My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters

My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters

By David J. Leonard


May 20, 2014

When you walk into a classroom, what’s your demeanor? Are you approachable, even casual? Or do you favor authority and formality?

Ever since Katrina Gulliver, a professor at University of New South Wales, lamented a “culture of familiarity” in the lecture hall, I’ve been reading professors’ reflections on these questions. Reflections from professors like Will Miller, who pushed back against Gulliver: “I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in,” he wrote, “and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however.”

I’m a casual dresser, too, but that’s not what struck me about Miller’s essay. What stood out was this line: I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom.

There’s a lot to digest here. But let me start with this: I am a white male, and that has everything to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom, why I am respected, and how I’m read by students and others. That is my story, and the story of my career within academe.

Berkeley: Summer 1998

I still remember the excitement I felt when I taught my first class solo. No discussion sections, no grading demands from other professors: This was my syllabus, my approach, my opportunity to develop relationships with students. The course covered the civil-rights movement, and I was thrilled by the opportunity to share my passion for the untold stories of the movement.

As a white, male graduate student, I worried: Would my knowledge and academic background be enough to make students respect me as an authority on civil-rights history? But back then, I figured that my extensive reading list and my preparation were enough. Beyond that initial burst of anxiety, I gave little thought to what my whiteness meant inside the classroom.

About halfway through the class, we prepared to watch Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls, a powerful documentary that chronicles the trauma and terror of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Wanting the students to sit with the film, to reflect, and to emotionally connect with it, I encouraged them to bypass the standard practice of detached, academic note-taking. “Sit back,” I said, “and enjoy the film.”

Looking back, I cannot believe I said these words. But I’m not entirely surprised: My privilege needed to be checked. In my mind, I was simply reminding them to watch, listen, learn, and feel. Yet that’s not what came out of my mouth. What I said seemed like an attempt to turn a film about terror into a moment of pleasure and enjoyment.

A few weeks later, two African-American students approached me separately. They each challenged me to think about what I had said, why it was significant, and how my whiteness mattered. They were right. I was blinded by privilege and the belief that “it’s all about the material,” not even questioning how I presented that material. My distance from the history shaped how I talked about the civil-rights movements and white-supremacist violence. When I reached into my pedagogical toolbox, steeped in whiteness and my middle-class Los Angeles upbringing, I grabbed hold of “enjoy the film” with little forethought about how such an insensitive phrase might trigger emotions and anger. It was the first of many lessons on how race always matters in the classroom.

Berkeley: Spring 2002

As I approached the completion of my Ph.D., I was afforded the opportunity to teach an upper-level undergraduate ethnic-studies class with over 200 students. It was daunting. Between wrangling eight teaching assistants (many of whom were my friends), and lecturing to all those undergrads, I was apprehensive—if not scared—for much of the semester.

Over the years, I have been asked over and over again: Did the students—either the legendarily political Berkeley crew or the less-progressive students who just were taking the course for a general-education requirement—ever challenge me, question why I was teaching the class, or simply resist my pedagogical approach? Never. Happened. Even though I lectured about genocide, enslavement, mass incarceration, and persistent white supremacy, students offered little resistance.

This all changed, though, when a fellow graduate student—an African-American man—delivered a couple of guest lectures about the prison-industrial complex. After two mind-blowing and brilliant talks, I was excited to continue the conversation with the class. My students? Not so much. They lamented the guest lecturer’s “attitude.” They described him as “angry,” as “biased” and “sarcastic,” and as “different from me.” Several students seemed more interested in litigating his pedagogical choices than discussing the injustices of the American judicial system.

We (I’m indebted to one of my TA’s for her work here) refused to hold this conversation in his absence, so we brought him back into the classroom. And we pushed the class to reflect on why I was seen as an objective, fair-minded, truth-telling, and lovable “teddy bear,” whereas he was angry, biased, and more interested in a political agenda than the truths of history. The conversations that resulted from these interventions were powerful, spotlighting that race, racism, and privilege didn’t just operate outside the classroom, in history and in culture. They played a role within our learning space as well.

