The Multicultural Classroom

by Nancy Loevinger

As literary scholars interested in pedagogy, we can find many essays debating the canon that argue about the variety of texts we should teach and how we should teach them. There is not nearly as much material available that discusses the variety of students whom we teach. I would like to set out here some basic premises concerning the multicultural classroom:

FIRST PREMISE: The multicultural classroom is not a matter of declaring what political position you espouse. It is not a matter of simply deciding what texts we should study. It is not a matter of debate--as if you need to analyze each class to decide whether you have a multicultural classroom or you do not. It is not a matter of learning how to correct a particular problem of classroom dynamics. It is a matter of fact. Unless you teach only yourself (and, given Freud's idea of the split psyche, perhaps even then), you teach in a multicultural classroom, in that the participants in the educational process, students and teacher alike, carry the heritage of different cultural situations. Given this fact, it is up to us as teachers to learn how to address the ways these differing situations can both hinder and enrich learning.

SECOND PREMISE: The multicultural classroom is not a matter of "white" versus "black." It is a temptation to address the presence of African-American students in the classroom as if they constitute a "problem" which must be solved in order to produce successful classroom dynamics. If we address the situation in this way, we ask our minority students a contemporary version of the question stated in W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk: "How does it feel to be a problem?" Making our black students carry the burden of multiculturalism overlooks the fact, that even an all-white class is multicultural if we consider it in the context of the university as a whole and of the larger community outside the university. Moreover, if we accept the feminist distinction between gender (as culturally created) and sex (as the physiology with which we happen to be born), then we must include gender (and the accompanying issue of sexual orientation) as elements of the multicultural classroom, elements that may divide student or teacher response across racial or ethnic bounds.

THIRD PREMISE: Pedagogical issues of the multicultural classroom are not separable from general pedagogical issues. Particularly if the texts that we teach versus our subject positions crosses gendered or racial lines, the multicultural classroom literalizes our pedagogical questioning of the traditional positions of the teacher as the one who knows and teaches and the student as the one who does not know and is taught. Most of us now agree that we should emphasize process rather than product and that we should stress education as a communal project. But when we walk into the classroom, we need to impart information and to gain sufficient authority so that our students will want to learn from us. It is often difficult to reconcile this need for information and authority with our pedagogical ideals. The multicultural classroom forces us to live out these tensions, and so forces us to define more clearly the procedures inherent in all good teaching.

It is relatively easy to produce abstract premises concerning education, such as I have done here; it is more difficult to speak precisely and usefully about the specific applications and effects of these premises. Teaching in a multicultural classroom is not easy: students may become alienated or resistant, discussions may be tense, your authority and ability to teach the class may be put into question. Yet, whatever its difficulties, teaching in the multicultural classroom offers possibilities for exploring cultural and pedagogical issues that otherwise may tend not to be explicitly addressed. The following submissions explore some situations that may occur in the multicultural classroom and offer some possible solutions. I invite you to add your own ideas in the future to this collective endeavor.



Depending on the composition of the class, students may group themselves physically within the classroom along racial or gendered lines: black students in the back, white students in the front, or vice versa, thus creating the classroom dynamics of an unofficial apartheid. Obviously, students have the right to sit wherever they want. Thus, their placement within the classroom is not itself the problem. How and where the students group themselves in the classroom is a problem, however, when it reflects the deeper problem of student alienation or non­participation. Most likely, whichever group of students ends up in the back will be less likely to speak. That is the root problem that needs to be addressed.


Be aware as early as possible of how and where the students have physically grouped themselves within the classroom, and be prepared to counteract such grouping by calling on students who are in the back of the class, by breaking the students up into small groups for class work that cut across such groupings, by moving the class around (such as by asking students to move from the back to the front of the class), or by otherwise disturbing the classroom geography.

As one specific example of the procedures outlined above, ` you can break up set classroom dynamics by assigning the students into small groups for in-class work that cross the established group lines. For instance, for introductory literature courses, you may have the students write a two-page draft for an assigned paper. They may then share this draft with two other students in the class, and discuss their ideas for the paper in small groups which you have assigned for 10-15 minutes at the start of the next class (I do not recommend small groups of more than 3 students). You could also break the students into small groups to discuss certain aspects about the assigned literary work (characters, scenes, themes, issues, etc.), and then have them report back to the class for general class discussion.


