Brave Community: Teaching Race in the American Classroom w/ Janine de Novais

Welcome listeners to the second installment of our Diversity and Inclusion crossover series, bringing together This Anthro Life with Brandeis University. For those of you who are new to the show, This Anthro Life (TAL) was launched as a scholar-practitioner program designed to bring anthropological and social science research and thinking to interdisciplinary and public audiences. The original idea behind the podcast is to use our skill sets and toolkits  as anthropologists to translate and socialize data, cultural patterns, and research into accessible open format dialogues and conversations that provided solutions for social impact and actionable insight.

On this episode, TAL hosts Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins are joined by Dr. Janine de Novais of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) to expand on the ideas behind “Brave Community” (discussed in episode 1 of the Diversity + Inclusion in Higher Ed series) and to understand the major hurdles she finds with diversity and inclusion in higher education today. With her dissertation Dr. de Novais explored the ways in which classroom experiences in higher education do and do not contribute to deep learning that influences students understandings of race. Dr. de Novais’ scholarship also focuses on a practice-based question: what kind of learning about race do college students need given our racially diverse and deeply unequal society? Her answer: Brave Community–a pedagogy that relies on academic grounding, the distinctive culture of a classroom, to support students. As we learned in our interview, much of Dr. de Novais’ interests today are influenced from life experiences.

Sharing details on her origin story, Dr. de Novais was born in Cape Verde in 1976 and eventually moved to Brockton, MA when she was 15. This transition prompted her to critically try and understand race in the American context. However, seeing race from a critical vantage point isn’t always easy because it is informed through lived experience. In this way de Novias views race as the being either “the special sauce or the fuel that burns the circus down.” As Dr. de Novais made it clear, race is already in the room, why not talk about it? The difficulty is establishing an environment to approach the subject critically.

When de Novais first came to HGSE, she planned to study how to transform a core curriculum like Columbia’s into its more culturally diverse, 21st-century iteration. In the end, de Novais ended up focusing more broadly and exploring the dynamics and possibilities of learning about race in academic spaces. The latter is the subject of her dissertation, where she looked at whether college classrooms can be optimal spaces for meaningful learning — and teaching — about race. Her study compared two academic courses at a liberal arts college: a seminar on slavery and a lecture on black political thought. She found that drawing from the academic grounding in the classroom, students became more intellectually brave, and displayed greater interpersonal empathy. She calls this process that links classroom dynamics to learning about race, “brave community.” The key to brave community, she says, is “academic grounding.”

Academic Grounding is understood as the blending of academic content and academic culture. “Academic content plays a huge role,” Dr. de Novais says, but how an educator sets up the class culture and models academic behavior is essential for meaningful learning about race to occur. More often than not, she says, students felt willing and eager to respond and reflect due to how their professor set the tone of the class. Academic grounding can be envisioned as a process. Early in the semester, academic grounding for the class based on the style and goals of the instructor. Gradually students generate answers to questions they have about their instructor: are they authentic, respectful, engaging, and connected to what the learning requires. Week after week, academic grounding become sustained by the students and this interaction can build an academically grounded community

To becoming brave within this community requires that students are provided with common and solid ground – a feeling that the classroom can be a holding environment for a different way of being,  share more critical insights, be willing to take risks, and gain confidence in engaging with ideas of race. Of course, fear can be a preventative factor to any classroom community. And there is a lot of fear in the classroom, especially for courses on race studies.

One of Dr. de Novais’ findings was that because of outside social conditioning, students come to the classroom very critical of educators and each other. On the beginning of a class one of Dr. de Novais’ students says “I am in with this sort of critical eye on, who’s going to say something that sounds crazy? And I think a lot of the tension was coming from people not knowing what to say and feeling scared to say the wrong thing. And I think throughout the class we’ve sort of landed on this feeling that there isn’t a wrong thing to say. Because a lot of us said things we wouldn’t have said in other spaces. And I think that’s what I’m most proud of.

This form of insight is critical for educators. Higher education has dual goals of being a space for young adults to cultivate critical knowledge for later positions and career trajectories, while also being a care taking space. Care taking, however, is not made through blanket statements that can do more harm than good. Rather, difficult subjects need to be addressed with critical attention at the interpersonal level. A reminder educators can take from Dr. de Novais, as she said at the at the Sankofa Lecture at Leslie University, is that “racism is structural and big, but human life is at human scale. All the horrible things we do to each other happens at the human scale.” Tune in to the episode to find out much more.

Click here for more on Dr. Janine de Novais

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Music this episode: Brittle Rille Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
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About the Author
Design Anthropologist + Social Strategist + Sometimes Zen Also @ TAL: Host, Creative Director + Executive Producer

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