Affolter Speaks on Race in the Classroom

By Emilie Munson

Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Studies Tara Affolter addressed the entangled issues of race and education in her lecture on Thursday, Dec. 6 entitled “Tell Them You Saw Me: Invisibility, Race and Racism in the Liberal Arts Classroom.” Affolter is applying for a tenure-track position in Education Studies at the College, and this lecture was part of her evaluation as a candidate.

Affolter has a Ph.D. in education studies and taught secondary school for fifteen years before becoming a professor at the College. She became interested in the links between race and education after working with the Head Start program and teaching children from low-income families.

Recently, she conducted a study regarding race and education in which she interviewed forty students of color who attended American “elite liberal arts colleges” on their experiences in the classroom. This study is not yet published.

Affolter concluded that there is an unhealthy atmosphere for students of color at predominantly white colleges.

“Students of color experience patterns of exclusion [and] alienation,” explained Affolter.

Affolter attributed this campus climate to problems with campus discourse and curriculum.

Survey data collected from 2,042 students at 141 liberal arts colleges revealed that non-white students felt scared to talk in the classroom at double the rate of white students.

Students of color often feel like they need to watch their tone or that what they say is interpreted by white students as speaking for their entire race, said Affolter. Students in her study revealed that they often feel like “a nobody or a nation” when they speak; they are either invisible or hyper-visible to their classmates.

“Part of white privilege is what we say will be heard [and understood],” said Affolter.

Another flaw to campus discourse, Affolter discussed, is that white students may unintentionally make racist comments which go unacknowledged by students and professors.

“Comments like that take students out of the classroom, silences them, marginalizes them,” explained Affolter. Additionally, if racist comments go unchallenged, she added, they may be accepted as fact.

Students of color in Affolter’s study reported that professors often lead very controlled and cautious discussions in regards to race that only serve to skim the surface of the issues at hand. Race issues are frequently discussed only as historical fact and not as problems wracking today’s society.

By not tackling issues of race in the classroom effectively, students are missing educational opportunities, suggested Affolter. She believes that the curriculum is the area the College most needs to address in order to produce a healthy and diverse campus climate.

On the whole, Affolter challenged all the College’s professors to lead in their classrooms conversations in which race is discussed productively.

“I really do believe that the classroom is the place where we need to make the change,” said Affolter.

Maya Doig-Acuna ’16, whose poem about “the influence of black poets and writers on her own growth” was read by Affolter during her lecture, has been moved by Affolter’s message on campus.

“As a student of color, there were things that she said […] that resonated with me from other students’ experiences that I didn’t really realize were even there, kind of tensions that I had felt in classrooms before that I didn’t know how to identify or how to explain,” said Doig-Acuna about Affolter’s lecture. “[Her lecture] made me feel better about this school because I realized so many people cared.”

Doig-Acuna also shares Affolter’s belief that much could be done to improve the state of racial diversity at the College.

“I didn’t expect to feel such a segregated community,” reflected Doig-Acuna. “I wish that everybody had more of an interest in going beyond what’s familiar, and talking to new people, and engaging in the dialogue about diversity.”

Doig-Acuna and Affolter share the belief that “issues of race and identity are issues that belong to everyone and everyone should care about.”

Jay Saper ’13, who recently wrote a satirical editorial for the Campus entitled “Fire Tara,” believes that Affolter plays an extremely important role in the College community.

“Who she is and what she has to say really resonate with many people on campus who feel that in her work she challenges a lot of what is marginalizing various identities at this place,” said Saper, who has taken a class with Affolter every semester that she has taught at the College. In 2011, he ran a campaign called “Keep Affolter” advocating that Affolter remain as a professor on campus.

“She […] is not just someone who participates in fifty minute lectures and publishes so as to lengthen her CV. [She] is someone who is really a member of our community and a support for so many students,” Saper added.

Affolter wishes to remain at the College because of the flexibility in course design and offering in her department, and because she feels she makes an impact at the College.

She will learn if she received the tenure-track position in the Education Studies department in the coming weeks.

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