By Gavin Simpson
With a predominantly white faculty at Springfield College, many may wonder what it is like for students of color to be in a class about African-American History/Literature taught by a white person. Students like Kristian Rhim, a sophomore journalism student from inner city Philadelphia, experience this phenomena first hand. “I mean it was definitely a little weird,” he admitted. “I’m not sure what I was expecting because I have only seen like one or two black professors on campus, but I just thought for some reason that I’d walk in that day and see a person of color.”
But often that has not been the case in courses where race is a major theme. Generally, when you walk into an African-American Literature or African-American History class, you don’t see an African-American professor. You most likely see a white man or woman.
Professor Justine Dymond has been teaching at Springfield College for over 10 years and teaches African-American Literature, Native-American Literature, and Asian-American Literature. For her, teaching is relationship based, and teaching a class like African-American Literature is a tricky task. “For me, it’s always a dynamic of this is going to be challenging, intellectually and potentially emotionally challenging in what we’re talking about. When you teach literature there’s emotion so it’s really important to me that I create a space if I can that people feel relatively comfortable and safe about making mistakes, but also don’t feel so comfortable that they feel like they can say anything and everything,” said Dymond.
For Dymond, there is no point in tiptoeing around a difficult topic. “You can’t really get away from race when talking about American history and American literature,” she said. “But one of the concerns as a teacher you always have is how are the students in your class being impacted by what you’re talking about.”
For students in the class the topic of the “white teacher teaching black history” is obvious the second they walk into class on the first day. Professor of English Alice Eaton has been at Springfield College for nearly 20 years. Her experience in race issues and civil rights goes back to when she was a child where she helped her parents with the mayoral campaign for Carl B. Stokes, the first black mayor of any major city (Cleveland from 1968-1971). In her classes she tackles the subject head on: “One question I always ask is, ‘When did you first become aware of the concept of race?’ Students of color usually have a really early experience and white students, especially students from areas like New Hampshire and a town with no black people, might not have a story until they’re much older.”
Eaton tries to encourage serious discussion about race, but tries to remain conscious of delicate situations. “I’m very conscious of it, especially if there’s only one student of color,” she says. “I very consciously do not ask them to be the expert—that’s completely inappropriate. [But] I encourage all students to talk about their personal experience as much as they want to.”
Although professors try to make their classrooms a comfortable place to learn, students can still feel the tension between them and the tough-to-talk-about subjects. Sophomore student Ian Snowdeal, a white student from Maine, recalls his experience in his African-American Literature class, “The class was kind of segregated in a way where the students of color sat on the left side of the room, and the right side and middle was all white kids,” said Snowdeal. However Snowdeal says that the class was very productive with many students participating and sharing their viewpoints.
The question of a white teacher teaching a class about either African-American History, Asian-American History or others must be one of the first thoughts when taking that class for many students. Professors at Springfield College are learning to tackle this question directly. Ian Delahanty, a professor of all types of history classes, says that in the past when he taught African-American history, “I hadn’t openly addressed the fact that it’s a white professor teaching the class.” But last semester that changed, and Delahanty believes it helped: “I brought it up on the first day.”