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Staff editorial: Classroom dynamics are often stacked against non-traditional students and students of color

As the fall semester launches and assignments pile up, our staff took a moment to reflect on Mills College’s classroom culture and academic dynamics.

Many of us chose to attend Mills because the small classroom sizes promised engaging discussions and offered us opportunities to receive close mentorship from faculty. Small class sizes also offer their own set of dynamics which are often reflective of the larger racial and socioeconomic structures that determine who is likely to succeed in academia and whose voices are prioritized and valued in classroom discussions.

The intimate academic and social community that Mills provides brings these dynamics into even sharper focus. At Mills, courses with 30 students enrolled are considered crowded and the average classroom size is 15 to 20 students. In these settings, the ways in which interpersonal dynamics interact with race and class are impossible to miss.

In recent years, we’ve seen Mills strive to make the institution more accessible to resumer students and students who are commuting from off-campus. While the College administration may create pathways for non-traditional students to succeed at Mills, these overtures don’t always carry over to professors and how they interact with resumer and commuter students. In our classes, we’ve seen professors who openly berate resumer and commuter students for arriving to class a little after the start time. While we understand that timeliness is critical to ensuring that professors are able to cover everything on the agenda and keep the class running smoothly, it seems that professors could be more supportive of students who arrive late because they are balancing work and/or parenting demands with academic life.

If we want academia to be more accessible to working and/or parenting students, we need to ensure that students aren’t discouraged by faculty who serve as gatekeepers that berate students for small infractions. We’d like to encourage the Mills community to think about how we can all be more supportive of resumer and commuter students in tangible ways. How can professors and others in gatekeeping roles create classroom environments that are radically accessible to all?

Part of this challenge is fostering classroom environments that empower students to participate in discussions. Classroom discussions vary depending on the dynamics of who feels comfortable and represented in the room. Students of color regularly report that they are more likely to contribute in class discussions if their professor is a person of color.

Of course, racial dynamics of classroom discussions are hard to speak about broadly since a student’s experiences in classes is determined by many factors that make generalization difficult. However, during our time at Mills, many of us have noticed white students attempting to undermine or disrespect professors of color by questioning their authority on the subject matter at hand. This is part of a larger white supremacist trend of questioning the professionalism, knowledge, and contributions of people of color. Having more professors of color at Mills supports the success of students of color in academia.

In the article Someone Who Looks Like Me: Promoting the Success of Students of Color by Promoting the Success of Faculty of Color, Michael Benitez, Mary James, Kazi Joshua, Lisa Perfetti and S. Brooke Vick write: “…faculty of color are more likely to include topics related to race and ethnicity in their courses, more likely to employ active and collaborative learning techniques in the classroom, and more likely to attend to peer interactions during class — all of which contribute positively to an inclusive climate for both minority and majority students. A positive correlation exists between the number of faculty of color and the persistence rate for students of color. To provide an educational environment that promotes the success of students of color, it is imperative to develop structures that promote the retention and success of faculty of color.”

Many of us have witnessed how professors of color at Mills have provided mentorship and a level of dedication to helping students of color navigate and thrive in an academic institution. In other words, communities of color at Mills are nurtured and positively supported by professors of color (and feel more confident contributing to classroom discussions). We encourage Mills to continue hiring more professors of color, queer professors, and professors from underrepresented backgrounds. The effect has revolutionary impact and the potential to disrupt white-dominated academia.