Depending on the composition of the class, minority students may feel less eager to contribute to class discussions or may feel uninvolved with the material. By minority students I do not mean just African-American students. For instance, in a class of primarily African-American students, the white students may be more hesitant to participate.


Don't try to spark student discussion by calling on certain students to represent general categories of experience, such as by calling on the African-American students to speak up in class

whenever the issue of race surfaces. Calling on the students in this manner makes them feel like token representatives of their race (or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation) and thus makes them resentful and less likely to participate. If a student

wants to contribute to the discussion, of course, you should be extremely aware of such indications (frowns or nods, the student's body hunched forward, tentatively raised hand) and you should call on those students who indicate they have something to say as soon as possible.

I have found that it works best to create an environment in which the students come to know one another and in which they feel that they are already a valued participant in the class, even before they speak up. As one example of making the students comfortable with one another, you can make sure not only that you know all your students' names as early as possible, but also that they know the other students' names as well, so they may begin responding to one another as well as to you (see Laurie Davie's submission in this sourcebook: "The Name Card Icebreaker"). As one example of making the students feel that they are already participating, you can bring the students' reactions to the works into the class discussion by assigning quick ungraded responses. Students are more willing to talk if they have written about the material before they enter the classroom. For instance, you could give the students one fewer paper than you would ordinarily assign or let their formal papers be slightly shorter than usual, and you could assign instead several short responses to particular works--lists of questions, one-page handwritten responses, or slightly longer typed responses. These responses should not be graded, but can be marked using a check system. It is important that the students feel they can explore initial ideas without being penalized for grammar, spelling, or, for brief handwritten responses, even organization. The handwritten responses can be due either the day before or on the first day you discuss a work in class, while the longer responses could be due near the end of the period of discussion. Although you need not comment extensively, you should read over and comment briefly on these responses and give them back to the students by the next class. If the class is hesitant to talk, you can start off class by asking the students to write down their responses to the material for the first 5 minutes, and then calling on certain students to explain to the class what they have written as a means of starting discussion.

Once you have the students hand in these more informal responses, you can deal with them in a variety of ways. Sometimes I use the responses immediately by spending the first five minutes of the class brainstorming on the board questions that the students want to talk about. Sometimes I break up the students into groups of three to four during the first 15-20 minutes of the class, have them discuss certain questions or issues from their responses, and then have them report back to the class for a general discussion. Sometimes I take excerpts from the responses, type these excerpts up (including the student's name for each excerpt), and hand out the sheet of selected responses for the class to read as a basis for further discussion (if I get a particularly interesting response, particularly from a shy student, I may copy the entire response to hand out to the class). Sometimes in the next class I will call on students who I know have written about certain topics in their response and ask them to explain their ideas to the other students. Whatever you do, working with initial student responses makes students more likely to participate because it decenters your authority, it allows them to talk publicly about considered responses that they are already invested in, and it allows you to know what your students are thinking so you can carefully call on them to contribute without assuming them to be representative of a certain experience.

Finally, be aware of the cultural content of the "neutral" material that you hand out. Some minority students may see this material, not as "neutral," but as "white," and thus may become alienated from the class requirements. One specific example that is a common trouble spot is the library assignment for ENWR, with its list of 16 twentieth-century events. Be aware of the fact that, depending on the particular configurations of the list that you happen to receive, minority or international students may feel alienated from such "general" material. In such a case you can either specifically discuss in class why such topics are worth writing about or you can individualize the assignment. For instance, in this particular case you may allow the students to pick their own event, as long as both you and the library reference staff approve the new topic.


If your racial or gendered subject position does not match the texts you are teaching, students may have difficulty accepting you as an "authority" on your subject. If they are required to take the class, they will stay, but they may seem resentful or resistant.


We must begin with our own situation if we expect the students to open up and discuss their situations. I am not speaking about promulgating a party line in the class. In order to initiate any real discussion, students must feel comfortable that they can disagree with you. Rather, I am talking about strategically working from your own relation to the material you teach and then broadening out from that particular relation to the larger issues that you want the class to discuss. We work through such relations anyway, so why not be honest about them? I believe that such honesty, rather than discouraging opposing viewpoints, allows them because the students understand that your interpretation or position is not some unstated and thus supposedly "objective" line that they must adhere to. Thus, becoming personal in this manner through acknowledging the situated nature of your interpretation or position can be particularly helpful with the tense or controversial issues that may arise in a multicultural classroom.

