Antiracist Teaching

A note from Chad: The brief essay below aligns with the work I do as Co-Founder and Executive Director of Research for the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (QSIDE). If you find the resource below useful, I encourage you to become a free affiliate of QSIDE. Simply visit www.qsideinstitute.org/join to sign up. To re-emphasize: becoming an affiliate is free for everyone, always, in perpetuity.

You might have found this page while searching for ideas to how to make your teaching antiracist. Below, I explain my current thinking on this topic. Some parts of this piece are are not discipline specific. Some are more relevant to STEM. A few are quite specific to my field, the mathematical sciences.

When white people like myself try to take antiracist actions (which we should… frequently), it is important to be humble. Sometimes we will get it wrong and we will get called out on it and we need to be open to well-informed criticism so that we can do better next time. In that spirit, I welcome the many people better informed than I am to contact me with their own ideas and their critique of mine.

Before I state my own suggestions for antiracist teaching, I should tell you the definitions of racism and antiracism that I am using. My working definitions come from Ibram Kendi, as articulated in his book How to be an Antiracist. Kendi says “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” Antiracism, then, means “supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” So antiracist teaching is teaching that produces or sustains racial equity. Since I am in STEM, where there is definitely NOT equity, I’m going to have to (try to) produce it before I can maintain it.

My ideas about antiracist teaching involve five aspects of my course:

  • Enrollment. How can I foster a course roster that moves my discipline towards equity?
  • Pedagogy. What teaching techniques can I adopt to help produce equitable educational outcomes?
  • Class environment. What steps can I take to create an inclusive learning experience for minoritized students?
  • Curriculum. How can I remove or mitigate white supremacy in the course material itself?
  • Assessment. How can I evaluate students in a way that reduces rather than exacerbates racial inequity?

Enrollment

  • Write a course description with welcoming and accessible language.
  • Make clear that all students have the potential to succeed (and then make it so!).
  • Telegraph explicitly that the class adopts an antiracist approach.
  • While you definitely cannot and should not exclude students from your course on the basis of race, I think you CAN certainly recruit for your class. For instance, just by the numbers, Black, Latinx, and Native students are less likely to enroll in math courses. So I go out of my way to tell them that I hope they will take my class and to offer for us to talk about the course if they are interested.

Pedagogy

  • Reduce stereotype threat. The devastating effect of stereotype threat on the racial gap in academic outcomes have been well-documented. Some strategies for mitigating stereotype threat can be found here.
  • Mitigate implicit bias. We all have implicit bias. Here’s a famous example (focused on gender). Just ’cause you are a smartypants academic type does not mean you don’t have implicit bias. In fact, according to this research, “The so-called bias blind spot arises when people report that thinking biases are more prevalent in others than in themselves. In two studies, we found that… a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability.” Some strategies that can mitigate bias include: build new associations via evaluative conditioning and counterstereotypical exemplars; solicit feedback from students, observers; slow down / practice mindfulness; grade anonymously. See here for more ideas.
  • Use active learning. Active learning is when learners participate in the educational process by doing something besides listening. Active learning (when done right) increases student performance in STEM. Additionally, and crucially, active learning (when done right) can help erase the racial gap in learning outcomes.

Class Environment

  • Telegraph your expectations in your syllabus and talk about them with your students.
  • Have clear policies for students to address discomfort in the classroom, harassment, and other issues (see end of syllabus above).
  • Use best policies for forming student groups for group work.
  • There is even evidence suggesting that the physical environment of the classroom can play a role in the inclusion/exclusion of students. If you have the resources, design your physical environment with objects/images that represent Black, Latinx, Native scholars, cultures, and so forth. (If you are teaching remotely during COVID, choose great background pix for Zoom, etc.)

Curriculum (specific to math)

  • Use mathematical tools to address race and related issues. I’ll apply a wide range of mathematical tools to social justice issues.
  • Make sure to include mathematical resources from many non-white scholars and cultures. For instance, when my students study logic, rather than attributing modern logic to the Greeks, we can look at the early history of logic in Africa, India, and other places.
  • Discuss the ways in which what humans accept as mathematical knowledge is, quite simply, subjective. So in the US at least, this definitely means it is informed by white supremacy. If you don’t believe mathematical knowledge is subjective, then see, for example, this paper and this paper. My students will read these.

Assessment

  • To me, a nonhierarchical grading system is a more equitable grading system. Adopt ungrading practices as described, e.g., in  this piece. In my class, every week, students will answer five questions in detail, perhaps by editing or building upon the previous week’s responses.
    • Why are you taking this course? What are your goals for yourself?
    • Articulate a plan for how you will “do” this course. In your plan, please include how much time you will allocate to this course each week, what you will do when you encounter challenges, and so forth. Be as specific and granular as you can.
    • Keeping in mind your goals for taking this course, what criteria / metrics / experiences / reflections will you use to evaluate yourself?
    • Now, using the criteria you discussed above, please evaluate your work in this course so far.
    • You’ll be revising your answers to this self-evaluation form every week. In light of your own evaluation of yourself, is there anything in your approach to this course that you will plan to change between now and the next time you fill out this form? If so, please explain.
  • Then, at the end of the course, I will ask students what grade I should assign them, and then I’ll assign it (subject to my own intervention only in cases of extreme abuse of the system which, I am told by experienced folks, are quite rare).