The wages of whiteness were paid inside and outside the classroom. I was seen as an objective authority, I realized, in part because I was a white male.

Continue reading at

Adjuncts Aren’t Slaves. Let’s Stop Saying They Are. | Vitae

Adjuncts Aren’t Slaves. Let’s Stop Saying They Are.

December 4, 2013

Amid the rightful discussion of our shift toward an entrenched, disposable academic laboring class, some adjunct advocates are making a striking analogy. Adjunct labor, they say, is a form of new slavery.

The comparison has become increasingly visible on blogs and within comment sections. Here’s one more example, from Langston Snodgrass: “It has been said that, ‘Adjuncts are the slave labor of higher education.’ This is factually true beyond doubt. Adjuncts are disrespected as teachers, as individual human beings, and as professionals in terms of what adjuncts are paid.”

So let’s be clear about this: Adjuncts are not slaves, and being an adjunct is not akin to slavery. Exploitation? In many cases, yes. Slavery? Absolutely not.

Slavery was (and continues to be) a system of forced labor, of lifelong servitude, of denied compensation and violence. Those who deploy the term as part of a rhetorical strategy are joining PETA, anti-choice crusaders, the G.O.P., Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, and a myriad of anti-Obamacareites by doing so. They are blinded by their cause, by historic myopia, and often by the privilege of whiteness.

Throughout history, slavery has been embedded within society. It has governed law, economic and political structures, and everyday realities. White supremacy has been a guiding ideology, a way to rationalize the exploitation and violence experienced by enslaved African and African-American people. Daily abuse, torture, sexual violence, and death have all been part of a system of slavery in the United States, and terror and violence were instrumental in maintaining a system of mass enslavement.

“Slavery for Black Americans was traumatic,” noted Patricia Moody Jefferson, a doctoral student in the Ethelyn R. Strong School of Social Work at Norfolk State University, during a recent discussion I participated in on Facebook. “Children and whole families were sold like animals. People, human beings were killed. Africans who were enslaved lost much of their identity.”

It should go without saying that being an adjunct is nothing like this.

It should go without saying that the ideologies and narratives leading to more and more contingent faculty don’t seep into every aspect of life. It should go without saying that violence and terror aren’t part of the adjunct experience, nor is being legally owned as a form of “property.” It should go without saying that being an adjunct isn’t a birth-to-death reality, one passed on to future generations. The analogy falls flat on its face. Not only does it deny and erase the history of enslaved Africans and African Americans within the United States, but it also obscures the real issues facing adjuncts in our contemporary system of higher education.

Continue reading at Adjuncts Aren’t Slaves. Let’s Stop Saying They Are. | Vitae.

Doing work plz, laptops and college classroom

Close That Laptop in Class! | Psychology Today


I dont allow computers in class unless under special circumstances.  I find them distracting to the student, their classmates and myself.  I think it detracts from the culture we are trying to create inside the classroom.  Now, I have “evidence” for why my classroom will remain a computer/smart phone/ipad/pda free zone


Close That Laptop in Class! | Psychology Today

“Close That Laptop in Class!”

by Nate Kornell

According to one estimate, about 65% of college students bring a laptop to class (Fried, 2008). Unlike a traditional notebook and pen, computers can be a lot of fun–they have ESPN, Facebook, email, etcetera. Putting a computer in front of a college student is kind of like putting a marshmallow in front of a little kid and telling her not to eat it–the temptation is far too great. (Another example: The Kindle is less tempting than the iPad.)

I’ve sat in the back of classrooms recently because I wanted to observe great teachers. I did not expect to learn so much from observing students. I saw a lot of multitasking, by which I mean Facebook (etc). It’s not just distracting for the multitasker, I was distracted too.

