Teaching cultural competency goes both ways

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • September 28, 2017

At issue: Semantics of social justice in the classroom

Our take: Professors still have a lot to learn


It’s a scene every Emerson student has experienced in some form or another: a single student raises a trembling hand in class to correct a professor on an issue of cultural competency. Whether it’s explaining the use of gender neutral pronouns, why a straight, cis instructor shouldn’t casually use the term “fag,” or correcting religious misconceptions, our classrooms are frequent sites of student correction. Just look at our opinion section this week! But while these scenes might seem unwitting, innocent, or even constructive, they’re in fact detrimental to the experiences of the students called upon to explain defend their identities to educators.

Moments such as these create an unnecessary burden for students who feel obliged to justify or explain integral parts of their identities to professors, many of whom continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. It is not the duty of students to carry the weight of reformed social inequality in the classroom, nor should it be—we should be able to rely on our educators to do their research.

Luckily, Emerson is not devoid of resources on issues of cultural competency, despite the confusion some professors claim in their criticisms of “PC culture.” The Office of Diversity and Inclusion leads multiple training programs on the topic. Last fall, every department excluding journalism reported that at least their full-time faculty had completed diversity training—and journalism was scheduled to catch up that winter. The Office of Marketing offers a guideline for inclusive language on Emerson’s website. We admittedly live in a time of rapidly changing cultural standards in which it may be easy to get lost, but anyone who wants to improve doesn’t have to look far.

As voices of campus authority, professors need to realize the weight that their words and actions carry. For students sitting in a classroom, it can be damaging to their mental and emotional health to listen to a teacher repeatedly delegitimize problems that have a very real, hurtful influence in their everyday lives. Professors need to realize that semantics are often just as important as actions. Rather than relying on students for explanations or even becoming argumentative, teachers should go out of their way to accommodate all students. And when a student calls out a professor on their behavior, it should not take more than one incident for that behavior to be corrected. Most of Emerson’s faculty wants nothing more than to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment, but undergraduate students should not be asked to speak for entire movements and communities in order for this to occur.

Everyone, students and faculty alike, should remember that cultural competency is a lifelong process. Nobody is born knowing all the intricacies of social justice, but everyone has the capacity—and the obligation—to learn. It’s OK to slip up, dear professor, as long as you own it and set out to do better… and then actually do better. That’s the pedagogical imperative, isn’t it? You expect us to improve in our own work, and we expect the same of you. We’re not advocating for guilt—we’re looking for growth. It shouldn’t be a tall ask to expect those in charge of our classrooms to also take charge of their own education.