The University Record, January 24, 1994

ECB panelists reveal techniques that get students to think about multiculturalism

By John Woodford
Executive Editor, Michigan Today

Four panelists from the English Composition Board (ECB) described to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day audience in the Anderson Room of the Michigan Union techniques they use and issues they raise to encourage students to think and write about aspects of multiculturalism.

Initially, the discussion focused on the views of a student who wrote about her response as a “Caucasian” to Blacks who intentionally made her feel guilty, uncomfortable or inadequate in her response to racism. The student balanced these concerns against her belief that “white privilege” should end.

Lecturer George Cooper said he cited the student’s essay as an example of the kind of assignment that fosters “writing that shows more awareness of issues relating to multiculturalism.”

Lecturer Wayne Bishop said that students often fall silent when issues relating to the Michigan Mandate and other programs aimed at neutralizing or counteracting racism are discussed. Many feel that “a brainwashing is going on,” he said. Students from minority groups may feel that they are being forced to speak as “representatives of their race or gender,” he added, while white male students may feel they are “targets of a critique of history.”

Majority white-male “classroom demographics” can produce an inhibitory and uncomfortable atmosphere, Bishop said. He has found that shifting the discussions to electronic conferences, where people are known mainly by their arguments and their command of rhetorical tactics, rather than by their appearance, can greatly increase participation in and quality of discourse.

Renee Moreno, a graduate student in women’s studies who works in the ECB workshop, said the University is a “problematic space” where she “gets tired of talking as a person of color” and finds many classrooms to be “sites of pain.” She said she feels the pain daily and that “others should know about it” if classrooms are to be transformed into sites of “change and transformation, even sites of love.”

Lecturer Helen Fox said her goal is to bridge the gap between students from groups that have experienced systematic discrimination and the “sincere white person who says, ‘I never discriminate and I am not prejudiced.’”

Fox said that in her early 20s she taught and worked in India, “where I saw a caste system in a society not my own,” and in Africa, where she saw Black people “not feeling apologetic, not walking or talking apologetic. Nevertheless,” she added, “I still make mistakes.”

She assigned students to go to an MLK Day session that might annoy or embarrass them, and then “write about it from the point of view of the speaker.”

Fox also tries to create a “classroom tone where people can talk,” dividing the class into small groups, altering the groups regularly and having the students discuss “what rules they want to live by in the classroom.”