A new study by Sana, Weston, and Cepeda (2013) examined the effect of laptop multitasking in a simulated classroom. Participants were shown a 45 minute lecture on meteorology. The researches summarize their first study nicely:


All participants were asked to attend to a university-style lecture and take notes using their laptops as a primary task. Half the participants, by random assignment, received additional instructions to complete a series of non-lecture-related online tasks at any convenient point during the lecture. These tasks were considered secondary and were meant to mimic typical student web browsing during class in terms of both quality and quantity.

The students who multitasked did 11% worse on a comprehension test covering the lecture. That’s equivalent to a whole grade lower in a class.

But what about the “secondhand smoke” of laptops–their effect on people near the multitasker? The researchers did a second study, which they summarize thusly:

A new group of participants was asked to take notes using paper and pencil while attending to the lecture. Some participants were strategically seated throughout the classroom so that they were in view of multitasking confederates on laptops, while others had a distraction-free view of the lecture. Confederates mimicked multitaskers from Experiment 1 by typing notes on the lecture and performing other concurrent, irrelevant online tasks.

This time, students who has a multitasker in their line of sight did 17% worse than students who did not.

Continue reading at Close That Laptop in Class! | Psychology Today.


NewBlackMan (in Exile): Higher Education in Mitt Romney’s America

Higher Education in Mitt Romney’s America

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

The media focus on student debt, on congressional battles over student loans, and the scarcity of jobs for college graduates obscures the racial and class dynamics that define America’s colleges and universities. With the public discourse surrounding the unfairness of affirmative action for Whites, the threat that Ethnic Studies represents to (White) America, and the absence of “White student unions” in college campuses, public discussions re-imagine Whiteness as precarious, and Whites as victim and at the frontlines of a changing educational landscape. Despite the daily lamenting of the state and future of America’s White students, particularly those with middle and upper-middle incomes, college campuses are still White. In fact, Whites, particularly those whose parents are part of the top 5% of the income distribution, continue to reap the benefits of privilege in (1) admittance, (2) scholarship, and (3) treatment. Let’s not get things twisted here; these colleges and universities are in America, so yes the rules of the game (racism, sexism, classism) do apply.

In 2005, less than one in eight youth from the poorest 25% of society would enroll at a 4-year college university within 2 years of high school graduation. According to Peter Schmidt, author of The Color of Money, “a rich child has about 25 times as much a chance as a poor one of someday enrolling in a college rated as highly selective or better.” Colleges’ overreliance on SAT scores, heightens cultural bias, and the unequal advantages resulting from SAT prep classes, which have proven to benefit Whites and the middle-class. In addition, because admissions give credence to a school’s reputation (which cannot be seen apart from segregation, and racial and class inequality), the rules and the game of college are set up to advantage Mitt Romney’s America: the already privileged. Worse yet, the hegemony of the narratives of meritocracy and the illusion of diversity—which Lani Guiner describes as “a leaf to camouflage privilege”—obscure the endless privileges afforded to the members of middle and upper middle class White America, before they ever step foot on a college campus.

This is evident as we look at the racial and class stratification of student loans and other forms of aid. The Chronicle of Higher Education found that “colleges with more than $500 million in their endowments…served disproportionately few students from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants.” In other words, the money that makes college a possibility is funneled to those whose families often have the requisite dollars to make college a reality. Schmidt tells us that “[j]ust 40 percent of the financial aid money being distributed by public colleges is going to students with documented financial need,” adding that “[m]ost such money is being used to offer merit-based scholarships or tuition discounts to potential recruits who can enhance a college’s reputation, or appear likely to cover the rest of their tuition tab and to donate down the road.” Despite the widely circulated, albeit factually false ideas about students of color and scholarships, the vast majority of scholarship money finds its way into the pocket of White students.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Higher Education in Mitt Romney’s America.

Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images for Nike, via ABC News)

Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream

September 7, 2012, 12:26 pm

By David J. Leonard

The media is abuzz with reports of Nike’s fall release of the LeBron X. Not surprisingly, the widespread commentary doesn’t focus on production conditions or even the technological components of the shoe, but instead on the cost of the shoes. According to The Wall Street Journal, the LeBron X would retail for a whopping $315 dollars; subsequent reports noted that Nike would market the model with all the hi-tech bells and whistles for only $290, with a basic model costing around $180. Pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a shoe (not just laces and “leather”), the LeBron X will include Nike’s + technology, which allows athletes to measure vertical leap, activity, and otherwise assess basketball progress.

Rumors of a $315 shoe led commentators to wax sociological, using the moment to lament the values and cultural priorities of the nation. More specifically, these sociological impersonators lamented the warped values of the poor, of inner-city residents, and of youth—blacks—who would probably flock to stores to purchase the shoes. “The lust for expensive LeBron X sneaker signals a bigger problem,” writes Daryl E. Owens, a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel. Whether linking it to warped priorities or reviving memories of black youths murdering each other for expensive shoes in the 90s (and more recently), Owens points to the dangers of consumption from certain communities: “For too many, the problem is a malignant mutated strain of conspicuous consumption, crossed with hardship and low self-esteem.” Greg Doyel of CBS Sports also objected that “LeBron is trading on the most vulnerable part of his fan base: their self-image.”

Imagining black youth as lacking values, self-esteem, and agency, Doyel and company see the shoes—and not poverty, job and housing discrimination, the prison-industrial complex, divestment in public education, etc.—as the destructive influence on the future of this generation. In other words, the allure of these shoes, and the desire to get one’s hands on them at any cost, is the explanation for persistent inequality. Painting a picture of black youth rioting and killing for these shoes, of a community lacking values, these commentators play on the worst kind of stereotypes and misinformation.

Yet it seems clear that Nike does have a message to market. The company is selling high-school and college athletes the prospect of not just a career but also a future. As with higher education as a whole, this is a message directed at the middle-class—at suburban whites rather than blacks. The LeBron X provides the electronic wizardry for student athletes to better their game. These shoes are imagined as yet another device or investment in a path toward the American dream. Akin to private coaches, the best equipment, nutritionists, private traveling teams, and other financial burdens, the shoes are yet another example of how sports achievement is tied to consumption and investment, to privilege. Akin to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree from an elite college, tens of thousands on private high schools or preschools because they are pipelines to the American dream. The shoe itself—and the reaction—is a metaphor for what is happening to higher education.

Continue reading @ Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Drug Culture on College Campuses and the Criminalization of Student Athletes | Urban Cusp

Drug Culture on College Campuses and the Criminalization of Student Athletes

By David J. Leonard

UC Columnist

In a world where the stigmas of drugs and the destructiveness of the war on drugs have been confined to the black community, particularly those segregated urban spaces, the recent announcement of the arrest of several students from Texas Christian University should cause pause. Following a 6-month investigation from the DEA, the police arrested 17 students, including 4 football players, selling a myriad of drugs – marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs and ecstasy on and off campus. The inclusion of 4 football players resulted in widespread media coverage, few which made note that 3 of those arrested were white, an important fact given the media-produced stereotype about race, crime, and American athletes. Worse yet, the efforts to isolate the problem of drugs to student athletes, not only plays upon stereotypes about black athletes, even in instances such as this where only 1 person involved is African American, but once again exonerates whiteness from the discussion. In narrating the problem of drugs on college campuses through athletics, an identity difficult to disentangle from blackness within the white imagination, the media sensationalism perpetuates a racially-defined war on drugs.

