Reflections on Teaching II: (White) Elephant in the Room

This is a post about race. In general, I would encourage you to read someone else on this topic—consider, for example, these blogs. Candidly, I’m not sure if the problem is that white males don’t talk enough about race, or if they talk too much and don’t listen enough. Either way, I’m thinking out loud about it, because race—I’ve discovered, to no one’s surprise but my own—is an ineluctable part of teaching.

My final act this semester was to address a re-grade request from a student who expressed his frustration with the white male theorists of the course and, only slightly more indirectly, the pedagogy of the white male TA who had been teaching them. He insinuated racism. I defended myself by noting the efforts I had made all semester to address inequality in the classroom. I’ve  realized too late that the latter claim in no way addresses the former; that is to say, whatever my intentions, racial bias almost certainly was part of my teaching.

I don’t want to fetishize the diversity in my course. Public universities are not representative of America, but in the long-bending arc of justice, I think they will eventually become more so. First the undergraduates, then later the graduates and TAs, and then—all too slowly—the faculty. Yet even if the demographics of the classroom may begin to represent the “new” America, the hierarchy—a white man in front, talking at people of color—will continue to look like the “old” one. I will, for my entire career, by whiter than my students, and yet the worst thing I could do would be to use that to wash my hands of teaching about race.

To be clear, I’m not weighing in about “identity politics” and “political correctness” or expressing some dismay about trigger warnings or having to tip-toe around gender pronouns. My student wasn’t complaining about language, but his grade—something which has real, material effects on him. The more generalized suspicion my students have towards my teaching doesn’t seem to be a result of “liberal” indoctrination or emotional fragility, but experiences exclusion and discrimination. So I wonder: how can you be an ally in the classroom, when you’re not really an ally, but a product and (willing) representative of an education system that is anything but your students’ ally?

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I should be clear that, in writing this, I’m thinking about what I can do in the educational syste more-or-less as is, rather than what I’d love to see in some post-revolutionary Freirian utopia. One thing I need to do is to “own” my grading standards, and be honest about what I can and cannot control about them. As I wrote in my last post, I spent much of the semester encouraging students to critique the readings and connect them to current events. Yet in my oh-so-objective spreadsheet, with metrics of participation and blind-graded exams, I followed very different standards, those passed down from above and which, given my academic pedigree, seemed natural to me. When I went through the distasteful—but, it seemed, important—process of looking at the racial, class, and gender breakdown of my grades, it was clear there was a spread. Even with an unrepresentative sample, I can’t help but think that some students incorrectly took me at my word when I said I was looking for critical thinking, while others knew that, when presented with a grading rubric, I was just going to reward those who knew how to play the game.

Second, I’ve thought about the way I homogenized my students of color. I tried to compensate for a skewed syllabus by raising contemporary issues that, I thought, spoke more directly to students’ experiences. I steered us towards #BlackLivesMatter, to racist frats in Oklahoma, and over to the Civil Rights Movement. We were helped along by a few authors of color from the syllabus (Fanon and DuBois) and a few I threw in (Collins and Davis). But as one of my students pointed out, whenever we talked about race, we talked about African Americans, and through a lens of victimhood and oppression. I lumped my students of “color” together, and set them as a unified block against an equally unified mass of whites. Some were excluded and others were “othered” as the passive foil of American racism.

Third, I have learned from this—or perhaps, just learned what I need to learn. Sociology is a fragmented field; it’s impossible to be conversant in everything from Mathematical Sociology to Human-Animal Relations. Sometimes, I’ve felt that since our interests are arbitrary, it’s fine to bracket off some sub-fields: “you know about poverty, I know about mental health.” But there is no discussion of the social world that can evade race, class, and gender. Teaching sociology doesn’t require just attentiveness to racial dynamics in the classroom, but a deeper ability to see how they permeate everything we see, read, and discuss. And if our syllabi don’t reflect that, we nontheless need to be ready to point our students in the right direction to find these ideas.

Finally, and, I think perhaps more in contravention of the logic of ally-ship, I think we need to challenge our students to avoid unconvincing and easily dismissed arguments for diversifying the curriculum. Often, students demanded more authors of color—full stop—and one insisted she could never learn anything about inequality from someone who hadn’t “experienced” it (she assumed, incorrectly, that a certain white author had never experienced “symbolic violence.” Just being an author of color—say, Thomas Sowell or Ernesto Caravantes—doesn’t mean quality scholarship or liberatory insights on race. This is where I get on tricky ground—isn’t “excellence” in research, after all, defined by the dominant culture? But if we’re serious about social science—which, at its most basic level, insists that we accept that some perspectives on the world are more accurate than others—we have to accept that personal experience and social position is a source of data, but not a guarantee of truth.

