‘Racist’ views in university

This post was prompted by an incident that occurred yesterday during a course that I was attending. However, I am really struggling to know where to start or write something that makes sense because I still get shocked and angry when staff display obvious racially insensitive attitudes.

My own research and that of others highlights that there is racial prejudice in UK universities but that it tends to be indirect and subtle so when someone says something much more obvious it is noticeable. So I guess I should explain the incident and go from there.

At one point in the course we were discussing the idea of dealing with things quickly (as a manager) before they get out of hand. One example used to illustrate this was the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. I stated that I felt this was a poor example as the theory itself was contested and controversial and had most notably been used to inform policing practice in New York City. I mentioned that such policies risked discriminating against certain groups such as young, Black men and that maybe a less controversial example should have been used.

One of the other participants felt that it was perfectly OK to state that it was precisely because this group were committing crime that meant they were targeted; showing a complete lack of understanding of structural inequality. Now to a certain extent I can forgive ignorance but it just felt like a completely unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to my comment that served no purpose.

Had we been discussing race or policing or any other related matter then I would have happily had the debate. But this was a management course. I had simply objected to an example used on the grounds that it could be seen as insensitive and another member of staff felt the need to object and make what I felt was a comment that showed at best ignorance and at worst a racist attitude. Although of course, it was not blatantly racist enough to be able to take the matter further and make a complaint against the staff member. (I would strongly recommend everyone reads Pettigrew and Meertens’ 1995 paper on ‘Subtle and blatant prejudice in Western Europe’, European journal of social psychology, 25 (1) pp. 57-75)

I guess it is just another daily example of how whenever anyone tries to call out structural inequality related to race there is always plenty of white people who feel the need to object. It is just a shame that it happened in my own university but just goes to illustrate how much further we have to go to get real equality and of course it only hardens my resolve to continue that fight!

On teaching international students

I am just about to embark on an online course at Oxford Brookes University called ‘Teaching International Students‘. As preparation, I have been reading Teaching International Students edited by Carroll and Ryan. One of the first messages that strikes me is that in order to teach international students me must first know ourselves. This means being aware of our own culture; both the national culture and the academic culture. By being aware of the cultural aspects of higher education in the UK, by being aware of the unconscious, taken for granted beliefs (as Schein puts it) or the habitus of HE (as Bourdieu puts it) we not only do better for our international students but also our home students. This is because, even for our home students, the academic culture may be very unfamiliar to them. By being aware of the cultural artefacts we can be more explicit about what is required of students and hopefully this means they can succeed.

This should be fairly obvious and is clearly explained in the book. What is not so obvious though is our role in being self-aware. Yes we can be self-aware and sensitive to difference and this is a good thing. However, what does this really mean for us as individuals? For me, it requires a flexibility in beliefs. Beliefs about ourselves and beliefs about others. We all hold beliefs which others would contest are false. In the case of international students and students more widely, these could be well meaning generalisations based on past experience. We can make the mistake (due to time pressure or class size) of grouping certain students together and assuming they will behave in the same way rather than treating everyone as an individual. I think how we deal with challenges to our beliefs are important. I have come across some scientists who dismiss out of hand alternative approaches (mainly qualitative methods) to research such as those found in social sciences or education. I don’t want to single out scientists. The same could be said for many individuals. The key defining factor about such people is their unwillingness to question their own beliefs and look at the alternative perspectives presented to them (or at least try to understand why the other person holds an alternative perspective).

So linking the two thoughts together, it seems that to teach international students (and indeed all students) well we need not only to be self aware and aware of our own cultures but also to be flexible in our understanding of our own beliefs such that challenges to them are carefully considered. This will allow us to at least come close to walking in the other persons shoes, to better understand them in order to help their learning.