Described as a “stain on the football program,” and “an especially embarrassing blow to the school because it included four members of the high-profile football team,” the media response focused on the arrest of the 4 student-athletes, simultaneously rendering the other students (at least 11) and non-students involved as insignificant to the larger story. Those from the football team became the story, the starting team, with the others involved reduced to peripheral bench players unworthy of media investigation or commentary. In “TCU Will Survive Shameful Day,” Jean-Jacques Taylor denounced the players as “shameful, embarrassing, stupid,” seemingly letting the other students involved, the school, and the coach off the hook. In fact, Taylor celebrates the coach for how he handled the situation even though according to the article, 80 players tested positive for drugs (other sources put this number between 5-16): “Perhaps he’s simply observed what’s happened at Ohio State and Penn State recently and decided the fallout from the cover-up is so much worse than the crime that it’s far better to come clean and deal with the consequences,” writes the reporter for ESPN Dallas. “Either way, Patterson should be applauded for having the gumption to reportedly order team-wide drug testing when a recruit told him that he was declining a scholarship offer because of the drug culture.” Like much of the media coverage, Taylor turns a 6-month investigation that netted the arrests of at least 17 people for narcotics distribution to the “drug culture” of the team.

He was not alone with a significant media emphasis on how the arrests were emblematic of an epidemic ravaging college athletes. Eric Olson, with “TCU Bust Sign of Increased Pot Problem,” sought to contextualize the arrests as evidence of a larger problem. Noting that 22.6% of student-athletes reported using marijuana once during the last 12 months, and how that number is up from 21.2% in 2005, Olson argues that these arrests are indicative of a larger problem for college sports. Yet, the “evidence” provided by this study is actually contradicted by the study itself, which argues that the slight increase in marijuana use reflects a societal shift rather than something specific to college athletics. Moreover, the study found that within the NCAA, marijuana use is least common amongst Division I student-athletes (16.9%), with Division II student-athletes (21.4%) and those from Division III having the highest level of usage with a number of 28.3%. In fact, while drug usage declined at the Division I level, those other two levels saw increases. Olson also references usage amongst student-athletes playing football and basketball, coincidentally those sports with the most visible number of African Americans, implying that the problem is acute within these sports. While basketball (22%) and football (26.7%) mirror widespread findings within all sports (the study doesn’t break the information down for each sport within each division), men’s lacrosse (48.5%), women’s lacrosse (30%) and women’s field hockey (35.7%) might as well get a feature article in High Times.

Conflating their arrests for alleged drug distribution with drug use amongst student-athletes, all while arguing the existence of a growing problem (up 1.5%), the efforts to construct this as a product of athletic culture and specifically an out-growth of football and basketball programs is telling.

The efforts to narrate a story specific to a college athletics, playing upon the sensationalism and particular stereotypes, has significant consequences. In isolating and confining the narrative to basketball courts and football stadium, the media representation continues the erasure of drug uses and criminal activity amongst college students. Most studies put drug use amongst college students at rates higher than general public, with almost 23% of college students meeting the clinical definition of alcohol or drug dependence.

Continue reading at Drug Culture on College Campuses and the Criminalization of Student Athletes | Urban Cusp.

NewBlackMan: Like Father, Like Son?: An Open Letter to Coach Pat Knight

Like Father, Like Son?: An Open Letter to Coach Pat Knight

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Dear Coach Pat Knight (Lamar University):

I am writing to you about your post-game comments the other night. As others may not have seen your press conference, I quote it for their sake. Entering the press conference, you first tell a student-athlete: “I am next, because you don’t have a clue what it takes to win.” Your tone of disrespect didn’t end there:

We’ve got the worst group of seniors right now that I’ve ever been associated with. Their mentality is awful. Their attitude is awful. It has been their M.O. for the last three years.

We’ve had problems with them off the court, on the court, classroom, drugs, being late for stuff. All that stuff correlates together if you’re going to win games. You just can’t do all that B.S. and expect to be a good team and win games. These guys got to learn; they have to grow up. They don’t need to be coddled; they don’t need to be babysat. That is the problem with society . . . because people don’t make kids accountable. These kids are stealing money by being on scholarship with their approach . . . . If you act like this in the real world, you are going to be homeless, with a job… And if people have a problem with me being harsh about it, I don’t care. I came here to clean something up.

