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The Pedagogical Problem with White Professors

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21 Dec 2017
Teaching, Religion, Politics

A few years ago, during a search for a New Testament professor, I asked two questions during the interview – two questions I ask of every candidate for a position with our institution regardless of rank or discipline. The first is innocent enough: “How important is racial/ethnic diversity to you when teaching?” All candidates, to a fault, enthusiastically answer in the affirmative. Then I ask my second question: “Which scholars and/or books from racial and ethnic minorities do you include in your syllabus and why?” Here is when the squirming usually begins, revealing the lack of academic rigor of the candidate under consideration.

During this particular New Testament search, two separate candidates from different Ivy League schools provided problematic responses. The first responded that as much as s/he was committed to diversity, s/he could not think of any scholar of color off the top of their head who has written a credible text concerning the biblical text. Let the response of this biblical scholar sink in for a moment. The second scholar, grasping for straws, offered the name Paul Ricœur, and then proceeded to convince me why I should accept his answer. I didn’t. While these two particular individuals best illustrate the depths of the ignorance of many white scholars concerning the scholarship emanating from what will soon be – combined – the largest U.S. demographic group, others have provided slightly better answers, but no less ignorant. For example, often the names offered are of scholars whose works were well known in the last century. Although they name foundational thinkers, they lack knowledge of current contributors to the discipline. Other times Latin American liberationist scholars are mentioned as if they are representatives of the U.S. Latinx context. Or white women use the term mujerista as the Latinx equivalent to womanist revealing their total lack of knowledge concerning the rich feminist discourse occurring among Latinxs.

One’s pedagogy, or scholarship for that matter, can never be cutting-edge if one is ignorant of all aspects of their discipline. As a Latino man, my teaching must not just include the thoughts and writings of eurocentric and Latinx scholars; but also those of Indigenous, Black, and Asian-American scholars, as well as Queer and Feminist voices. Not to be familiar with the contributions of all marginalized communities does a disservice to my scholarship, and more importantly, to the students in my classroom. Many white scholars fall short of academic rigor because they can succeed, be published, and thus paraded as the fattened calf due to the prevalent institutional racism which continues to support a white affirmative action which protects their job opportunities and current positions from better qualified and more knowledgeable scholars of color.

As a Latino going through my Ph.D. program, not only did I have to master Eurocentric thinkers, methodologies, and theories (as I should have), but I was expected to also be fluent with the thinkers, methodologies, and theories arising from my Latinx context. And yet, it was my white colleagues who were considered among the “brightest and the best” who lacked any requirement or need to read or know anything about my context - or any other marginalized context. How can anyone ever be considered knowledgeable with such a limited understanding of a sliver of their discipline? Part of the problem is that so many of the so-called top schools promote ignorance because they lack scholars of color, especially Latinx scholars. All you need to do is count how many core Latinx faculty are present on the faculty of the so-called Ivies to prove my point. You can count them on one hand, and maybe have a free finger leftover to give. Simply stated: If the faculty fails to represent the diversity of the population, then that school – even if it claims to be among the Ivies – lacks academic excellence and rigor – regardless of how large their endowments may be.

Of course, this institutionalized racism is not limited to the Ivies. Gaze upon your own religion department. How many Latinxs are among your core faculty? Our presence may be requested to demonstrate a politically correct diversity; nevertheless, our scholarship remains confined to our barrios. Latinx, who comprise the largest ethnic group in the United States, remain the least represented group of all full professors in the academy, usually relegated to the “instructor” or “lecturer” rank where we possess little if no voice on how the academic institution structures itself, or in influencing doctoral students. The voices of marginalized scholars must be prevented from fully participating in shaping the academic discipline. For if they were truly given a seat at the table, they might reveal that the discipline which has been upheld for the past centuries as universal is simply a privileged eurocentric method of theological contemplation which in reality is but a very limited form of the particular. 

Students sitting in classrooms of white professors are often prevented from obtaining a cutting-edge education because of the strategies employed by so-called top schools, either consciously or unconsciously, in maintaining and sustaining eurocentric academic supremacy. Speaking only from the Latinx experience (although I suspect it may resonate with other marginalized groups), when some schools seek to hire Latinxs they often search for the brownest face with whitest voice. Quotas are thus met without having to deal with the scholarship being generated by nuestra comunidad; or worse, fuse and confuse Latin American theological scholarship with Latinx scholarship. Better yet is to find an actual white professor who can teach the Latinx context. A second strategy is to hire junior scholars (or in one case I know, a senior scholar), without tenure, to teach courses about the Latinx context while continuing the historical trend of seldom granting tenure. In this way, after seven years, the school can find a new Latinx to use, misuse, and abuse ensuring they will never amass the power to challenge, influence, or change the discourse at the institution. And finally, the school can invite well-known Latinx scholars to serve as visiting professors. Again, while the Latinx context is momentarily explored, the institution protects itself from structural change, because, after all, once the year appointment comes to an end – the scholar returns to their institution violence. As radical as they may have been, their absence quickly helps the institution forget whatever challenges may have been raised, and of course, if the challenges hit too close to home, they can always dismiss the Latinx as angry.

