wonders, will determine what is germane?

Behnken will be teaching a Mexican American history course this fall that deals with segregation and discrimination. He has no intention of changing what or how he teaches. But, he notes, he is tenured. For instructors who are in a more vulnerable position, he said, the law and the university’s responses have caused confusion, anger, and stress. Some are “sanitizing” their course content to avoid discussions of race.

The idea that I would be pointing my finger at white students and saying, ‘This is all your fault because all white people are racist,’ this is just not something we do.

Iowa State professors may feel like they are in the hot seat, but they’re far from alone. Conservative lawmakers across the country are saying that teachers and professors are discussing racism and sexism in ways that are anti-American, and blaming contemporary students for past events. While just a few states have passed laws that restrict college teaching, legislators in about two dozen states have introduced bills attempting to ban the teaching of “divisive” concepts or taken other actions that restrict teaching, and several have passed laws affecting public-school teachers. Even in states where such legislation would stand little chance, professors say they increasingly feel under surveillance.

To be sure, many professors argue that these bills are simply political theater, designed to score points with voters and difficult to enforce if passed. And they point out that the concepts described in many of them — like the “race or sex scapegoating” prohibited by the Iowa law — are nothing any competent professor would teach.

“The idea that I would be pointing my finger at white students and saying, ‘This is all your fault because all white people are racist,’ this is just not something we do,” said Behnken, who said he speaks as an individual, not as a representative of Iowa State. “I assume all my students come in there to learn.”

Even so, many faculty members across the country are concerned that in this politically polarized environment, some students or outside groups could come looking for trouble. The threat of students recording classroom conversations and posting snippets online out of context is not new, after all.

To protect themselves, some professors are planning to record their lectures and advising colleagues to limit classroom discussion on sensitive topics. Others are asking their college leaders to publicly denounce these bills as an intrusion on academic freedom, and to defend professors against charges of indoctrination.

But faculty members are also aware that if critics truly believe lessons that make students feel uncomfortable are “divisive,” that leaves their teaching open to criticism. Challenging students’ pre-existing ideas is, after all, a fundamental part of a college education.

Making educators uneasy is “what these types of legislation are trying to do,” said Behnken. “That’s the goal. In some unfortunate ways, it’s worked.”

Faculty members who teach introductory courses are among those who feel most vulnerable this fall. Those classes can be large, making it difficult for instructors to get to know their students. If the courses are required, some students may resent being there. And they are disproportionately taught by nontenured professors, who are also more likely to be women or faculty of color.

One case in point is a Black assistant professor in the social sciences who teaches in a state where legislation to ban teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive” concepts has been introduced. The professor, who asked not to be named because she is coming up for tenure and fears repercussions, said she has already mapped out how she plans to protect herself this fall, when she teaches an introductory course that covers race, and an upper-level course in which she introduces critical race theory. She is also monitoring her state legislature as it debates the bill.

“I just don’t know if academic freedom is going to be enough,” she said. “It offers due process, but someone could still attempt to get you fired.”

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Golden Cosmos for The Chronicle

For her introductory course, the professor said that if her legislature ends up banning discussion of certain concepts, people, or historical events that she normally teaches, she will simply show students her existing slides, but with black lines striking out the text. “I’m going to passive-aggressively say, ‘I am not allowed by the state to teach you this next part, so we will just move on.’” It would be her way of staying within the law, she said, while showing the ridiculousness of it. She also plans to record all of her lectures in case anyone tries to misrepresent what she is teaching.

She has closed admission to her upper-level course, for which students signed up in the spring, before the divisive-concepts legislation was introduced. She said this protects her against students who might enroll simply to “catch” professors who they think are teaching divisive subjects.

She suspected that could happen after she received an email from a student she did not know who was considering minoring in her discipline, according to the message, and asked if the university was teaching any “CRT” courses.

Why, she wondered, was she, the only Black professor in her department, also the only one to receive this email? Equally troubling, she said, was the reaction when she forwarded the email to a number of people, including her chair, her dean, and other faculty members. Not everyone was as worried about it as she was. About a third of them agreed that the email was suspicious, she said. Another third said it wouldn’t have occurred to them to find the email troubling until she pointed it out. The rest told her that she shouldn’t doubt the student’s intentions.

If she has some advice for colleges when it comes to protecting their professors, it’s this: “Be paranoid. I hate to use that word, but what it means is constant vigilance.”

Other faculty members share her concerns.

Reginald K. Ellis, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Florida A&M University, said he thinks faculty members are less likely to be spontaneous and provocative in their classes. Florida’s State Board of Education banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, along with the teaching of The New York Times’ s “1619 Project.” Ellis, who is also interim dean for the school of graduate studies and research, thinks it’s likely the state legislature could target higher education next.

Teaching at a historically Black college may offer some protections, Ellis said, but does not eliminate all risks. “Many of us use the Socratic method, where you start an open-ended dialogue. And on my campus, there may be 500 students in a room, so you can’t really police who is coming in and out of class.” To that end, some professors may rein in that Socratic approach this fall for fear that something they say could be recorded and taken out of context. “Not because they’re teaching critical race theory,” Ellis said, “but because they’re afraid someone may tape them and put it on Twitter or TikTok or Snapchat, and it will go viral.”

Professors have to worry about their livelihoods.

