Tamara Venit Shelton

Associate Professor at Claremont McKenna College

Call and Response

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Image: class at Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C., 1957 (Library of Congress)

Early in the morning, on a Wednesday in November, an alliance of student groups at Claremont McKenna College sent faculty a “Call to Action.” A pair of events — an incendiary email from the dean of students and a racially charged Halloween costume chronicled on Facebook — had inflamed the long-standing, unanswered grievances of students from traditionally under-represented populations.

Their protest echoed similar movements at places like Yale University and the University of Missouri. At Claremont McKenna, the students rallied for greater administrative support, a more diverse curriculum and faculty, and a resource center. They asked for their feelings of marginalization and their experiences of exclusion to be recognized. They refused to remain silent any longer.

As a professor of history at the college, a feminist, and a person of color, I read the Call to Action feeling grateful for our students' bravery and eager to lend my support. In addition to the demands, the Call to Action listed some two dozen recent microaggressions and acts of bias — someone had defaced posters supporting transgendered rights, an economics professor had used the term “welfare queens.” Then I noticed my course was on the list.

“There is a current class on the Civil War that simulated the pros and cons of slavery,” the Call to Action said. “Many students of color found this discussion to be extremely insensitive and hurtful.”

I reacted with surprise, embarrassment, and — to be candid — indignation. I have been teaching college courses on race and ethnicity for 12 years. Feminist and multicultural pedagogies inform my teaching philosophy. I have tried to equip students with tools to think about difference and inclusion.

How could someone like me wind up on a list like that?

The American Civil War was a subject that I taught regularly. But this semester, I decided to include an innovative curriculum called Reacting to the Past. In an immersive role-playing game, students assumed the identities of Kentucky state legislators during the crisis of secession in early 1861. Using highly detailed role sheets and historical documents, the students-as-legislators debated the merits of remaining in the Union or leaving to join the Confederacy. The game asked students to confront the complex motivations of Civil War-era politicians. True to the historical moment, very few were antislavery; most were slaveholders. The rules of the role-playing game prevented racist speech, but debates over slavery and secession necessarily reflected the entangled imperatives of economics, politics, religion, and — most uncomfortably — racism.

After the Call to Action, one colleague asked why I had assigned a role-playing game for a topic as serious as American slavery and secession. I hoped that it would enable my students to engage with primary sources in ways that conventional seminar-style discussion did not. Studies in education and psychology have shown that role-playing helps students practice empathy and communication. In my Civil War course, I believed that historical role-playing would encourage students to inhabit a worldview wholly unlike their own. I hoped they might emerge with a new understanding of the racist logic supporting slavery and the profound legacy that the Civil War Era had on the United States.

I expected that the exercise would be productively uncomfortable. Most of the students had to empathize with characters they found morally repugnant. Understandably, that is hard to do, but it is essential to the historian’s craft. To do the work of history, we must understand that real people — with all their virtues and flaws — made history. We need not sympathize with them or absolve them, but we commit to comprehending them on their own terms.

Learning that my class contributed to a climate of racial insensitivity on campus has compelled me to reflect on how I teach. Have my courses overemphasized an intellectual, almost clinical engagement with the past that disregards the emotional and moral turmoil such an encounter can cause? As a historian I confront the brutality of racism in my research every day, and I treat it with the critical distance my discipline has taught me. Perhaps I have become desensitized to our painful past — like a doctor habituated to delivering a bad prognosis.

Perhaps in encouraging my students to practice empathy with people who lived in the past, I forgot to practice empathy with the very people sitting in my classroom.

The Call to Action, its list of grievances and demands, has received a mixed response from the faculty here at the college. The majority, including me, have proffered support, but some professors worry that the student movement threatens academic freedom. Will new administrators, additional academic resources, and diversity training lead to more invasive measures that undermine our authority as experts and constrain our freedom of speech?

Those concerns are real. So are the concerns of marginalized students.

As Claremont McKenna rebuilds and moves forward, our faculty, administrators, and students will have to overcome resentment and skepticism. We will have to comprehend one another with humility and empathy.

As professors, we may have to rethink the space of the classroom — from a place under our authority to an environment that we co-create with our students. From my corner of campus, I find myself with a renewed commitment to teaching history and, through history, empathy.

I will not shrink from difficult conversations about race and power. I will probably assign a role-playing game again although I will do more to prepare students for the emotional difficulties such work can entail. Alongside critical engagement with the past, I will create space for contemplating the vital concerns of our present. I have heard the Call; this is how I will respond.

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