Friday, January 22, 2010

Teaching at an HBCU: How Do/Should We Do It?

Linda Stine, Guest Blogger

In the Teaching Matters blog this week, I hope we can continue some of the discussion raised in Dr. Dade’s recent letter to the faculty “Forwarding the Legacy of Horace Mann Bond.” Lennell points out that master teachers help their students to understand themselves while simultaneously understanding the subject matter of the course, and she questions whether we are doing this adequately at Lincoln, asking “"to what degree has African culture and history been placed as the center or at least given a strong presence in what we teach our students?" Her suggestions are that all of us educate ourselves on Lincoln’s and Black cultural history, consider what changes we should make within our curriculum and courses, and reinstitute a Black Studies major.

I thought it would be both interesting and educational to hear if you feel that you teach different content or that you teach content differently because you are teaching at an HBCU. As a white teacher educated in majority institutions from K through Ph.D, I must admit that this issue is one about which I can pretend no expertise, and I look forward to learning from the rest of you.

Here’s one small example I can offer. In my basic writing classes, I approach grammar teaching from the context of “Standard Written English” as presented in their grammar handbooks being simply one dialect among many, no more “right” than the others but currently the “power dialect” (definition: the one spoken by those in control of the country’s major institutions) and the one used in most academic and professional settings. We discuss how grammar changes over time, along with the importance of learning the current grammatical conventions of that dialect so that they have the choice to use it as they want.


  1. Linda, I had similar thoughts to yours upon reading Dr. Dade’s essay. I am even including some of her reflections in my Blog Post next week that will speak more about writing reflection than pedagogical reflection, but in my position as an academic and compositionists, the two go hand-in-hand.
    I approach grammar in mostly the same way as you do. The students are very attuned to “code switching,” even if they lack deep critical thinking on other subjects. I don’t find that students are resistant to learning “Standard Academic English” as much as acquiring that knowledge is difficult for many students. As someone who has teaches almost exclusively the four FYC composition courses (ENG 098 and ENG 099 both developmental and ENG 101 and ENG102), I find that teaching ENG 098 is the most difficult.
    As a white professor, I find the issue of my race coming up at some point in the semester. In reference to Dr. Dade question about a curriculum “centered in a ‘Black’ reality,” I am not sure. But, there are certainly essay and book selections that are centered on a “Black” reality. I have been asked on more than one occasion in more than one class, what I, as a white male, think about a racial issue being raised in the text. One aspect to this question is that my explicit opinion is left out of class discussions as I am focused on having the students understand what the text is saying or playing “devil’s advocate” to invoke thought. The students make a point to inquire about what I “really think.” Once I qualify that I can’t speak for all white people anymore than any one black student can speak for all black people, the question/answer/dialogue is a chance for honest dialogue about race in a real way that I think is beneficial to both students and myself in the critical pedagogy that I subscribe to uphold in the classroom.

  2. It all depends on your overall goal; because it is possible that the means justify the end or the end justifies the means. I assume your priorities and approach would be different if you wanted to produce missionaries for Africa, which may have been part of Lincoln University's original goal, or (instead) produce graduates who would compete with graduates from predominantly white universities for American jobs or (rather) compete with graduates from universities around the world (including China and India) for global jobs.

  3. I believe sometimes I teach different content as well as (sometimes) teach content differently primarily because of the students I have and only indirectly because I'm teaching at an HBCU.

    Here is an interesting quote:

    "In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education. In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential." (President Obama's State of the Union Speech, Jan. 27, 2010)

  4. As a former religious HBCU white faculty member I can relate to Bill's situation and add that there was a bit more judgemental tone to the similar questions I received in the classroom. I will take the discussion a step further - What do you do when students say they don't want to learn about other races but just "their history" and you are teaching an American History survey or equivilent? The problem I had was not making students aware of their black heritage or culture, but rather trying to get them to step out of that culture and understand and engage a different point of view. The situation was so bad in some segements of the student population that white and non-white faculty members were beginning to whisper that the school was becoming a "black cocoon", insular and closed off from the world at large.