Specifically, if you are a white teacher teaching African-American or ethnic literature, or a male teacher teaching literature by women, then deal with this issue explicitly in class near the beginning of the semester. There are many ways to do this. Doris Smith, for instance, usually starts off one class near the beginning of the semester by saying "You may have noticed that I am not black." The class laughs; this breaks the ice, and then the class can discuss the issues that such a statement raises. As another example, as a white woman teaching African-American literature, I like to discuss this issue by bringing in analogies of other less powerful versus more powerful cultural relations to broaden out issues of how we relate to different groups from just those of race (for instance, the relation of an adolescent to a parent, of a student to the university, or of a woman to male-dominated society). Or you might discuss the assumption that we can only teach a particular group of texts by being somehow "inside" that culture.


If they do participate in class, students may become angry at one another during discussions of sensitive topics. Or a particular student may speak, feel that his/her position has been shot down, and then refuse to speak again. Students may also complain about what they feel is a constraining "P.C." condition at the university. Students may feel that they cannot talk, that their voices are stifled because the "correct position" on issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., has been mapped out for them. Even worse, students may refuse to raise these issues in class, but may insist upon bringing them up only in private conference or final evaluations. More personally, students may resent what they perceive is your inappropriate feminist or other overly political viewpoint towards the material, and they may express this resentment in their final evaluations. Or more political students may resent what they feel is your lack of politics towards the material, particularly material that they consider racist (such as Flannery O'Connor's stories or Shakespeare's Othello or Antony and Cleopatra).


I have not yet been able to find a general solution to these problems. I would welcome any additional suggestions for the updated version of this sourcebook. For strategies on dealing with a tense discussion of sensitive issues by focusing on the text and on responding to student resentment of a historical interpretation of controversial material, see the following submission by Marjorie Raley in this section ("Othello and the Racist Ad"). As with the previous strategy on the question of authority, one possible technique for dealing with student resentment is to lay out your own position clearly from the beginning (such as whether or not you teach from a feminist viewpoint). Stress that your viewpoint is only that--yours--and not the required viewpoint of the class as a whole. One useful technique I have found for bringing up feminist issues while decentering my own status as sole authority is to require student responses on the material. I then type up excerpts from these responses under general thematic headings (religion, the question of the ending, characters, gender, etc.). Usually at least one or two of the women in the class will raise gender issues concerning

the material. I can then bring up such issues under these students' names, instead of putting them forth as solely my own interpretation. Other strategies include discussing what the students think the term "feminist" means, or bypassing the term by focusing on the issues of gender within the text--thus enabling the class to discuss such issues without becoming mired in their uncomfortableness with the label "feminist." For general resentment at a "P.C" condition, make sure that the students bring up such issues for general class discussion rather than simply complaining about them in private conferences. You might also examine the students' assumption that there was a general "ideal" past time when student opinion was not so constrained. Who exactly was in the university voicing such opinions at this supposedly golden time?


Some minority students, such as Asian-American students (particularly women) who have learned English as a second language, may appear to have no or only slight ESL problems (other than perhaps some trouble with the indefinite articles "a" and "an"). But their work may contain large proportions of passive voice constructions, abstract nouns, qualifications, etc. Such usage may stem from cultural preconceptions of how to present arguments to a superior (that is, you) and of what constitutes polite argument. Such students may also be hesitant to speak up in class.


Joseph William's concepts in Style (particularly in Lesson Two) of a strong agency and action are ideal for such students. You may want to present such concepts for the entire class, rather than singling out certain students. Stress that you are teaching the students (all students) how to be bilingual, how to deliberately decide among a variety of options in presenting their argument. Make sure that you make the students feel comfortable with you so they can think about presenting their arguments specifically to you and to the other students in class, rather than to a generalized authority figure.

If the students are shy and hesitant to speak up in class, don't force them. Rather, schedule a few private conferences to discuss their work. Then put them in small groups in class with other students (in groups of no more than three or four) so they can "give and receive aid" on a more intimate basis. Then you can start calling on them in class in particular instances when you know that they can contribute, for example, when they have already handed in responses on the material.


Students who are sensitive to issues of race and, to a lesser extent, those of gender may still make homophobic remarks that would be unacceptable if applied to any other group. Students who can vehemently discuss any other issue in class may freeze if they are assigned a text that contains the term "lesbian."


