Dr Nimisha Barton and Dr Miranda Sachs
Nimisha: We’re here today to chat a bit about the Eurocentric curriculum in history classes, about the diversification of the undergraduate student body, and what this means for creating inclusive classrooms. So let’s start with you, Miranda. Tell us a little about the university you work at. What’s your university’s profile? How does that show up in the classroom? And as a faculty member, what do you see as the primary challenges?
Miranda: I teach at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. My classes offer a huge diversity in terms of age, background, and political persuasion. Texas State is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), which means that at least 25 percent of students identify as Hispanic. At Texas State, around 38 percent of our students do. Over half of our students identify as students of color. We also have a large veteran population. A significant number of students are the first in their families to go to college. They range in age from their late teens to their 50s.
In terms of what this means for the classroom, my students have a huge range of prior exposure to studying history. Most have only encountered European history briefly in primary or secondary school (probably in reference to the world wars or the Holocaust). Others have read widely. My challenge, and goal, is to support and challenge all the students in my classroom.
How about you, Nimisha? I know as an Equity Consultant you work with staff and faculty on how to develop inclusive teaching skills. You also trained as a European historian. What do you see as the primary challenges in the history classroom?
Nimisha: I think about the norms of the college classroom from the perspective of first-generation, low-income and working-class students, many of whom are students of color. There is for example what folks call the “hidden curriculum” — knowing how to write an academic paper, understanding what Office Hours are and how to use them, feeling confident enough in discussion-heavy classes to participate, and so on. Essentially, the hidden curriculum is everything you need to know about going to college in order to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. I know we’re going to talk more specifically about how to support these students, so let’s chat a bit about the question of curriculum that you bring up.
In terms of European history courses, for a long time, curriculum was heavily tilted towards white Europe, neglecting histories of slavery, empire, colonialism, immigration, etc, or including them merely as an addendum, an after-thought really. In other words, many students of color may not have seen themselves reflected in this history. While some people don’t think of this as a big deal, they are often the folks who have always had the privilege of seeing themselves reflected back in history curricula.
Miranda: These issues you’re talking about are so stark in a European history class. In my experience, students take European history courses because they want to learn about the world wars. As a result, students come in expecting to learn about Hitler, Churchill, and Nazis.
This may be different for our colleagues in the UK, but most American students haven’t visited Europe. They haven’t been to Brick Lane or taken the Paris metro, so they may not know that contemporary Europe is so diverse. And they also are unfamiliar with the histories of imperialism and immigration that led to Europe becoming such a diverse space. My students are often surprised to find out that BLM movements or debates about statues aren’t just occurring in the US. Our British colleagues might be surprised to know that very few students have ever heard about the Windrush Generation, let alone the recent political scandal. One of my goals is to challenge students’ assumptions about who might be “European” or “French.” In order to do so, I weave in the history of imperialism, but I also try to build in units on immigration and other recent controversies around race, empire, and citizenship.
Nimisha: I’m so glad you mentioned this. How can we help American students — especially first-generation, working-class, students of color — connect to the idea of “Europe” which can often seem like an abstraction? The critical thing about inclusive teaching is simply assuming no prior knowledge about the subject on the part of any student, striving to make all parts of the curriculum as accessible to all students as possible. In the process, we make the field of history — an overwhelming white field — more relevant to a diversifying undergraduate population. And I think this helps not only students of color, but white students, as well.
Miranda: Can you explain that more?
Nimisha: Sure. On the one hand, we tend to center whiteness when teaching about Europe, but we also tend to teach to white students, unconsciously or not. I’ve written elsewhere on the ethics of imagery in the classroom. For example, when we as educators try to portray the violence and inhumanity of sexism, racism, etc., we often show images of bodies stripped naked and scarred. Maybe we do this to bring history alive for our students. I once fell into this trap, too, as an instructor. But then I began to think: when the bodies under a malicious form of scrutiny always belong to black and brown subjects, to the colonized, to women and to “others” — what does it do, what does it really teach, and whom does it mean to teach?
For many students of color, the fact of racism will not come as a surprise. For children from certain immigrant backgrounds, the intimate histories of colonial and post-colonial violence are familiar – as in, rooted in family history, family lore. In other words, the “shock value” of certain images is potentially lost on these groups of students. For them, bodies that look like theirs are being reduced to representations for the learning of others — specifically white others.
