Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Native American Studies · pedagogy · Politics of Education · Teaching

Owning Up to Our Mistakes: Pedagogy, Accountability, and Authority

I came across this article as I was scrolling through Facebook a few days ago. Chiitaanibah Johnson, a Native American student, was expelled from class in a university for disagreeing with a professor who said that “genocide isn’t really what happened” to the indigenous population in North America. This professor also glossed over slavery and land theft as part of the history of America, instead focusing on the “courage” of the immigrants who came to the continent.

The student, after doing research and returning to class, disagreed with him and presented findings to back herself up. The professor rolled his eyes while she was reading, and then dismissed all of the students for the day, and disenrolled the student from his class.

  1. The professor should not be playing the semantics game. He doesn’t “like to call it genocide” he says. Well, since when does the truth have anything to do with what we like? He needs to update his perspectives on history, soon, in order to keep teaching in an ethical and responsible manner.
  2. Regardless of whether the student was right or the professor was wrong, there’s pedagogy to consider. As one of my mentors put it:

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These two points encompass everything I’d like to say about the issue. When a professor at a university refuses to call genocide “genocide,” the issue here isn’t a student challenging his authority. The issue here is his abuse of his authority, the use of his position of authority to gloss history and shirk accountability. While he may not have committed any acts of physical violence or participated in colonialism and genocide, in the moment he ignored his student, dismissed the class, and attempted to expel her from the course (the university says he has no authority to do so), he committed an act of pedagogical violence and intellectual colonization. He denied Johnson the right to speak up for her people, and taught her that those in authority do not care about the truth of what happened (and still happens) to her people. He denied Johnson the right to speak out against false knowledge about anything, and he communicated quite clearly to the rest of the students in his course that any kind of dissent is unacceptable, and that a college education is about listening and accepting everything you’re told.

He taught his students that critical thinking and challenging erroneous information would be punished. A college professor taught his students not to think for themselves or challenge clearly false information.  I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around that.

I’m not surprised by his reframing of genocide as an unfortunate side effect of immigration. That, unfortunately, is a widely accepted version of America’s cultural narrative. The Native Americans were happy to have the English come and take their lands. Pocahontas was madly in love with John Smith. Millions upon millions of people were so awed by glass beads that they just handed over their lands and begged to be enslaved and “converted” to Christianity. This is a common narrative. Gloria Anzaldua can be perceived as “biased” by my students when they read her discussion of colonial violence. This professor operates within the accepted cultural narrative. This is something I find increasingly disturbing, frustrating, and heinous as I learn more in Indigenous Studies and African American studies. I’m continually chagrined to realize how little I do know, how white my education has been, and how I naively assumed that it was “diverse” because I read Harriet Jacobs and Langston Hughes when I was an undergrad. So I know this is a problem, and I’m used to seeing it. That’s not to say that the way he frames genocide isn’t problematic, because it is. This is to emphasize that this is a wide-spread problem in academia.

Apart from his misrepresentation of colonization, and his desire to gloss over slavery, this professor’s pedagogy angers me. I’m bombarded by crisis literature that discuss how “students today” just don’t care. They don’t know how to think. They don’t care to know how to think. They just want to be fed information and regurgitate it, or have it scanned into their brains on their iPhones. This is another discussion in and of itself, because I think these generalizations are often unfair to our students. The blame is often shunted to high school, middle school, elementary school education. Or to parents. Or to religious or political affiliation.  Yet this episode draws attention to a problem that my colleagues seem far less willing to talk about, or even to acknowledge: we discourage critical thinking in college, too.

I work in the campus writing center, along with my teaching duties. I get students are are uninformed and passionate about their uninformed beliefs, and I get just as many of them who are liberal as are conservative in their leanings. I often see my colleagues praising liberal ideas from their students, simply because they agree, even when the argument is full of fallacies. While this prof at this university committed a blatant act of pedagogical violence, it’s a symptom of a wider problem where like thoughts gravitate towards like thoughts and we often mistake similar ideas for critical thinking, instead of actually interrogating what’s being said.


This professor is an extreme example of a rather common problem. Every time we roll our eyes and silence someone, every time we decide that another voice does not deserve to be heard, every time we decide that our authority trumps the concerns and lived experience of an individual, and we use that authority to silence, we are committing an act of violence.

Instead of taking the opportunity to talk to this student–even if he had chosen to speak to her in private, after class–and hear her concerns, instead of taking the opportunity to take accountability for his participation in reframing the realities of colonial violence, this professor hid behind his authority. He denied the opportunity for learning and discussion.

He denied the opportunity for healing.

Perhaps this instance angers me and frustrates me because I see the same attitudes mirrored in scholarship. I’ve been grappling with my position as a white scholar working with non-white texts. I’ve been working with Native American and African American literature, and when I first encountered some of the scholarly movements I was affronted, offended, and even hostile. American Indian Literary Nationalism (also know as American Indian Literary Separatism), pioneered by Craig Womack, Robert Allen Warrior, and Jace Weaver, suggested that white scholars needed to privilege the voices of Native scholars and intellectuals. At the time, I read this and felt I was being told I had nothing to say. I recognized it as essentialism, as bordering on racist.

I wasn’t really listening.

I’ve revisited these scholars now, and while I don’t agree with everything they say, I do agree with a great deal. Native voices should be privileged when talking about Native texts. Native perspectives should always be considered. Native needs and realities should be considered, as well, and non-Native academics need to understand that what is written about Native peoples has direct impact on Native lives.

There a chilling moment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator faces The Committee. Brother Jack tells the narrator, when he voices his concerns over what the black members of the Brotherhood need and want and think, “Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!” I can’t help but feel that this is the same kind of rhetoric operating when non-Native academics try to tell Native academics and intellectuals that they must acknowledge their hybrid status, that they have to use post-colonial theorists, that they must adopt already existing theories and not develop their own. I can’t help but feel that this rhetoric is operating when people tell Black Lives Matter what they need, when they answer #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter.

Why can’t we listen instead of telling? Our egos and our perception of our own authority are not what’s at stake here.

Ending state sanctioned violence, of the physical and intellectual variety, is.

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