Affirming Anti-Racist Pedagogy in the Face of Constructive Student Feedback
By Amaarah DeCuir
“I feel like this class is slightly traumatizing. We keep talking about the bad sh*t that I’ve gone through so I don’t really like speaking up because I never leave class in a positive frame of mind. Not that this is a positive class but I would really rather not have to keep discussing how I have been disenfranchised.” (Anonymous undergraduate student, Mid-Semester Course Evaluation, EDU 280, October 2021)
To demonstrate antiracist pedagogy in each of my classes, I administer a Mid-Semester Course Analysis (MCA), encouraging each student to give honest, direct feedback on how they are experiencing the class and reminding them that I seek to construct a humanizing classroom where all students feel seen, heard, and validated. During fall 2021, I administered an MCA for a course that I enjoy teaching, EDU 280: Social Justice and Urban Education. After 8 semesters as an instructor for this course, I still get excited sharing with students the many ways that social justice has been conceptualized and advanced in our American society. And, at American University, where the majority of students do not have lived experiences of attending underfunded, under resourced public schools, I take care to introduce them to the systemic injustices and persistent biases that reproduce inequities experienced in predominantly Black and Brown urban communities. In semesters past, students from marginalized racial and cultural backgrounds who attended urban schools have shared that they felt seen and heard in my class because their lived experiences are affirmed and recognized as expert knowledges. Students have revealed that they finally understand that their formative years in school were rooted in racist systems and biased practices beyond their control. Students from suburban and rural school experiences have deepened their awareness of inequities reproduced in American schools and are empowered to apply social justice strategies to address injustices in urban schools.
So, when I reviewed the results of my mid-semester course survey and found that a student viewed the class as “traumatizing” and full of “bad sh*t,” I felt like I had been punched in my antiracist gut. I read it over again and quickly looked through the rest of the comments to see if others felt the same. They did not. But rather than dismissing this single comment as an isolated outlier, I steeled myself to address this difficult feedback from one of my students with strength, grace, humility, and a renewed commitment to advancing antiracist pedagogy. This renewed commitment involves humanizing students and the educator, engaging in critical self-reflection, and being empowered to enact change.
“Rather than dismissing this single comment as an isolated outlier, I steeled myself to address this difficult feedback from one of my students with strength, grace, humility, and a renewed commitment to advancing antiracist pedagogy”
- Antiracist classrooms exist to humanize students and the educator. ‘Humanizing’ is an active verb that communicates a practice of validating others’ humanity. Humanizing becomes complicated when we are faced with realities that challenge our own views of the classroom experience. To effectively respond to this student’s comments, I needed to begin with a firm commitment to validate their experiences in my class—no exceptions. As much as I intended to create a classroom that fostered a sense of belonging and community, one of my students experienced the class as “traumatizing,” and ignoring this reality would serve to invalidate the reality of a member of the class. So, I included this comment when debriefing the mid-semester survey results with my students. Even though a few students expressed that they didn’t feel the same, I resisted the urge to use the conversation to validate my teaching practices and kept the focus on ensuring that all students felt seen and heard through the survey.
- Antiracist educators must engage in critical self-reflection, in view of their students. I teach aspiring educators. This means that my course is one part informed by the material on my syllabus, but two parts constructed through the enactment of my pedagogy. I use the MCA to demonstrate to my students how I engage in critical self-reflection to grow as an antiracist educator. This past semester, I began by sharing the full range of feedback received from the survey. Then I indicated how I would address the feedback in the remaining weeks of the semester by reviewing all remaining assigned readings to ensure that they effectively balanced both education inequities and social justice solutions to empower and liberate urban communities. I emphasized that I wanted everyone to feel a sense of safety and belonging in our classroom. What’s most important to me is that I always convey these points with an even tone (absent sarcasm, disdain, or aggressive language) and invite additional feedback and context throughout the conversation. When I did this, I felt confident that I modeled how to receive constructive feedback and how to address student concerns to create an affirming class environment.
- Students of antiracist education must be empowered to enact change, by any means necessary. Antiracist pedagogy is challenging to implement because it is designed to empower, liberate, and transform students to disrupt racism and the manifestations of control and authority that exist in classrooms. When the student in the quote above mobilized their confidence, strength, and determination to challenge my pedagogy and reveal ways that my course material was causing them to recall lived experiences with racism / sexism / homophobia / xenophobia / its intersections, I had to remind myself to celebrate that I helped construct a class environment that was empowering. I also had to admit to myself that the change this student was seeking would make my class better for everyone. It was at this moment that I made a public commitment to my class to balance the representation of inequities and injustices with lived experiences of resistance, liberation, and joy. I centered social justice work as a defining lens in the course, and taught students the many ways in which social justice is used as a tool to (re)imagine urban schools and communities. Finally, I credited students for the enhancements to my syllabus because they were empowered to co-construct antiracist experiences that made them feel whole and seen.
Thank you to my students in EDU 280, Fall 2021. I remain appreciative that I was given a unique opportunity to demonstrate my commitments to antiracist pedagogy in front of a class of empowered, liberated aspiring antiracist educators and activists.
Amaarah DeCuir, EdD, Senior Inclusive Pedagogy Fellow and Professorial Lecturer in the School of Education. Amaarah facilitates Faculty Learning Communities and faculty development workshops across campus and beyond to deepen her research and practice of antiracist pedagogy in higher education. She continues to work towards developing a classroom climate that fosters belonging, wellness, activism, and excellence.
DeCuir, A. (2021, Mar 2021). 10 habits to humanize online classrooms. Inside HigherEd. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/03/24/advice-humanizing-classrooms-and-practicing-antiracist-pedagogy-opinion
Sozer, E. M., Zeybekoglu, Z., & Kaya, M. (2019). Using mid-semester course evaluation as a feedback tool for improving learning and teaching in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(7), 1003–1016. https://doi-org.proxyau.wrlc.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1564810
Grosland. (2019). Through laughter and through tears: emotional narratives to antiracist pedagogy. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 22(3), 301–318. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2018.1468750