Teaching Race in the Core

Teaching Race in the Core: A Lunchtime Workshop Series, February 16 and March 2, 2017

Many thanks to all those who joined us for this series! As we wrote in the initial workshop description, “This pair of workshops aims to equip instructors in Humanities and Social Science Core courses with the conceptual and practical tools they need to design syllabi and classroom practices that 1) center race as an object of inquiry, within the constraints of Core curricular requirements, and 2) promote racially inclusive teaching practices.”

Our first workshop, “Teaching Race in the Core #1: Syllabus Design,” was held on February 16th from noon to 1:20 p.m., and was led by Madeleine Elfenbein and Woo Chan Lee. Over sandwiches, we sat down to “examine the racial presuppositions that inform the Core courses we teach and explore approaches to designing syllabi that center race as an object of inquiry.” Ahead of the workshop, participants were asked to choose a syllabus for a Core course that they have taught, or wish to teach, within the university’s Core curriculum in Social Sciences, Humanities, Civilization Studies, and Arts.

At the workshop, we took some initial time to look over our syllabus jot down a preliminary answer to the following question: “What does this course teach about race?” A few more specific questions that were offered to help generate a response: 1) What’s the overarching narrative of this course? 2) Which minority voices have been incorporated into this syllabus? 3) How do these voices shape the narrative? 4) What happens in the classroom that might potentially affect the racial narrative taught by the course? After jotting down some thoughts in response, participants formed groups of three to four and took turns describing the racial content of their courses to each other. Then we reconvened and shared our findings. Here were some of our observations:

  • plenty of syllabi include non-white authors and composers, but they are commonly placed toward the end of course, where they receive less time and are less likely to be the subjects of written assignments
  • on syllabi that are organized chronologically, the late placement of people of color suggests that people of color, or at least their intellectual and artistic production, is a late-breaking historical development
  • the racial identities of white authors and composers often go unexamined
  • white authors are often treated as neutral or silent with regard to race, while non-white authors are cast primarily as concerned with race

After these reflections, we again formed groups — this time organized by discipline or teaching field–and spent some time together coming up with a response to this question: “How can we teach race better?” Here’s what we came up with:

How can we do better
How can we do better?


Our second workshop, “Teaching Race in the Core #2: Classroom Techniques,” was held on March 2nd from noon to 1:20 p.m., and was led by Sonia Gomez and Chandani Patel. Again over sandwiches, we set out to “learn how to create a more racially inclusive classroom culture, use in-class techniques to manage and model productive discussions of race, and motivate students to critically reflect on how they analyze and discuss race.”

To begin with, we took turns thinking of an episode in which we thought race was handled well, and one in which it was not. Then as a group we discussed what lay at the core of the instructors’ success in the first instance and stumbling in the second.

The heart of the workshop was a session we spent thinking about particular racially explosive moments in the classroom and how to deal with them in the most pedagogically effective way.

to develop some strategies for dealing with . Participants split into small groups, and each group tackled a different classroom scenario in which racial tension surfaces, leaving the instructor to sort it out.

Some insights generated by the group:

  • When the course material itself is racially provocative, have students develop a response in a low-stakes context–through a brief writing exercise, and/or in small groups–before asking them to share thoughts in front of the whole class.
  • Offer yourself as a model of sensitive and intelligent response. Do this by referring clearly to your subject position and discussing it as relevant to how you respond.
  • Aim for transparency in your teaching about race: explain to students why a particular text or assignment has been assigned, and what you hope to achieve by it
  • Give your students a conceptual vocabulary to use in talking about race, by assigning helpful reading and/or by introducing concepts in class. (One resource mentioned by a participant is the partially web-based publication Keywords for American Cultural Studies at http://keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/.)