I have not yet been able to find a general solution to this problem. I welcome any further submissions on this point. I have not found that explicit confrontation of the problem helps very much. If you ask your students to talk about why the term "lesbian" bothers them, you are likely to get a collection of stereotyped cliches or a further freezing of class discussion. One possible solution is to exaggerate and then rephrase the student's remarks. For instance: "I don't think you really mean to say, Mark, that homosexuals have no rights. What you might mean is that XXXX. But how would such a stance relate to the issue of constitutional rights that we have been discussing . . . ?" Depending on the students who make such remarks, you could also try making parallels to racial or gendered situations ("If homosexuals are banned from the military, is that like African­Americans being banned forty years ago?"). You might also break the students up into small groups and have them brainstorm

opposing arguments (see Anne Coldiron's submission on roleplaying

in this sourcebook: "Refutatio as a Prewriting Exercise"). From root


We consider it our responsibility to acknowledge a text's racial or gender issues and deal with them directly. But how do we do so and relieve, not intensify student resentment? How do we rescue students from each other and from us--from feeling put down by our point of view? Such an atmosphere shuts down learning. My strategy--and if you know a better, tell me--is to stick to the text. Consider the following case: a class discussing ads.

During student group presentations of ads in ENWR 101, I found students pitted against each other: some class members saw the racism in the ad and realized others didn't, while some class members felt suddenly implicated as racists because of their unawareness. The ad in question depicted a "native" on a mountain bike he had apparently taken from some archeologists in Africa and recalled explicitly the "bearer" of the old Tarzan movies. The three white presenters noted the primitivism in the ad they'd brought in, but not the racism--they simply didn't see it. Those who participated in discussion faithfully supported them; the two black students kept silent but were clearly offended--perhaps by the class as well as by the material. I didn't want any student to feel attacked, but at the same time I wanted to express my objections to the ad. I stuck doggedly to the "text" and had the class critique it exactly as we had the other ads ("who is the targeted audience?"). My message was simply that the ad was ineffective because it relied on offensive racist stereotypes--if some students learned more than this, it was through a recognition made possible by the circumstances not by accusations.


When I first began teaching EnWr 100, I choose to use Diana Hacker's style manual, in part, because I was hoping to discover for myself exactly what the rules of writing were. The prospect of teaching grammar weighed rather heavily upon me and I felt the need to digest these rules, prior to forcing them upon my students. Clearly I had imagined EnWr 100 as some kind of "back-to-basics," "tough as nails" intensive writing course, the goal of which is to compensate for the student's previous academic experiences and environments. Not only was this evaluation wrong, it is an attitude toward writing which has already failed many of these students. While I still use and recommend Hacker's manuel, I believe that our students have been inundated by rules, many of them arbitrary and most of them unexplained, to the point that their experience within the classroom and the content of their writing seems to be about nothing but following or breaking rules.

The population of ENWr 100 is composed mainly of first-years who have been deemed "at risk." Although I am loathe to categorize these students, I do so in part because these stereotypes often play an active role in the student's attitude towards the course. The majority of the first-years enrolled in 100 are African-American, and a number of them may be athletes.

There are also many ESL students and students from rural areas in the surrounding region. On campus it is often known as "The Black Class," a class for jocks, or some kind of special program for slow learners. The reality is that these students are radically diverse and individual in their needs, and as talented and as promising as any of their contemporaries.

However, there is a common denominator between EnWr 100 students and that is often a shared sense of alienation from the teacher, the educational process, and the concept of writing itself. The reasons for this alienation are as individual as the students themselves: perhaps the ESL student has been given no point of reference for the transition into English; the student from an overcrowded high school may never have been required to write anything more than short paragraphs; while the rural student may not have had access to an informed instructor or to any instructor at all (one student reported to me that his social studies class consisted of watching on television a lecture being given in Richmond--120 miles away). The most pernicious source of alienation for the 100 student, ultimately, has been the expectations of instructors who believe, either due to the student's race or gender or both, that the student is unable to learn and specifically unable to write. For most of these students writing is an alien and hostile activity, calculated to lower self-esteem and increase frustration.

