‘Dear Professor’: On Anti-Blackness and Learning

Dear Professor:

We are a diverse group of non-Black scholars who invite you to join us in a dialogue to interrogate our research and pedagogy in support of Black lives. As you engage in the #ScholarStrike and teach-ins, we want to share our knowledge and offer strategies to strengthen your teaching and help you take concrete actions to disrupt anti-Blackness.

We conceptualize anti-Blackness as embedded and performed in structures and practices that deny status and rights to Black people, while further denigrating, harming and killing Black people. Anti-Blackness actions also profit from the labor and talents of Black people. To name some concrete ways anti-Blackness manifests in society, it is consequential in housing discrimination, the criminal justice system, the disproportionate negative impact of climate change on Black communities, the health-care system, the organization of education funding and curricula, and holding Black students to a more punitive standard of discipline in K-12 schools and more.

We recognize that people in higher education often call on Black scholars to educate non-Black scholars on anti-Blackness without recognizing or honoring the perspectives and experience of those Black scholars. We do not want to burden our Black colleagues further, so in the following, we model the distribution of the labor of challenging anti-Blackness as non-Black scholars deeply invested in this collective struggle. We present three main areas for consideration.

Key Themes

First, drawing on the work of Black scholars who have studied and embodied antiracist pedagogies, we share themes that cut across much of that work and encourage you to engage in further study of the research.

Key themes that have guided our own thinking include acknowledging:

  • Knowledge production and learning are political, historical, embodied and culturally situated.
  • All of us experience learning in ways that are deeply shaped by our intersectional identities.
  • There is generative power in learning from and building on people’s knowledge and practices from outside of the classroom.
  • Joining with BIPOC communities to engage in antiracist learning can move us beyond one narrow definition of what is possible toward imagining multiple, inclusive futures for our students.

Black Students in our Classes

Second, as educators, we must continually identify and disrupt the primarily white narratives that have historically characterized collegiate disciplines and K-12 curricula. We need to develop ways to expand how our Black students are welcomed and represented in our classes. As we consider their participation in our courses, we must remember that the Black community is richly diverse and that no one student can speak for the entirety of Black people.

Often, in our attempts to leverage the expertise of all members in our learning communities, we relegate responsibilities to our BIPOC students that burden them with the labor of both defining oppression and/or ratifying attempts at countering that oppression. We must remind ourselves that it is not our Black students’ responsibility to guide us in these processes and that placing such responsibility is not only labor-intensive but also can be violent. Instead, as scholars driven by a desire to co-design learning environments with our students, we must ask: How can the labor of gathering stories, defining oppression and imagining new futures be shared more intentionally across members of our learning communities?

Reflective Questions

Third, we offer these reflective questions to you as a call to action to take the next steps in disrupting anti-Blackness in the academy. We draw on the scholarship of Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, director of inclusive teaching practices at the University of Denver, to guide all of our journeys.

How has your academic discipline explicitly and implicitly reified anti-Blackness? How have Black scholars worked to disrupt racist notions within our fields, and where is their work in your syllabi? These questions invite an exploration of history and the ways in which the past animates the present orientations to our scholarship and how we teach content from our areas of expertise. A main project of colonialism and settler colonialism was to produce academic knowledge and methodologies to justify violence against Black and Indigenous people. The residue of those methodologies lingers and, in some cases, still leads in most academic disciplines. Teaching the history of ideas in our fields is never neutral. Making those histories visible is our responsibility as professors.

How, if at all, have you infused notions of diversity, equity, justice or antiracism into your course? Even if your course might seemingly cover “neutral” or “objective” topics, anti-Blackness is ubiquitous once we actively engage in noticing.

Take, for example, how Joy Buolamwini founded Algorithmic Justice League after seeing that facial recognition software failed to see Black people as humans. Even in a discipline as “objective” as computer science, racism and anti-Blackness shape the contours of coding because the human beings who create artificial intelligence recreate racism in digital hardware and software, as Safiya Noble, associate professor in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, reminds us.

Thus, our work as pedagogues must include ways in which we guide our students to complicate notions of objectivity, and in the case of computer science, highlight the ways in which communities of color transform and repurpose digital tools that often fail to see their humanity.

How do you define learning and who is capable of learning? In colleges and universities, we all talk about learning, and one might assume that we share a definition of what learning means. But without a critical eye, learning can often be equated with attaining high test scores, reproducing memorized content or sitting quietly and listening. Learning can become a performative act that does not align with sense-making, developing an identity as a member of a community, or creating new ways of knowing and being with other people. When educators conflate leaning with compliance, as all too often happens, they privilege the acts of sitting quietly over creating noise — raising questions about how people show they are learning.

The deaths of Black people because of misperception and assumptions have demonstrated too many times how evaluation lands differently and more violently on Black people. In K-12 classrooms, we see this in the disproportionate rates of suspensions and in the construction of criminal identities for Black students.

Additionally, how we judge who is “capable” and “smart” stems from a racist history of eugenics that has shaped tropes about race and intelligence. We must educate ourselves about our understanding of learning and its connections with anti-Blackness so that we can intentionally counter anti-Blackness in our own learning environments.

In what ways can you infuse antiracist assessment into your course? As discussed in a forum on Creating Effective, Equitable Assessment, the traumas of COVID-19 and racial reckonings have created a moral imperative for educators to reframe assessment as a way to facilitate healing-centered engagement and deliver inclusive teaching pedagogies.

Some examples include using a Critical Incident Questionnaire, leading an activity called “How are you feeling?” and exploring strategies for inclusive assessment to check in with students and develop relationships that contribute to their healing and learning. As we move to transform assessment, we must shift its purpose from reinforcing racial hierarchies and toward critical care — using assessment as a way to build relationships of solidarity with our students.

In addition to challenging our classroom pedagogies, we call for each of us in our various leadership positions to take responsibility for creating safe environments for Black scholars to share their ideas in teaching and public scholarship, without the threat to their flourishing.

We recognize that we are all learning to do this work. It is ongoing, and it is hard. We must have compassion for ourselves and each other as we move to confront anti-Blackness within and across our academic fields. But it’s not enough to try and be inclusive without working to create better university environments for both students and scholars. The stakes are high, and our efforts as learning scientists fighting anti-Black racism are gaining momentum in solidarity.

Sincerely,

Arturo Cortez, assistant professor of teacher learning, research and practice, and learning sciences and human development, the University of Colorado, Boulder

A. Susan Jurow, professor of learning sciences and human development and associate dean in the School of Education, the University of Colorado, Boulder

Ben Kirshner, professor of learning sciences and human development in the School of Education, the University of Colorado, Boulder

José Lizárraga, assistant professor of learning sciences and human development, the University of Colorado, Boulder

Elizabeth Mendoza, senior researcher in the School of Education, the University of California, Irvine

Christina Paguyo, director of assessment, the University of Denver

William R. Penuel, professor of learning sciences and human development, School of Education and Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Colorado, Boulder

Katherine Schultz, dean and professor in the School of Education, the University of Colorado, Boulder

Molly V. Shea, assistant professor of learning sciences and human development, the University of Washington, Seattle

Kristina Stamatis, doctoral candidate in learning sciences and human development, the University of Colorado, Boulder

Kelsey Tayne, doctoral candidate in learning sciences and human development, the University of Colorado, Boulder

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