Blog: Higher Ed Beat

How to Cover The Way Race and Racism Are Taught
Start your research by checking reading assignments, instructor pay, and student demographics

Unsplash/Tim Wildsmith

Police brutality, race and social justice have long been on the syllabus for college professors who teach about ethnicity and cultural issues. But now, incidents such as the killing of George Floyd and protests against systemic racism have sparked much broader interest in race and diversity issues, according to three experts who spoke at the Education Writers Association’s 2020 Higher Education Seminar. 

Lee Bebout, an English professor at Arizona State University, said that while there’s been a backlash against efforts to teach about racism, he’s also noticed that more students are signing up for race, gender and ethnic studies courses. And more people from the larger community are reaching out in hopes of learning more about anti-racism and white supremacy, he added.

“That gives me a modicum of hope, and I am generally not an optimistic fellow,” Bebout said.

Reporters who want to better cover the way race issues are being taught should check their campuses’ racial climate, pay attention to demographics, follow the money, and examine their schools’ specific teaching techniques and assignments, the panelists suggested. Reporters also need to do some careful self-reflection and examine the way racism “infuses the society in which we live,” said Bebout,

To help reporters cover how race is addressed in higher education, the professors suggested four main strategies:

Check the campus climate

Some students, faculty and administrators at historically white institutions have been emboldened by political and media influencers to malign and even dangerously threaten those who teach about race, the professors said. 

Many faculty of color who teach ethnic studies have had their credibility questioned or doubted more than their white colleagues. Faculty can feel as if their courses about race are being surveilled or picked apart, said Venus Evans-Winters, a professor of educational administration and foundations at Illinois State University. Some instructors receive hate mail and death threats, and at times they feel alienated from colleagues who don’t know some of the challenges of teaching ethnic or gender studies, Bebout added.

To kickstart coverage of this issue, the experts suggested reporters ask questions such as:

  • How are the colleges you cover tackling race and diversity conflicts? How is what they are doing now different from previous efforts?
  • What are students and faculty on campus saying about the racial climate on campus? How do they think it could be improved? 
  • What are the experiences of faculty of color or those who teach about race, ethnic and gender studies? 
  • Are there examples of backlash or racism? If so, how have these experiences affected the professors, students and the lessons being taught? 

Examine the demographics

Although the country is more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than ever, there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to hiring college instructors who better reflect this diversity, Evans-Winters said.

In fall 2017, National Center for Education Statistics reported that 24% of faculty were people of color, compared to 45% of students. Of all full-time college faculty, 6% were Black compared to 14% of undergraduates, and 6% were Hispanic compared to 20% of students, according to the Pew Research Center. (Younger generations in the U.S., including Generation Z and younger, tend to be more diverse ethnically and racially than older generations, according to Pew).

Additionally, more assistant professors or professors without tenure were people of color, around 27%, compared to the 19% of professors of color who were fully tenured. An even smaller portion of tenured faculty are Black, Evans-Winters said.

The panelists suggested that reporters looking to examine the schools they cover start by asking:

  • How many faculty of color are there at the institutions that you cover? How many are tenured or tenure-track?
  • How does the number of faculty of color compare to the student demographics?
  • What is the student enrollment in courses on race, gender or cultural studies? What are the trends? Who is taking these courses, and have the demographics of the students changed?

Follow the money

The panelists challenged reporters to see if college administrators who say they value diversity follow up their words with actions: Are they putting money into hiring educators and scholars of color, and paying their faculty of color fairly?

Evans-Winters said that many people of color teaching ethnic studies, urban education and diversity at colleges get paid less than white colleagues with less experience, and are more likely to be teaching more courses and taking on a heavier workload than their counterparts. A 2017 study in the Educational Researcher examined the racial wage gap in six fields at 40 public universities across the country, including biology, chemistry, economics, English, sociology and educational leadership and policy. More than 4,000 faculty members were included in the study, which found that white faculty members were overrepresented in every department, making up around 80% of the study. Black faculty earned $10,000 to $15,000 less than white faculty per year.

Among questions that can spark stories on this topic are:

  • Is your college funding or allocating money to initiatives they say they believe in? 
  • How much money is being allocated for diversity initiatives or cultural, ethnic and gender studies programs? How has this shifted in the past several years? 
  • How much does the school pay those who teach about race, and how do those rates compare with the pay of instructors of other subjects? 

How are students being taught about race?

“It’s not just about Black or brown people in white spaces. It’s about our delivery,” Evans-Winters said, emphasizing that students will grow if instructors meet them where they are, and help them confront uncomfortable conversations and cognitive dissonance. 

Evans-Winters called for the “decolonization” of higher education, college campuses, curriculum, policies, and pedagogies, which includes possibly rejecting traditional ways of teaching.

Bebout, Evans-Winters and Akil Houston, associate professor of African-American Studies and Cultural Studies at Ohio University, all stressed the importance of considering their students’ lives outside of the classroom, especially during the pandemic. That means helping students who don’t have easy internet access, assigning free or low-cost course materials and being more flexible with deadlines or attendance. 

Some students who work or live in multigenerational households might have difficulty turning on their cameras during set class times, for example. Evans-Winters added that some students have parents or spouses who might not approve of what is taught in an ethnic, cultural or gender studies course, so instructors should give students options on how to tune into classes. 

Bebout agreed that uncomfortable issues, particularly those related to race, should be addressed at the beginning of a course or as soon as possible. “Don’t wait until the middle of the semester. Address the uncomfortable issue right away. Make them uncomfortable.”

Among questions that can spark stories on this angle are:

  • How are faculty addressing disparities and challenges students have during the pandemic? How are faculty supporting students when new cases of police brutality,  racism or bias emerge?
  • To what extent are faculty members who teach on other subjects incorporating material about racial and social justice into their pedagogy?
  • What works and authors are on the assigned reading lists ? Are, for example, there many readings from Black women on race? 
  • What types of tools or resources are professors using to teach about race? Professors used examples such as ethos teaching or “Anti-Racist Discussion Pedagogy.”