Opinion Graphic

No 21st-century college professor is just giving technical lessons. Modern college teaching is not just about information transmission. Turns out, there is a new and prominent feature of the modern-day college classroom.

Who is in the room is that feature. Modern college classrooms are neo-diverse. Neo-diversity means that you can walk into most classrooms, and you will be walking into a large or small demographic mix of students. Visibly mixed by sex-of-person, ethnicity, body-condition, race or at least skin color. Invisibly mixed by mental-health-condition, religion, gender-identity, sexual orientation and even nationality. In my 200-person social psychology class this fall 2019 semester, I have students from rural (Eureka) and urban (Charlotte) North Carolina, but also from New York City and Adelaide, Australia. I know this only because I do a hand-raising exercise where these students voluntarily reveal their homes of origin.

No matter the discipline or major, who is in the room is not who used to be in the room. Professors not taking this new “who is in the room” into account are going to make fatal mistakes.

It is a deadly mistake, you see, for a professor to presume to know a student’s racial-ethnicity. A female student in my “Interdependence and Race” (Psy 411) course wrote about a startling interaction she had with a professor. At the end of a fall semester, as students in one of her classes were handing in final exams, the professor says to each student, “Have a great break” or “Happy holidays,” but with my student-writer, changes this script and says, “Happy Hanukkah.” Writing about this moment, my student says, “I listened to the interactions between the few students that went after me and the professor to see if it was just for me that his comment had changed. Indeed, it was just me. I am not Jewish. I left the interaction startled, not because he assumed I was Jewish, but because he made a judgement based on my appearance and further attempted to categorize me into his perception of a certain category of people. I have come to expect this kind of interaction from some but certainly not from a respected professor with a Ph.D.”

Even people who are no longer students here know of the important and positive increase to about 50% of NC State students being women; a neo-diversity change even from the time I first joined the faculty here in 1988. Yet it is a welcomed, about-time change. No wonder that our university made the news because of a “professor” berating female students in a physics class. On Twitter, one commentator said, “Talk about not reading the room.”

By email, one of my former students wanted to alert me to what happened. She sent me a link to the WRAL news story about one of our “professors” saying to a class of students, “Women are useless.” Using their brave voices in the moment to speak up against, and draw attention to, that gender bigotry, those young women are to be commended. Within their rights as student-citizens, those women understood that this was no joke, and that whoever is in the room is a part of the Wolfpack.

Sending me the link to the news story, my student said, “Dr. Nacoste, I’m sure you will get multiple emails about this!! My mom sent it to me and I was shocked, but not at all surprised.” That lack of surprise is a strong indictment. It raises questions about how well the university is doing its main job. Whom are we hiring to teach courses at NC State at this neo-diversity moment in time? Tell us about the screening done for potential instructors for teaching in our classrooms. What kind of orientation to our neo-diverse social context do we give instructors and new professors?

Yes, we made the news; the same day it happened, I sat and watched an ABC news report at 11 that Wednesday evening.  Yet, even we faculty are left wondering, when will we hear from our university administration? One of my young faculty colleagues told me he heard about what happened in our physics classroom from a friend in Winston-Salem. On Facebook, one student said to me, “I do find it interesting that students learn about this through a news article, and not an email from the Chancellor.”

I, myself, see this as a teachable moment. Awful and wrong as the incident was, with a strong unified voice from our administrative (chancellor and provost) leaders, we can use this demeaning instance of classroom gender bigotry to alert and remind professors of their responsibilities to teach all of our students without group bias. Other colleges and universities are struggling with social change too; some of those (in Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Virginia) have called on me to do workshops for their faculty about what it takes to teach well in the modern, neo-diverse college classroom. So I know we can and should do something with this moment to challenge, orient and refocus our own faculty on its duty to, and how to, interact with our neo-diverse students with respect. As I see it, taking up a challenge like this is what it means to know and live by our claim that “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

Rupert W. Nacoste is an alumni distinguished undergraduate professor of psychology.