A pedagogical problem exists with white professors because of the continuous racism and ethnic discrimination prevalent in our schools that still relegates our voices, our thoughts, and our bodies to the margins. I leave it for you to ponder how racist your school might be. I, on the other hand, wish to close praising those white students and scholars who refuse the temptation of scholastic laziness and spend a good portion of their academic training learning about the context of their racial/ethnic Other. Although they can succeed in the academy without having to do this extra work, nevertheless, they have come to realize they can never truly possess scholastic rigor if they lack the breadth of their discipline. These are the white scholars I crave to call colleagues! Their integrity prevents them from speaking for us, or in place of us; rather, they master the contributions made on their margins so as to better inform their own thinking and become more effective in sharing our contributions in the classroom. They have come to realize they can never be good teachers if they are ignorant of the full scope of their discipline. 

 

 

 

 

Miguel A. De La Torre

About Miguel A. De La Torre

Professor of Social Ethics and Latino/a Studies
Iliff School of Theology

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Or, hiring of Latinx scholars happens, and they are effectively marginalized and silenced…Hiring is not enough, without institutional commitment at all levels

  2. Could you list some of the racial and ethnic scholars you’d like to see people read? I agree with your article, and believe it’s something seminaries should consider, but it’s a rather useless endeavor if you don’t include the names of the scholars that should be on those reading lists. Give us some help, and not just with New Testament. Who should we be reading?

    • Google is your friend. Ironically, those who are committed to serious research are unwilling to use the most rudimentary tools to find the many, many scholars that they go to extremes to avoid. Also, go to the Society for Biblical Literature website. This is not obscure knowledge. And it is not Professor De La Torre’s responsibility to spoon-feed this information.

  3. Thank you very much for this post. I am a white male religion professor, and while I know and value the work of a variety of diverse scholars for my own reading and research (Sugirtharajah, Musa Dube, Segovia, K. K. Yeo, Ajith Fernando, Kwok Pui-Lan, Kosuke Koyama), I have a very hard time finding pieces by them that are intellectually and theologically accessible to undergraduate students at my distinctively evangelical and Wesleyan institution. Some of their writing bears ideologies of scripture that would cause our students to reject what they have to say out of hand. Others are writing at a level of sophistication and style above most of our undergraduates. I’ve tried a few things in the past (e.g. Clarice Martin’s piece on the Haustafeln) but found that the end result was that it actually turned students off to engaging diverse voices in biblical interpretation because of these challenges. Do you have any recommendations for readings that might be pedagogically appropriate for this audience? I’d be most grateful.

  4. I am reading the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ and I see a lot of similarity between the comments you have mentioned and several of the experiences of what is experienced as Latin in predominantly American seminars where the voice of those who are not the majority is silenced. I think part of the work of Latinos in religious areas is to organize well to ensure that the future of “the academy” not only includes the voice of more Latinx but how you mentioned, that the systematic structure of how you work in these environments changes so that instead of simply being “inclusive” the normal practice is to consider the perspective of communities of color. As much as you can help, let me know! Dtb

  5. Important admonition here. I had a similar educational experience concerning my exposure and learning, making the uphill climb much more steep. Our loosely organised cohort (Myself, Richard Twiss and Terry LeBlanc) put the challenge to some of our professors during our PhD studies that they should include scholars of color in their texts and several actually responded positively. As persons of color, it was unfortunately, incumbent upon us to take this burden on in order to educate our professors. Some actually did thank us for it. I don’t know about Ivy League schools, I teach at CCC school, (which are already woefully lacking in FOC and text by SOC) but I am definitely sensing the climate changing back to more social conservatism and those Faculty of Color who have been the most vocal concerning the type message Miguel has laid out here, are the ones being targeted to be pushed out, regardless of tenure. In the end, there is no end in sight…the struggle continues…

  6. You’re telling my story Professor. I just got my B.S in Human Development and am getting ready to go for my Masters in Intercultural Communication. I’ve walked through a lot of darkness before I became a grassroots community organizer for 20 years working with People of Color and immigrants and Refugees.
    I was called to take this path and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
    At 56, I had to get over the fact that as a Native American,Mexican American student that simply because I hadn’t been in school a long time that every one else was now learning the real history instead of the one that was created by folks who don’t look like me.
    No one wants to go there- But we have to , peacefully, if we ever want to obtain Justice. Justice is God’s word, a level above everything we could ask or expect, but we have been promised this by the Creator. Thank you for your words.

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