Leonard N. Moore, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said academics who teach African American history have long had to worry about students videotaping classes, or secretly recording conversations, and misrepresenting them online. The recent attacks on critical race theory and related topics have only heightened such risks, he said. A lot of professors “are worried about the fall because, while the laws might be geared toward K-12 now, it won’t necessarily stop there.”

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Golden Cosmos for The Chronicle

Texas recently passed a law prescribing how public-school teachers are to teach about race and racism, in ways that critics say could limit frank and open discussions in the classroom. Moore, whose book about his experiences, Teaching Black History to White People, will be published in September by the University of Texas Press, is not teaching this fall. But he has advised colleagues to be cautious, including to record every class.

“If I were teaching, I probably would stand up and read out of a textbook. I wouldn’t have any class discussions or have an essay exam,” he said. That might be handing the opposition a victory, he said, “but professors have to worry about their livelihoods.”

Faculty members who can’t count on their president and provost to defend what and how they teach may be the most at risk. Behnken noted that two other universities in his state, the Universities of Iowa and of Northern Iowa, have come out with statements saying point-blank that the law does not apply to academic instruction. While his administration “has seemingly sided with the legislature and left people like me feeling vulnerable and unprotected.”

College leaders need to take steps now, said Kim Weeden, a sociology professor at Cornell University and director of the Center for the Study of Inequality.

“A lot of universities have not had the sustained conversation they need to have about how to protect instructors, how to adhere to university goals of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” she said. “When push comes to shove, some have backed up faculty and some have kowtowed to donors and legislatures.”

Weeden pointed to a controversial decision in May by Oklahoma City Community College to “pause” a summer course on race and ethnicity in the United States, concerned that a new law banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools and colleges “would require substantial changes to the curriculum.” Days later, the course, taught by an adjunct instructor, was reinstated, but the damage had been done. Not only did the college’s action draw widespread criticism, but the fully enrolled course reportedly lost most of its students.

Weeden encourages administrators to facilitate the creation of peer networks for faculty members teaching required courses that deal with racism or diversity, where they might share strategies for meeting challenges they face. She also said that departments should ignore student course evaluations unless they point out serious flaws, such as an instructor not showing up for class. Such evaluations have long been suspect anyway, she notes, since research shows that students tend to judge women and faculty of color more harshly, and to give lower evaluations in required courses.

This type of suppression of anything other than a pro-nationalist agenda is really straight out of Mussolini’s playbook.

If colleges have the resources, she said, they should consider hiring more teaching assistants to help instructors in these courses, and rotating assignments so these courses do not always fall on the shoulders of untenured faculty members. “They’re exhausting to teach, and burnout is very real,” she notes.

Finally, college leaders should publicly commit to academic freedom for professors and describe how they’ll protect free speech on campuses. These laws, she said, are designed to create a “moral panic” that will generate more votes for these legislators. “This type of suppression of anything other than a pro-nationalist agenda is really straight out of Mussolini’s playbook.”

One of the most troubling aspects of these laws and bills, some professors say, is the notion that students should not be made to feel uncomfortable during lessons about race and racism.

Much of the legislation circulating in state capitals echoes former President Trump’s 2020 executive order banning the teaching of divisive concepts in federal agencies’ diversity training. One concept described is that individuals should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

Yet scholars say teaching about racism in the context of U.S. history is bound to cause some discomfort. Parts of this country’s story are shameful, and teaching it in a way that avoids that would be irresponsible.

Fears that white people are being shamed may drive this legislation, but teaching about structural and systemic racism may actually have the opposite effect, said Cyndi Kernahan, who has taught a course on the psychology of prejudice and racism, to primarily white students, for more than 20 years at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.

This fall, Kernahan said, she’s going to “double down” on teaching about systemic racism. “I think the way out is through.”

“When we focus on the system, we actually make students feel better. We move away from this moralistic framing of racism, as if you’re a good person or a bad person, if you are a racist or not a racist,” said Kernahan, a psychology professor and the author of Teaching About Race and Racism in the College Classroom (West Virginia University Press, 2019). “You can help people see the larger nature of it. Which can be overwhelming, for sure. But it’s also liberating. This is bigger than you. It’s not just the words you use.”

To teach about racism effectively, she said, she also works hard to create a sense of belonging and connection within her classroom. That’s a good teaching strategy in general, she notes, but particularly important with topics that make students uncomfortable. “That’s why I teach with so much discussion,” she said.

She knows she may still face opposition from students. Wisconsin is a politically complicated state, and many students come from nearby conservative counties. “I’d like to hope that my roster will not include students looking for a fight, but I don’t know.”

Kernahan noted that untenured instructors and faculty of color are in a more challenging position. She and other professors are hoping the administration will make a statement in defense of academic freedom, something that one of her colleagues in political science has requested. “So far our legislature has not asked for anything specific,” she said. But she’s fearful of what could happen, noting that just a few years ago a state assemblyman attacked a course on whiteness at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and asked why taxpayers should “pay for this garbage.”

“This kind of stuff should be expected, and I hope administrators will get themselves ready for it,” she said. “And get some things clear on how professors should be treated.”

Are you concerned that your teaching may come under increased scrutiny this fall because of “divisive concepts” bills and debates? I am continuing to follow the issue, and your story will inform my reporting. Write to me at

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