Miranda: In what other ways do women or students of color take on an extra burden when we integrate histories of marginalized communities? Are they expected to educate their peers and/or share their experiences? Does this give white students a pass to disengage during these conversations? When I devote particular days to teaching about womanhood or gender, I’ve noticed that usually talkative male students tend to shut down.
Nimisha: I think those are really important questions. I’ve experienced something similar in a course I taught on African Diaspora in the Atlantic World where we read texts exclusively by Black writers. One day, a white student– one of only a few in the class — approached me. She told me she was uncomfortable being in class because she didn’t think she was allowed to speak, that Black students — who constituted the majority in this class — should be the only ones to speak.
It occurred to me then that this was an expression of white racial anxiety in the classroom setting. This was very likely to have been her first experience learning about nonwhite history. And it rattled her. I had to explain to her that the expectation to participate was the same for all students across the board. After all, we all do the reading, so we’re all responsible for contributing to the discussion. Pedagogy plays a role here, too. When you ask students to pair and share or work in small groups around a set of discussion questions before sharing out to the larger group, you don’t give anyone the chance to opt out.
Miranda: Yes! I agree that providing more structure is one of the most effective ways to help students feel comfortable about engaging with topics they view as sensitive. If you pose specific discussion questions or create shorter, goal-oriented discussions, then you can facilitate more participation.
Nimisha: Which in some ways is really interesting because history curricula in this country is very Eurocentric, the expectation being that history written by, for, and about white people is both natural and normal, that it is universal and accessible to all. It’s not even possible for students of color to opt out even if they wanted to.
Miranda: In a similar vein, history tends to be a very masculine discipline. As I said earlier, we often associate history, especially European history, with war. When I design my classes, I try to integrate material on women, gender, and sexuality. I also include exercises that can help women and genderqueer students feel more comfortable in a classroom setting. And of course male-identifying students have a lot to learn from this history, as well.
Nimisha: You’re pointing to the real question here: What are some concrete steps we can take in the classroom to make it more inclusive for all?
Miranda: For me, the answer to this question lies in the relationship between content and skill-building. As I plan out a class or a semester, I prioritize building in opportunities for students to develop the tools to study history, because we don’t want to assess them on their prior preparation. At the end of the day, these tools are what they’ll be able to take away from the class, and be able to use in the future.
Nimisha: That’s so important, especially nowadays when the value of a humanities degree has really come under fire. What kind of skills do students learn in history classrooms, how might they matter in the real world?
Miranda: My goal with every single history class I teach is for students to become stronger writers and to recognize that they have grown as writers. No matter what profession a student chooses to take up once they leave school, they will need to communicate in written and oral form. After taking my class, I want them to be confident making and supporting strong arguments. In each class I teach, I use class time to give students the opportunity to practice the various pieces of making an argument. To provide an example, I might give students an argument such as “imperial competition produced World War I” and then ask the students to find quotes in the primary sources they’ve read for that day to support that argument. They then have to write a couple of sentences to explain why they selected those quotes. I’ll do this kind of exercise in beginning and upper-level classes. In any class, there will always be a student who isn’t comfortable writing a history paper. Even the students who are more comfortable need opportunities to hone their writing skills. As you said earlier, when we build the class to support students who have less exposure to studying history, we actually help all our students.
Nimisha: To play devil’s advocate, what would you say to someone who thinks that the focus on skill-building squeezes out all-important history content?
Miranda: To be honest, students retain content better when they understand its relevance and applicability. If I just threw a bunch of text on late nineteenth-century imperialism on a PowerPoint, the students would write it down and promptly forget.
Nimisha: Right, we don’t want history classes to be spaces where students are just hit with a wall of content, even though that’s how most of us learned history.
Miranda: And if we just lecture and don’t spend time ensuring that each and everyone is equipped to write an argument paper or a document analysis, we wind up assessing students on their prior preparation. Even if they don’t become historians, which the vast majority won’t, this type of reading and writing will remain useful.
Nimisha: Although we ended with talking about specific classroom exercises, we spent most of this conversation discussing how a variety of assumptions, including assumptions about whiteness, shape European history, both in content and pedagogy. For me, I’ve tried to emphasize in particular that we need to move away from teaching to an imagined “default” student — white, male, cis, hetero. So before we can get to specific inclusive teaching practices, we first need to interrogate our norms, values, and assumptions.