The consequences of this estrangement of the student from the process and purpose of writing become apparent primarily in the student's attitude, ranging from a kind of existential boredom and passivity, to a continual sense of anxiety and confusion, or to an entrenched resistence to the instructor and the activities of the classroom. (For suggestions on how to respond to these attitudes, see Nancy Loevinger's article on the Multicultural classroom). I believe many instructors view these attitudes as behaviorial problems, rather than as the student's response to the content of the course: it's easier to have a bad student than a bad syllabus. As a result, the classroom becomes a place where the student is rewarded or punished based upon some perceived behavior or personality trait, and this is particularly true in an English class where "participation" (that loosely defined and highly subjective category) has such value.

As a response to the student's perceptions that the rules of the classroom are both random and personal, I believe it is essential to establish the criterion by which the student will be evaluated and to highlight the professional nature of the college classroom. This is not a suggestion that the instrutor assume an authoritarian demeanor or that the classroom be void of spontenaity or risk. On the contrary, I feel it is essential that the instructor move from behind the podeum and off the pedestal and address her students as equal participants in an open process. This is a suggestion however that the instructor take responsibility for the structure of the class and for the values and attitudes which inform her decision making. Students need, and have a right to know, the rules regarding absence, late papers, shabby work, a failure to participate etc. Moreover, they need to understand that these rules are not part of some process of victimization ( My teacher hates me; Nothing I do matters; I don't know why I got a D ); they are part of a structure which insures consistency and equality. I believe it is vital that "at risk" students understand how powerful they are in insuring their own success, and minimizing that risk. In this context, the "rules" help to demystify the process of achievement and

decentralize the authority of the instructor. In a professional atmosphere, rules are not weapons, vindictive and unprodictable, they are the means by which both student and teacher establish the grounds for a working relationship.

Which brings us to the actual content of an EnWr 100 course, the workings of the English language and the purpose of critical writing. It is in this area that our students feel the most rule­bound and which requires the most revision. In Wayne Booth's article, "Boring from Within: The art of the freshman essay" he describes a scenario which I believe is worth relating:

I know of a high school English class in Indiana in which the students are explicitly told to write a paper a week, they are graded simply on the number of spelling and grammatical errors. What is more, they are given a standard form for their papers: each paper is to have three paragraphs, a begining, a middle, and an end--or is it an introduction, a body, and a conclusion? The theory seems to be that if the student is not troubled about having to say anything, or about discovering a good way of saying it, he can then concentrate on the truly important matter of avoiding mistakes.

This is precisely the experience which many of our students, remedial and otherwise, bring to our composition classes. In order to reveal to our students the structure of language, I believe it is essential to begin by introducing them to the function of language: you reach grammar through rhetoric, and the rules of writing become a collection of observations on how language functions in a variety of different contexts. The question "Why write?" informs almost every aspect of the remedial classroom, from grammar exercises to rhetorical strategies; the instructor must be continually attempting to answer it. In my own experience, I developed a kind of theme for the class which was to explore the various kinds of writing employed in the "real world." (Although this did necessitate my admitting that I had never actually been there.) We mailed letters, read legal briefs and prepared arguments for the defense and prosecution, analyzed creative writing and film, and wrote memos. It was a perspective which helped me to make writing more real and more relevant. I have included sample assignments in order to illustrate some of my ideas, and the attitude which I assumed in teaching this particular semester.

In closing, I'd like to emphasize what for me was the most rewarding aspect of teaching "at risk" students, which was the growing sense of their own control over their language and over their ideas. They begin to realize that the rules are to a large extent their own.

Sample Assignments:

Court case and mock trial. Using a legal brief from a murder trial in Buffalo, I had the class represent the defense or prosecution of the unfortunate Hardy Johnson. The assignment began merely as an exercise in organizing information and in introducing the concept of the persuasive essay. However, the students became enthusiastic about the project and interested in the fate of Mr. Johnson (presently serving a 15 year sentence). We expanded it into an entire essay and eventually a mock trial, complete with an imitation Mr. Johnson, witnesses, and a judge.

In addition to being a lot of fun, the trial revealed to me, and hopefully to the students, how well they can recognize and organize an oral argument. The trial became a powerful point of reference for the rest of the semester.

Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I began this assignment with the dual objective of focusing their reading abilities and introducing them to some of the rhetorical techniques we would be discussing. I had them begin by choosing the most effective analogy and write up a page on how it works and why it is expressive. Next, I had them write a paper as if they were the white ministers to whom King was writing. They actually had to construct the original letter based upon the quotations King uses. This exercise forced them to read the letter closely and, more importantly, to conceive of writing as being "in response," as establishing some relationship.