Teaching as Activism

Teaching as Activism

Teaching as Activism

I have always viewed teaching in higher education as a form of activism. I personally had a lot of awakenings during my college education and still hold many of my professors in high regard for this. This has never been more important to me than right now during President Donald Trump's regime. With fake news and “alternative facts” appearing in our national lexicon it has never been more important to teach students critical thought.

I have always integrated current events into my course and this semester I find myself going “off-syllabus” quite a bit more often in all of my classes. I think we have a responsibility to our students not to continue teaching as normal when there is so much upheaval going on. We owe it to them to help sort it out and learn the skills to do so.

I am teaching a race course titled “Building a Multiracial Society” and to be quite honest I have a hard time connecting with my students in this section. I have agonized over this section since the beginning of the semester trying to figure out how to connect with them as I usually do. Then Trump signed executive orders focused on immigration and while tooling around online I saw my opportunity. I saw this tweet first:


It took me a minute to make the connections. If it’s taking me, a professor who prides herself in taking note of intersectionality and who teaches about race every day, a minute to make the connection—how well are my students able to? Do they understand how this issue is connected to our class material and how can I get them to make those connections? I decided I was going to build an activity around this tweet.

I went to class and asked them if they had heard about the executive orders that had been signed by our president concerning immigration the week before. It was a slow process but they finally nailed down the fact that he had signed orders about the Mexico wall and a travel ban for people from certain countries. I showed them the tweet above and then I showed them this one as well:


A student raised her hand: “But I don’t think this is about race at all, I think it’s about religion. They’re Muslim.” This is the reaction I fully expected. So I asked them which seven countries were listed as part of the travel ban. We eventually got a list of the seven: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. I asked them if they thought these were the only countries where Muslims lived. They all agreed there were several countries with large Muslim populations missing from the travel ban. Still someone said: “But he’s trying to keep us safe from terrorists.” I brought up 9/11 and asked them where the hijackers were from. Eventually, they found a list on Wikipedia: 15 came from Saudi Arabia, two from United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon. I wrote this on the board next to the countries included in the travel ban.

“But wait, professor, none of those are on the travel ban list.” I just nodded and looked around the room letting it sink in. I then went on to explain how no nationals from the seven countries listed in Trump’s executive order had killed people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the last four decades.

I then asked them if they knew where Trump’s wife was from. “She’s Czech,” one of them said. I corrected, “That’s one of his ex-wives, where is Melania from?” They eventually figured out Slovenia. I then asked where his mother was from, “Germany.”

“That was his paternal grandfather, who was naturalized as an American citizen after Germany turned him away. What about his mom?”

“Scotland”—one of them finally figured it out. Since they brought up Trump’s grandfather I pulled up this tweet from a genealogist and we verified that his mother was from Scotland and his grandfather was from Germany:


“What border is the wall being built on?” I asked.


“OK,” I continued, “so what is different about Trump’s wife and mom and potential immigrants from Mexico, and these other countries that are part of the ban?”

I see them all start to realize what I’m getting at but still no one wants to say it. So I ask them, “According to our class materials, even though we know race is a social construction, how have we classified race historically?”

“By our physicality.”

“Which is primarily what when we’re talking about race?”

“Skin color.”

We all just stared at each other. I then went on to explain the importance of deconstructing any information presented to us by the media and by our government.

This activity may or may not have created a deeper connection between me and the class, we may not have had any Dangerous Minds moments. But I know, however, the importance of the materials we are learning about in class became very clear to them. I know they are armed with a few more skills than they were when they first walked through the door.

Cheryl DeFlavis is an adjunct professor in sociology at Hillsborough Community College, Saint Leo University, and Pasco-Hernando State College in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. 

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