I took American History at a community college the year after I graduated high school. Everyday my teacher, Mr. Little, wore the same dirty, sweat stained, pinstripe, oxford shirt that wrapped tightly around his large stomach. He would grip the sides of a brown lectern that sat on top of a cheap folding table toward the front of the classroom for the entire hour and fifteen minutes as if he would fly off the earth if he let go.
He plowed through his lecture notes in class-long monologue, barely ever looking up. So the entire room was taken aback when he stopped mid-lecture, wiped the sweat off his greasy forehead, and asked, “What do you think of Christopher Columbus? It is, after all, Columbus Day.” To my surprise a number of students raised their hands. The conversation was rather complimentary sounding something like the shadow of an eighth grade history report of Columbus.
The class was nearly entirely white (something not uncommon in Lincoln, NE). I distinctly remember there was one student who looked to be Native American, but given I never asked him to self-identify, I can’t be sure. The presumably Native American student sat toward the back of the room and was quiet. He was always early to class, like I was, but he never joined in the pre-class conversations, not even the gripe-fests that went on before Mr. Little showed up.
About 5 minutes into the discussion of Columbus, Mr. Little turned toward the Native American looking student, pointed in his direction and said, “You.” Mr. Little waited for him to make eye contact before continuing, “You’re Native right? What is the Native American perspective on Christopher Columbus?” The student struggled to find words. I wanted to pull my head into my body like Sammy (the box turtle I had growing up).
From that day foreword I profoundly understood that speaking should be optional in class discussions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t require student participation, but rather you should always allow you students to decide when and where they want the spotlight put on them.
Mr. Little probably thought he was being inclusive. He probably thought, in a perverse way, that by reaching out for this student’s opinion he was being “pro-diversity.” However, Mr. Little was being anything but. Asking a student to speak on behalf of their social group (be it race, class, gender, etc.) is akin to saying “you people are all the same”. There is no “Native American perspective” because Native Americans are not monolithic. This is a common way that trying to be “inclusive” to non-dominant students backfires and only reinforces their “otherness”.
In my classes no one is allowed to throw the spotlight on another student. Especially not in an open class discussion. No one is expected to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. If you have something to say I pray that you will, but it’s not my place to force the stage upon you.