While others have called your post-game comments an “epic rant,” as “tough love” or as an example your honesty, I don’t share their opinion. It was abusive, disrespectful and an affront to the educational mission of every institution of higher learning. You have defended these comments by noting the support of your fellow coaches, who are “all dealing with the same thing.” You have cited parents as so appreciative of your comments that they would want their kids to play on your team. While I don’t write as a parent (although the thought of my kids learning anything from you is one I cannot bear), I do write you as a teacher and a member the higher education community.

I am not sure if you think of yourself as a teacher or an educator. I don’t know if you subscribe to the belief that coaches, like professors, are advancing the mission of higher education through instilling values, fostering skill development, and otherwise preparing the next generation to succeed in all walks of life. Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist with the Washington Post, highlights the presumed pedagogical power (or mission) of collegiate coaches:

The best college coaches teach sport as a set of problems and how to tease out the solutions. They don’t just teach content and skill, but how to transfer it into real-world performance through study, organization and communication under pressure. They ask, what happens if you follow a strategy to its logical conclusion? What are the consequences of making things up as you go along? Why do things break down? What are effective fallback principles when skill or strategy breaks down? What are the traits of successful organizations across professional boundaries?

I would gather that you do see yourself as an educator, as a teacher molding the future generation. Whether true or not, I have to tell you your approach is both troubling and offensive and has NOTHING to do with teaching or educating. Teaching is not about publicly humiliating; teaching is not about ridiculing, demeaning, and disrespecting. You may think your approach reflects a commitment to disciplinarity and accountability but there have to be other ways to instill a commitment to excellence on and off the court. Anyone can stand before an audience, microphone in hand, without fear of any reprisal, to criticize. Teachers find other ways of inspiring, informing, or helping beyond intimidation and fear. Teachers don’t violate the trust of their students by announcing their grades in front of millions of people. Teachers don’t disrespect their students; calling out behavior is one thing, but condemning their character is another. Your decision to treat student-athletes as children, to publicly condemn and ridicule them, shows that you have a lot to learn as a teacher because anyone has the capacity to do what you did that night.

Beyond the tone, do you think it is proper to share students’ private academic records?  You obviously do because you followed your press conference with additional statements about academic performance:  “I’ve never seen more F’s on report cards than I ever have since I got here. Missing classes, being late for workouts, missing workouts. … What I don’t think they understand is all that correlates together. If you’re not going to be a winner off the court, you’re not going to be a winner on the court.” What good can come from embarrassing these students? At the same time, do you think it is proper to reference drug arrests, even though when I searched online all I could find is one arrest for a minor marijuana possession charge?
I would be remised if I didn’t bring up the racial optics of a white male coach publicly chastising, ridiculing and demonizing 5 African American players (based on search of roster, it appears that all 5 seniors are black)?  Did you think about how publicly castigating 5 black players as academically deficient, drug using, and otherwise lacking the requisite values and attitude to be successful as basketball players or people fits in a larger racial context?  Did you think about the societal stereotypes and how your claims are not only disrespectful to the players but reinforce widely circulated stereotypes about student-athletes and particularly black student-athletes?
Your arrogant comments makes me wonder if you and Newt Gingrich are writing a book together acting as if success and opportunity come as the result of a recipe of values, work ethic, and the right cultural ethos.  Was he busy lecturing members of the NAACP so you decided to use your platform to reduce success and failure to attitude and values?  Do you really think that excoriating 5 (black) players will help them develop a work ethic to avoid being homeless as if homelessness or unemployment is the result of not having the requisite values?  You seem to imply that people succeed or fail because of their actions, which is far from the truth (just ask Mitt Romney).  I wonder how your white manhood fits into your own career and how your own connections allowed you to make it irrespective of your own actions.  You claim to fear for the futures of those players who lack the needed maturation, but maybe they have a Dad who can help them out.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Like Father, Like Son?: An Open Letter to Coach Pat Knight.