Institutional Harm Case Study

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‘On The Pedagogy of Belonging’ is a seven-part series of essays written by Julian Rose for the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Teaching and Learning. As a former middle school science teacher and current GT Graduate Teaching Fellow, Julian has learned and practiced in-depth concepts of social justice in education, and is here exploring belonging as a framework capable of shifting higher education. The series of essays commences with Rose contending with the proliferation of ‘inclusive pedagogy’, and lands with a brief, sharp push for all educators to adopt pedagogies of belonging into their praxis. Below, the topics in the series are listed: 

‘Inclusive Pedagogy’ as the Bare Minimum
Institutional Harm Case Study: Your Instructor Is Racist, Now What?
Power and Privilege in the Classroom
Pedagogy of Belonging 
Circle of Courage and Classroom Climate
Disability Justice is Good Teaching Praxis
Representation without Solidarity is Skin-Deep Change

Part 2: Institutional Harm Case Study: Your Instructor Is Racist, Now What?

You are a student, and you come to realize that your instructor is racist. Not an “interpersonal” or “microaggressions” racist, but instead your instructor is someone who kindly holds up white supremacy and other forms of oppression in the classroom. None of their design challenges include challenges impacting Black people or women, they consistently underestimate you and your friends’ abilities, grading them harsher as a result, they only ever talk about the contributions of white scholars, and they ignore the needs of their marginalized students. In effect and affect, your instructor is racist. Now what? 

[This is an important question for all of us to consider. In case you think we’ve figured out what to do about exclusion in higher education, we haven’t. As much as we talk about anti-racist commitments we sure do a poor job actually carrying out that charge. Let’s briefly look at how the situation could likely be handled, assuming that you, the student, decide to do something about this.]

It’s critical to remember that your professor has the power to make or break your GPA — the number that’s been framed as a golden ticket for your dreams. If you go to them, they may be offended at the mere suggestion and cause further harm. 

Instead, you go to a trusted academic advisor in your department, who you can confide in. You explain the situation, but you don’t quite have perfect documentation of everything that’s happened over the course of the semester. After all, for the first few weeks you were giving the benefit of the doubt — ‘maybe its just me’, only to later talk to a few classmates who noticed the same thing. The advisor is enraged at this treatment, and lets you know that professors like this have no place at the institution. The academic advisor tells you how things like this are handled in the dept., and which administrator to speak with, but let’s you know that they, themselves, have little power to hold professors accountable — fair enough. 

Now, you speak with the administrator. The administrator is sympathetic to your concerns, but reminds you that these professors were from “a different time”, and asks you if you tried to remedy the situation directly, or earlier in the semester. Of course, the answer is no. The administrator offers to contact the professor about the claim, but tells you that it may just be better to stay the course and do your best in the class, because ‘you never know how these things go’. The administrator contacts the professor, who agrees to meet with you for a mediated conversation, but you have a number of assignments to work on for other courses (oh yeah, your other courses!), so two weeks go by, and in that time the behaviors in the classroom intensify. Immediately, you email the administrator saying your relationship with the professor has only devolved, and that you no longer feel comfortable meeting with them. The administrator lets you know that you’re always welcome to drop the complaint, or drop the class, but that if the treatment persists, you can escalate to the Dean of Students’ office. 

As the semester is coming to a close and because of stress, you get sick and miss class for a week. The professor has an inflexible “no excuses” policy, with the exception of excused absences. Upon return, you approach the professor with your doctor’s note, asking to make up any missed in-class assessments. The professor tells you that this is not possible, because they have already handed the quizzes back to students, and it wouldn’t be fair. The professor also denies your request for an alternative make-up assignment, and enters zeroes for the quizzes. Your grade has now dropped from an A- to a B. 

You decide to contact the institution, in an effort to try to save your grade and finally address this conflict. You CC the dept administrator on any emails and visit the Dean of Students’ office to explain the entire story. Within a week the Dean of Students sets up a mandatory meeting between you, the professor, the administrator and the dean. In this meeting the professor is apologetic, but says they were willing to meet earlier, and that you declined for unknown reasons. The dean and administrator leave the meeting excited about the instructor’s seemingly shifted attitudes, and the instructor is happily avoiding further actions or consequences from the institute.

How are you feeling?


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