"The Professor Said What!"

Are college professors today ready for a neo-diverse mix of students?

Posted Feb 25, 2020

No 21st-century college professor is just giving technical lessons. Modern college teaching is not only about information transmission. Turns out, there is a new and prominent feature of the modern-day college classroom. Who is in the room, is that feature (1).

Modern college classrooms are neo-diverse (2). Neo-diversity means that you can walk into most classrooms and you will be walking into a large or small demographic mix of students. Visibly mixed by sex-of-person, ethnicity, body-condition, race, or at least skin color. Invisibly mixed by mental-health-condition, religion, gender-identity, sexual orientation, and even nationality. Fall-2019, in my 200-person social psychology class at North Carolina State University, I had students from rural (Eureka) and urban (Charlotte) North Carolina, but also from New York City and Adelaide, Australia.  I know this only because I do an exercise where these students voluntarily reveal their homes of origin.

No matter the discipline or major, who is in the room, is not who used to be in the room. Professors not taking this new “who is in the room” into account are going to make fatal mistakes.

It is a deadly mistake, you see, for a professor to presume to know a student’s racial-ethnicity. A female student in my “Interdependence and Race” course (3) wrote about a startling interaction she had with a professor. 

End of a Fall semester, as students in one of her classes were handing in final exams, the professor says to each student, “Have a great break,” or “Happy holidays,” but with my student-writer changes his script and says, “Happy Hanukkah.” Writing about this moment, my student says,

“I listened to the interactions’ between the few students that went after me and the professor to see if it was just for me that his comment had changed. Indeed, it was just me. I am not Jewish. I left the interaction startled, not because he assumed I was Jewish, but because he made a judgment based on my appearance and further attempted to categorize me into his perception of a certain category of people.  I have come to expect this kind of interaction from some, but certainly not from a respected professor with a Ph.D.”

Even people who were students of my university decades ago know of the important, and positive increase to about fifty-percent of North Carolina State University students being women. That is a dramatic neo-diversity change even from the time I first joined the faculty here in 1988. Yet, it is a welcomed, about time-change. No wonder that our university made the news because of a “professor” berating female students in a Physics class. On Twitter, one commentator said, “…talk about not reading the room.”

By email, one of my former students wanted to alert me to what happened. She sent me a link to a local TV news story about one of our “professors” saying to a class of students, “…women are useless... well not useless. We need them for procreation." Using their brave voices in the moment to speak up against, and draw attention to that gender bigotry, those young women are to be commended. Within their rights as student-citizens, those women understood that this was no joke, and that whoever is in the room is a bona fide member of the university.

My student sent me the link to the news story. When she did so, in her email my student said, “Dr. Nacoste, I’m sure you will get multiple emails about this!! My mom sent it to me and I was shocked, but not at all surprised.”

That lack of surprise is a strong indictment. It raises questions about how well the university is doing its main job. Whom are we hiring to teach college courses at this neo-diverse moment in time? Ask colleges and universities about the screening done for potential instructors for teaching in their classrooms. What kind of orientation to the neo-diverse social context are colleges and universities giving instructors and new professors?

As I continue to say, welcome to the future. The future is not coming. It is here and now.  What I mean is that no matter what part of the American workforce anyone is in, real social change is happening in the neo-diverse mix of people in that workforce. We must admit then that there are no innocent when it comes to people having trouble adjusting to neo-diverse America. No matter how much formal education a person does or does not have, people will need some concrete help from the organization to understand that the organization is made up of a mix of people who must be respected.

I, myself, see this kind of visible bigotry as a teachable moment at any college or university. Awful and wrong as the incident was, with a strong unified voice from administrative leadership, if and when it happens, any university can use this kind of demeaning instance of classroom gender bigotry to alert and remind professors of their responsibilities to teach all of our students without group bias.

All over America colleges and universities are struggling with a change in the mix of students now enrolled. Some of those (in Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Virginia) have called on me to do workshops for their faculty about what it takes to teach well in the modern, neo-diverse college classroom. So I know we can and should do something to challenge, orient, and refocus faculty on their duty to (and prove them with a how-to) interact with a neo-diverse set of students with respect.

References

1. Nacoste, R.W. (2012). Howl of the wolf: NC State students call out for social change. (Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com).

2. Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books)

3. “Interdependence and Race” course catalog description: The Psychology of Interdependence and Race is designed to explore how interpersonal relationships are structured and how two-person interactions within those structures are influenced by race. Drawing on the major social psychological theory of interpersonal relationships -Interdependence Theory- this course will provide students with an understanding of the various structures of interpersonal relationships in order to explore how and why the presence of race (and other diversity categories) influence the ways in which people try to interact with each other within those interpersonal structures.