All of you teachers have been here. You want to get discussion going in the classroom, because that’s a really valuable way to get students involved and thinking, and you want all the students to participate. But what usually happens is that a small number of vocal, confident students dominate. That’s good for them, and you want to encourage that enthusiastic participation, but there’s always that larger group of quiet students who don’t speak up, and you want them to join in. So what do you do?
There are lots of pedagogical techniques out there. You can ignore the waving hands and call on people directly. You can have rules: once a person gets a chance to speak, they have to wait until 3 other people have spoken before they get to raise their hand again. Or maybe you’ve heard of the talking stick, where a token is passed around the room, and only the people holding it get to speak. There are lots of simple tricks like that where we try to get fair representation of all points of view, and get a better sampling of students, and get around the tyranny of the majority, or worse, the tyranny of the loudest.
One of these pedagogical tricks is called the progressive stack. You prioritize the students so that minority views are expressed first, and representatives of the majority have to wait and listen before they can express themselves. It’s a good way to flip the dominance hierarchy and get new voices to set the tenor of the discussion; it means minority views don’t get swallowed up and ignored. It doesn’t silence the majority, but it does force them to consider what others say.
I’ve rarely had to use it in my classes, because students usually don’t have strong opinions on matters of science — they just accept them and my authority. But there have been a few occasions when creationists have been in my introductory courses (they tend not to make it to the more advanced courses, or learn to keep their views totally silent, so I don’t even know they hold them), where I’ve used a version of the progressive stack. If there’s some point the creationist student urgently wants to discuss, let them go first, make their position clear, then ask if any other student wants to agree, and those students go next, and then I have to leash all the baying hounds of the majority and make them address the claims calmly and with evidence. In the humanities and social sciences, it’s got to be trickier — there are valid views by students with concerns about race and sexuality, for instance, and so you use something like the progressive stack to make sure they aren’t drowned out by all the white heterosexuals who are the majority in the class.
To my surprise, this morning I learned that Nazis are aware of this pedagogical strategy, and they hate it. Really hate it. I suspect part of it is knee-jerk idiocy at the word “progressive”, but once they learn about it, they are convinced that it’s part of liberal’s plan to commit White Genocide. The resentment is deep. I went looking for the views of non-educators on the subject, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a lot of ignoramuses raging about the conspiracy to undermine their privilege. One of the top links returned is a video by Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, explaining the progressive stack, and he gets it all wrong.
This is how they figure out who is more oppressed than other people, he claims, and how they determine that white middle class heterosexual men are
scum. He’s a fucking moron. He actively misrepresents the subject.
No, no competent instructor is going to decide that half their class are
scum who need to be silenced, and the progressive stack is not a technique to silence anyone. It’s about giving everyone an opportunity to speak, and not prioritizing a majority who already have advantages in dominating a discussion. It’s not about figuring out who is more oppressed, either — although the asshole right loves to imagine the Left holding Oppression Olympics. It’s more a matter of recognizing structural barriers that are staring you right in the face, and trying to help students get around them. It’s only a problem for people who either want to pretend the barriers are nonexistent, or want to reinforce them.
The usual crowd of internet Nazis has been casting about for more targets, and some of them have latched onto the “progressive stack” as an obvious SJW evil, and are campaigning to silence teachers who use it (I know, they’re so in favor of “free speech”, except when that speech is about equal opportunity for people who aren’t white men). One target is Stephanie McKellop, a graduate student who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania. Here are her interests:
I am a historian of marriage and the family, with interests intersecting in areas of gender, sexuality, the body, and race. I work primarily on “vast early America,” a conceptualization which moves beyond traditional Anglophone-speaking peoples and regions into the broader, multi-empire continental landscape. I am particularly interested in popular and deviant forms of marriage and divorce; in my research on the practice of wife-selling, I focus on the blurred lines between love matches and economic bargains, the notion of slavery and race in gender dynamics, and how human trafficking and prostitution manifested within matrimonial realms. My current project looks at how popular and folk methods of marriage and divorce clashed with church and state authorities in colonial Carolina.
In the past, I have studied the history of “family history” in early America, seeking to explore how different cultures practiced and understood family through disciplines of history, competitve notions of “blood,” and gendered productions of what we have come to call genealogy, as well as issues of racial blame, immigration, and nationalism in marriage debates during the Progressive Era. Currently, I am working on several smaller projects regarding widowhood in early America as well as how folk and customary marriages informed cultural interactions in the colonial and revolutionary period. I am also working on a side project regarding trauma in history and how historians treat traumatized subjects.
That sounds interesting and relevant, but it also pushes a few alt-right buttons, obviously. So the internet Nazis have been baying for her blood, and they’ve been bombarding the university with accusations and demands. You’d think, though, that a university would pay no attention to Nazis, but noooo…you have to remember that we’re dealing with administrators who know nothing about teaching and often have little knowledge of the subjects their professors are discussing, but do have power over them, and are more likely to listen to howling yahoos and Republicans (but I repeat myself) than the employees they are supposed to represent. So the University of Pennsylvania is about to condemn McKellop, and apparently, reject a widely used teaching technique. They cancelled her classes! They’re issuing a condemnation!
— 💀 Jumbee Cowart 💀 (@jccwrt) October 19, 2017
Here’s a template you can use to support McKellop.
Dear Prof. [Holquist/Brown/Wenger/Troutt Powell],
It has come to my attention that Stephanie McKellop, a PhD student in UPenn’s History Department, has come under attack from white supremacists for the pedagogical approaches Stephanie uses in the classroom to support underrepresented students in class discussion. I was incredibly disappointed to hear that the university has not only refused to support a student in the face of this attack, but that the UPenn administration is preparing a statement condemning Stephanie.
I urge you to speak to your administration on Stephanie’s behalf. It’s exactly cases like these – where instructors are targeted and vilified – that require the defense of academic freedom.
I hope you will do the right thing, and lend your voice and position to defend a vulnerable member of our community.
I also highly recommend that everyone read this essay on how to support scholars. It’s going to be increasingly necessary. Remember, first they’re going to go after gender studies, then racial minorities, then sociology as a whole, and eventually, they’ll go after the biologists, because that’s what fucking Nazis do.