W.E.B. DuBois was certainly excluded from the classical sociological “canon” because he was black. Many of his greatest ideas—the “second sight” or “double consciousness”—could not but have come, in part, from his blackness. But he should be included on our syllabi not just because he was black, but also because he was great, because he did serious empirical work, and because his claims remain generative for scholarship a century later. And I think that pretty much captures the dynamic I’m grappling with: students who have been excluded, students who have profound insights from that exclusion, but students who also deserve access to the best ideas of a discipline I still believe in.

Even if, for now, the bearers of those ideas are too often white males.

Fool Me Twice

I had only been going into New York to hang out with for a month when I featured in my first media story. A Dutch journalist was quite taken with the incongruity of a Princeton University student going through the garbage, and despite my protestations that there were way more knowledgeable people in the group for him to talk to, I wound up featuring in his article. In fact, I was the main character: the first sentence, according to a friend, approximately read, “Alex Barnard is wading through shit on the streets of New York City.”

Most reporters who visited trash tours, though, were way more interested in the others involved in the group—the people who had organized their entire lives around freeganism. I was always in awe of how good the spokespeople for were. Night after night, I saw them turn an aberrant activity like dumpster diving into a common-sense response to waste, and spinning our abhorrence of people in the garbage into a surprisingly relatable critique of capitalism. I’ve been involved in a couple of different social movements now and, when it came to manipulating the media, was good.

Then again, I never actually bothered to look at the stories that were getting published. After all, I figured, I had a front-row seat to freeganism. Whatever the media was showing had to just be a dimmer version of what I was seeing. It’s only been lately, in writing up my book, that I’ve gone back and looked at some of what was published in the halcyon days of 2007 to 2009.

It’s kind of hard to believe that the TV spots and newspaper articles are really about the same people that I spent two years with. There’s the ABC report with the “Psycho” sound effects when Cindy opens a trash bag; the Wall Street Journal Reporter who cuts off Janet’s discussion of waste to say “I’m interested in the eating for free angle”; the blathering quotes from public health officials about food safety and fawning praise on stores donating a trivial amount of food for charity. Sometimes I wonder: were they really there?

There’s something so seductive about the media, especially to anyone who’s used to seeing their views ignored by it. For what it’s worth, sans media attention to freeganism, food waste would never have become the “issue” it is today. And, because of this, there’s a certain persistent faith that if we just do a better job of “slipping in the message”, we’ll fool the corporate behemoths into turning the airwaves into a conduit of anti-capitalist propaganda.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. In a pique of arrogance, I’ve been doing media work again. I was allured by the promise of a long, investigative piece about food waste, of which dumpster diving was only to be a small part. I took the reporters on a dive and to a public re-distribution of food; I talked about over-production and commoditization; I argued that stores threw things out not because they were careless or negligent, but because wasting is profitable in a capitalist system. I told them that the issue wasn’t my lifestyles or my carbon footprint; that I didn’t expect the whole world to start dumpster diving; that I recognized my own privilege that allowed me to engage in the act.

The piece aired a few weeks ago and, as they come, it wasn’t bad. The reporters traveled to a town that mandated food donations; they interviewed distributors, managers, and activists; they played down the safety concerns around food waste. The part where I featured, though, was painful. I declared myself an “activist” against the “system”, but they cut out any explanation of what the system was or how what I was doing might change it. I spouted some platitudes about how great the food in the dumpster was, before launching into an (edited out) explanation of how it got there. As far as anyone watching this is concerned, I was the guy who eats garbage.

Todd Gitlin writes that Students for a Democratic Society activists in the 1960s were alienated from their own representations, media products which “stood outside their ostensible makers…confronting them as an alien force.” I know that guy on TV, but I’m definitely not that stupid.


Here’s an idea that doesn’t get nearly enough consideration in the development community: poor countries are poor because they’re hot.

Okay, I’m not going to try even a half-assed defense of that statement.  I’m pretty sure there’s no shortage of peer-reviewed articles that disprove the climate-development link, and that if I thought for four seconds about this I could come up with some examples of poor cold countries and rich hot ones.  The thing is, though, I am not in much of a mood to write anything intellectual, because it’s too damn hot.

My Dad and I came to Coca on Saturday night.  It’s been great to show him around, and realize how much more of a local I feel than when I first arrived: store owners greet us with “Where have you been?” and the boardwalk’s ice cream salesman offers me free popsicles.  I had aspirations of achieving a few more interviews, too, in my limited time here, but one walk along mainstreet convinces me that such efforts are futile.  In the current heatwave, people are just sort of collapsed on the sidewalk, nursing a beer or huddled around a desultory fan.  When we enter a restaurant, the waiters peer up from the tables onto which they have nearly dissolved, as if to say, “Are you kidding?” No, no interviews today.

