AJ shrugged when I asked him why he didn’t even mention the panel. He had been working on it since last semester. Yet during the class period when the very theme of his panel was central to the topic at hand in his upper-level Gender and Families seminar, AJ said nothing of his own work.
He spoke, of course. And as usual, his teacher and his classmates seemed engaged in what he said. They nodded; they looked at him when he was speaking. Some responded to his comments directly. At least one made reference to “what AJ was saying” when making a contribution later in the discussion.
AJ’s panel centered on experiences shaping Black male identities and the development of supportive relationships around those identities. The class discussion that day and the assigned readings for it were billed under the heading of Men and Masculinities. The instructor was White and female. Over half the students in the class appeared to be White. As in many of his college classrooms, AJ was the only African American male. And now, here he was, leaving class with me, a White, female graduate student and researcher with whom he’d consented to spend an inconveniently large number of hours. Here he was shrugging his shoulders as he searched for a verbal answer that might skirt any sensitivities I might have and still answer my question about why he had not discussed his own work where it seemed so relevant and so important to furthering the discussion at hand. Softly he critiqued that powerful discussion I (and perhaps also his professor, the college deans, and the University Viewbook for prospective students) were imagining as he shrugged his shoulders and said: “It’s not going to go as far as you want it to.”
I thought about this experience with AJ when I was reading through The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color, a report released Monday (20 June 2011) by the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center. The College Board report makes “six clear recommendations” toward addressing some of the issues that young men of color face, including teacher education for culturally responsive pedagogy in the college classroom and the strengthening of campus multicultural centers. Sounds great to me, but what about AJ’s classroom and countless other classrooms quite like it? What about those class discussions that hold so much potential, but that “don’t go as far as you want [them] to” because one student feels looked to, again and again, to represent a provide a neat and tidy synopsis of the myriad perspectives and experiences of myriad others who share his race and gender? What about those deliberations and disagreements and questions and shared experiences that students like AJ want to participate in but have learned not to look for in the classroom? What about the cultural and disciplinary messages students receive day after day, semester after semester, to channel their classroom energies and efforts have to go into preparing for tests of discrete skills rather than into dialogue and collaborative knowledge construction?
The College Board study finds that campuses with strong multicultural centers that reach out to students and families tend to have higher retention rates. Indeed many of the students in my study have indicated that the campus multicultural center at our University has been a key resource for academic advising, extracurricular activities, peer mentoring programs, and summer opportunities. I can’t help but think, though, about a comment from Chloe, another student in my study, a rising senior, who transferred last year from an HBCU (Historically Black College/University):
There’s just a lack of diversity [on this campus]. This is a predominantly white university. I think you can call it a PWI. I looked that up. And I don’t care any type of way, but the fact that there’s even a multicultural center, this one separate place, that says a lot about the lack of diversity.
The College Board’s six recommendations are indeed clear and worthwhile. But recommendations that suggest changes that can be made around the margins without reconstructing the center are, like AJ’s class discussion, “not going to go as far as you want it to.”