Wrestling with the Elephant in the Classroom: Teaching and Self-Censorship

Higher education should be teaching and uphold democratic principles

I stopped teaching Othello to my community college English students last year. I used to have students present a scene from the play in small groups. One group—comprised of an African American student athlete, a female student, and two other teenagers—once chose the final scene in which Othello kills Desdemona. From what I could see, the class enjoyed the rather farcical interpretation of the scene: the athlete fake-smothering the female student with a pillow. The visual was too stark for me, however, too much a reminder, and reversal, of George Floyd’s murder.

I suppose if I felt I had the necessary skills to conduct a dialogue with my students, we could have talked about it and had an engaging discussion. Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue’s “Race Talk” (paywalled) provides some useful suggestions, such as acknowledging my own biases as a teacher and validating discussions of students’ feelings. He also documents what happens when race talk in the classroom is not handled correctly: the tense silences, triggers, and misconstrued attempts to dilute the conversation’s impact. The famous dictum of the Hippocratic Oath might apply here: “First, do no harm.” By handling race talk poorly in the classroom, am I doing harm?   

Of course, living in Minnesota two years after George Floyd’s tragic death, I am second guessing much of what I choose to teach and discuss in my freshman composition courses. I no longer teach Ralph Ellison’s classic “Battle Royal,” for instance. The widely anthologized short story, which is also the first chapter of Ellison’s Invisible Man, centers on an African American teenage boy who is called on to give a scholarship speech in front of white racists from his town after undergoing a series of humiliations to get the scholarship. I feel I can no longer teach stories in which Black kids experience violence. 

This past year, I switched to A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (paywalled), an excellent collection of essays from authors of several different backgrounds about how they live with the overt racism in my state. I had students write reflective journal entries after reading each chapter, assuming the essays would help students rethink their attitudes about race, gender, and intersectionality. I received quite a few thoughtful journal entries, but also quite a few very reactionary ones. In fact, those students who strongly denied that racism even exists in Minnesota did the closest textual analysis, writing lengthy polemics about why those authors were wrong. They were so angry that it sharpened their writing, making them better writers but more closeted critical thinkers.

Perhaps I should have used these angry student screeds as an opportunity for reflecting on my own pedagogy. As Stephen Quaye suggests in “Facilitating Dialogues about Racial Realities” (paywalled), I might be reifying structural racism in my class. Students who deny racism, despite clear evidence to the contrary, might be picking up on those signals from me, the students I pay attention to, the texts I select, or the rather bureaucratic language of my own course syllabus. 

To overcome these barriers, I understand that I need to make sure authors from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds are represented in my curriculum. I am realizing, though, that this is not enough. I need to show students how to engage with text instead of simply reacting to it. 

As I carpool with my fellow composition teacher, Pat, we often talk about how difficult it is to engage students in prolonged “what-if” class discussions, small group work, or reflective writing. They go right to their instincts. Moreover, it can feel especially challenging to try teaching about systemic racism in a freshman composition class when many students are still struggling with the basics: essay organization, sentence structure, and typing. Should I just stick to paragraph structure, research basics, and the five-paragraph essay? Is providing them with those essential skills enough? 

What is my role as a freshman composition teacher, really? Our community college mission is to provide “affordable, quality learning opportunities to serve a diverse and growing community.” Our paramount course goal is that “students will explore information thoroughly before formulating a position.” That is what I need to do.   

In an opinion piece published in the Denver Post on campus debates, Seth Masket warns that “debate absent structured learning is, at best, a form of entertainment.” He does not follow through and tell readers what the worst implications are, but for me it would be classroom discussions and student essays that are pure demagoguery.

To that end, I am redesigning my freshman composition courses this summer. José Antonio Bowen’s Teaching Naked (paywalled) is showing me how to use my face-to-face time with students most effectively. Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope (paywalled) is inspiring me to see my current pedagogical crisis as an opportunity. Cyndi Kernahan’s Teaching about Race and Racism (paywalled) is making me rethink the way I view race issues in my pedagogy. I do not know if my new pedagogy will work, or if the book I will use this coming semester, We are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World (paywalled), is the right one (though I think it is), but I must at least try to get students engaged at the “what if” level in their writing and discussion. That is what community college students in Minnesota, and elsewhere, really need.

headshot of Mike Mutschelknaus

About the author:

Dr. Mike Mutschelknaus has taught English courses at Rochester Community and Technical College for 22 years. He has also taught in Russia and Chad. In 2010, he was co-editor of the Diversity in the Composition Classroom anthology. He is currently working on how to increase access to community college education for refugees.

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