OER Grant Update: Don’t Defend Your Course Material

By | November 22, 2023

This post was contributed by Gabriel Antonio Higuera, PhD, Instructor, Ethnic Studies, Portland Community College.

We want our students to think critically, right? But how do we feel when our students apply critical thinking to our own teaching approaches and material? How do we feel at the moment? What do we say at that moment? How do we move forward from that moment in a way that honors the students and the learning process?

Recently, I was teaching about the historic student walkouts of 2016 in Oregon, discussed in the online exhibit #StandUpFG: Latinx Youth Activism in the Willamette Valley. A key moment in the leadup to the walkouts was when a Latino student hurled a racial slur at a Black teacher. Other students rallied to her support and spoke at school board meetings, but to no effect. This was followed later that month by other students hanging a “Build the Wall” banner in the cafeteria. By that time, students had been organizing around anti-racism in their school, and walked out the following day, in coordination with students from over 20 other schools in solidarity. The exhibit goes on to discuss the details of the walkouts in the greater context of Latinx activism in the Willamette Valley.

My astute students asked, “But what happened to the teacher? What about the boy and the epithet? The anti-Blackness?” Indeed, the exhibit does not come back to that first racialized incident, or the context of anti-Blackness in Oregon law and history and its legacy to the present day.

I got it wrong. I first defended the material, partly because I assumed it had covered in more detail the complexities of Latinx anti-Blackness, and partly because the author of the exhibit is a friend and colleague of mine. There I was, in front of my students, scrolling through the online exhibit, looking for a deeper narrative that never appeared. The tension arose immediately, as some students recognized that the material presentation choices were in fact largely insensitive to the history of anti-Blackness as manifest against the high school teacher and throughout Oregon history, up to and including the online exhibit.

Educators are often proud and protective of their syllabi, lesson plans, course materials, and routines. Hours of thought, attention, and details are poured into the design of a class. Thus, when a component of the course is called out by a student as being problematic, the educator is likely to go through a series of thoughts. They might feel attacked, defensive, incompetent, unprepared, shocked, or caught off-guard. This surge of feelings is largely involuntary, as the emotions begin to register into the consciousness of the educator. The key moment in this instance is that time between the student articulates their concern over the material and the educator’s response. This space is a tremendous opportunity for growth if the educator can do three things:

  • First, pause, and allow all to ponder.
  • Second, thank the student, acknowledging publicly the potential harm caused.
  • Third, acknowledge that it shouldn’t be the student’s job to fix the lesson plan or to correct a mistake in course material.

A learning environment which encourages critical inquiry will have these processes built into the layout of the day. The practice of this sequence becomes muscle memory rather than emotional labor for the educator.

Being “called out” doesn’t usually feel good. Students can be blunt with their critiques and may come off as insensitive. Educators also must be aware of how their own problematic material or comments negatively impact their students. Most importantly, if student feedback is dismissed, it perpetuates the infliction of harm. It shows the student and the rest of the class that their pain doesn’t matter. Their advocacy dies there. Honesty, accountability, and a sincere apology from an authority figure to one in a position of minimized power is part of democratizing the learning process for all. As the educator articulates some steps to right the wrong, along with a timetable, if appropriate, they model to students a praxis of love. We as educators must practice accountability daily and incorporate it in our dialogues with students. Few still teach as if infallible, but to build room and a vocabulary for mistakes, growth, and grace anticipates the beautiful and messy parts of critical education.