Who’s Teaching Us as relevant as ever in Cape Town

Sept. 27, 2016, 12:19 a.m.

When professor Stephen Hong Song was denied tenure in 2014, the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee started a movement. Professor Song is a queer Asian American scholar who was beloved by many in the Stanford community, and his tenure denial sparked anger among many students. The movement that was born is called Who’s Teaching Us? (WTU), and it has been gathering steam ever since.

More than two years later, WTU is embroiled in another tenure battle, this one in defense of Aishwary Kumar, a scholar of South Asian intellectual history. Their work doesn’t stop there. Last year’s hire of another straight, white, cis, male President was met with an outcry, as was a proposal to reinstate the Western Civilization undergraduate requirement. WTU has even scrutinized the school’s Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP), calling in its list of 20 demands for “the addition of 5 programs in non-Western countries within the next 5 years,” and demanding, “regional equity in programs offered.”

In responding to Whose Teaching Us, Stanford claims to be committed to faculty diversity, but the BOSP program in Cape Town tells a different story. I attended the recently completed summer quarter program and was disheartened with what I found.

Each student that participates in the abroad program here in South Africa must take a class called “Engaging Cape Town.” During the summer quarter this year, the class was co-taught by our program coordinator and our engaged-learning coordinator, both of whom are white. For the record, the faculty-in-residence (on loan from the main campus for one quarter) was also white. This is academic malpractice in a city where white folks only account for 16 percent of the population.

Availability is not the problem. The University of Cape Town, right down the road, is arguably the best university on the African continent, and you can be assured that there are brilliant academics of color teaching there. Why are we, then, being taught a compulsory class on engaging with Cape Town by two white people, one of whom is not from South Africa?

The impact of decisions like this is personal. “Engaging Cape Town” seems like a good idea at first; the syllabus describes how students are invited to “think critically about concepts of identity.” Also in the curriculum are discussions of whiteness and privilege, othering and intersectionality. Good in theory, but when talking about these topics, the facilitator really matters. Who’s Teaching Us explains why in their manifesto: “When white professors do not understand issues of identity and privilege, students of color must contend with culturally irrelevant pedagogy and the constant threat of having their identities invalidated or attacked.” This is not just a theoretical injustice. Throughout the course, I had the overwhelming sense that the syllabus had been written for a target audience that excluded people who have marginalized identities both in the U.S. and in South Africa. “Engaging Cape Town” should have been a golden opportunity (finally, education outside of the West!), but, instead, we were treated to an experience that we could as well have had in Palo Alto.

White professors are not automatically disqualified from lecturing on race, privilege, othering and the like. However, the margin of error for that professor is razor-thin, especially if the class is taught in Cape Town, and especially if it is required for all students in the program. Stanford’s efforts this quarter missed the mark.

As a new school year starts, we have a choice to make. We can send our students to Cape Town to experience a program that demonstrates a humble desire to weave itself into the complex fabric of the South African present, or we can maintain a broken status quo. I hope that we can make a brave decision.

— Eli Briody-Pavlik ’18


Contact Eli Briody-Pavlik at eliobp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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