In Uganda, about one year ago, a farmer tried to convince me that the real problem in his country, as he put it, was that “It’s too hard to starve here.”  In the tropics, you can just throw some seeds in the ground and, well, something is bound to grow, right?  (Friends studying agricultural development, please see two paragraphs previous before you correct me.)  And maybe there’s something to that; that I now have enough interviews to get by, to squeeze out a 30,000 word thesis, and maybe it isn’t worth flogging myself too much in my last week. I’d rather just find a place in the shade and watch the people as they… well, do nothing, actually.

Maybe Europeans really do control the world because we were cold and hungry, and felt some intense need to share our misery with the rest of the world.  And all they wanted to do was sit around and drink cold chica on a hot day.

Radio Silence

To my shock, there is a vegetarian restaurant here in Coca.  This is very, very good news, as I have reached the point where the prospect of another plate of rice and beans is borderline soul-crushing. And to think, it was all of three blocks away from my hotel this entire time!

It is fitting that I would discover this restaurant yesterday, because today, I am leaving.

I´ve spent the last few days frustratedly trying to find something “exciting” to do this weekend.  I figure that if I´m spending six weeks in the Amazon, I need to come back with a picture of me half eaten by a python or dodging spears.  Yesterday, opportunity struck, in the form of a Huaorani friend who offered to take me into their territory for a few days.  He seems like a nice enough guy, although the lengthy discussion of how, in traditional Huaorani custom, if you do something wrong they will kill you was a bit disconcerting.  Still, I had a George Bush and Vladimir Putin I-looked-into-his-eyes-and-saw-a-good-man moment, and am going to let my trust in humanity get the better of me.

From a research point of view, I am really excited about this opportunity, which I think will be the cherry on top of my thesis.  Everyone seems have to have a strong opinion about the Huaorani: about half say that they still live like savages, and the other half says that they are all rich off of oil company largesse.  I don´t get the impression that many of these people have ever talked to a Huaorani, though, and while my own lack of Huaorani-speaking-skills and limited time means that I won´t be able to accomplish too much, I do think I might be able to add something important to the discussion.

This could be a total scam, of course, and I could spend all day waiting at my hotel for a guide that never comes.  But in the event that he does, this blog will be silent for the next few days.  If I don´t come back by Tuesday, you can look for a body near Shiripuno and Bameno.  A soldier got eaten by a python the other day.  That is all.

A bit AWOL

Aside from the fact that it was a cataclysmically bad movie, one of the only things I can remember about the Matrix II was an extremely dumb line, in which someone said “You never really know someone until you’ve fought them” (or something).  I tend to take a similar attitude towards cities: “You never really know a city until you’ve gotten senselessly and unnecessarily lost in it.”

It’s become something of a long and proud tradition: cities in which I’ve managed to completely lose my bearings and spend some time thinking I’m going to die in a gutter include Davis California, Nan Thailand, Barcelona Spain, and Kampala Uganda (for starters).  You would think that, after all these previous experiences, I would acknowledge that—my training as a Boy Scout aside—I actually have pretty terrible direction sense, and should probably keep a map on me.  But never mind; yesterday, after the Uruguay-Ghana game, I left my school without a map, without a cell-phone, and without the address of the house where I am staying.

I spent the next two hours wandering aimlessly, both on foot and public transit.  I eventually had to re-find the school—itself no easy feat—and swallow my masculinity and get a map.  I made it home alright, but given how rampant crime here is supposed to be—especially against clueless gringos—it’s hard not to think that I got lucky.  Still, it was a good way to get to know a bit of Quito.  Today – having not quite learned my lesson – I embarked on a run, only to find a MASSIVE city park at the top of the mountain.  I think I could stay here a while.

Blast from the Past

Back for one weekend only, by popular demand:

If this was immature when I was 19, what is it now?

Feeling a tad aged on my birthday, and consumed with fear of becoming a bit too predictable (or maybe it was just how temptingly long I had let my hair grow out?), I decided to re-shave a mohawk last weekend.  It was a lovely 48 hours of hair-spray fueled ‘rebellion’: I awed a lot of MBA students with my ‘alternativeness’ at our house party, made Graduate group-photo history (forever to be immortalized on the walls of the Middle Common Room), and, as the picture above reflects, scared my housemate to no end.  And I was quickly reminded of how nice it can be to be the center of attention, and how confident I feel when I know everyone has already written me off as a lunatic.

But, alas, as I knew last year when I put Princeton’s ‘mohawk guy’ to rest, it’s a phase of my life whose time has come and gone.  I’ve committed myself that any accolades and recognition I earn from this point forward will belong to me alone, and not be shared with my hair.  Monday, mohawk guy version 2.0 met a grisly end at the hands of a set of 5.99 Boots’ clippers.

It did seem somewhat fitting, though, to finally bring my dear mohawk full circle, from self-conscious rejection of the status quo to, well, self-referential joke.

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Jukebox: A.F.I. – I Wanna Get A Mohawk, But My Mom Won’t Let Me